Picture this: It’s opening day for the WNBA, in the middle of a sound stage, in the middle of a pandemic, and Nneka Ogwumike doesn’t miss a single shot. It sounds like a dream. But it’s actually a spark. That day, the star Los Angeles Sparks performance came from 6’2″ forward Nneka Ogwumike who showed up with 8-of-8 from the field, finishing with 21 points and 7 rebounds. Her performance was typical for her: all efficiency, little flash.
But make no mistake, she has plenty to show off. Today she is the 2012 WNBA Draft’s No. 1 overall pick, a Rookie of the Year, a WNBA champion, an MVP, a six-time All-Star, an All-WNBA first team player, a four-time All-Defensive first team player, a member of the W25, a World Cup champion, a EuroLeague champion, and a Polish League champion—and she’s not done yet.
In 2021, Nneka showed up in big ways: despite being out with a knee injury for two months, Nneka delivered 14.3 points per game on the season; and small ways: her putback layup with 0.1 seconds remaining against the Atlanta Dream on September 17 gave the Sparks a 66-64 win—their third straight victory, staving off playoffs elimination, yet again.
But Nneka’s value to her team, her league, and her community, doesn’t stop there. As the LA Times reported, “Nneka Ogwumike was named the WNBA’s most valuable player in 2016, but in 2020, amid labor discussions, social unrest and a pandemic, the Sparks forward is proving why she’s another type of league MVP: its most valuable president.”
So today, we’ll take a look at one of the most accomplished players in the history of women’s basketball. We’ll explore Nneka Ogwumike’s basketball evolution, career statistics, her strengths and opportunities, and the impact she’s having around the world (hello movie star!).
Plus, you might find out a few surprises along the way — like that she’s played with her sister Chiney in the WNBA, and together they have partnered with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF to support UNICEF’s efforts in Nigeria.
“Athletically she does things you just can’t teach. She’s one of a kind.” summed up Nneka’s high school coach Ann Robique.
Nneka first got into basketball because she grew too tall for gymnastics, and her mom wanted her and her three sisters to stay active. She was never the kid who dribbled a basketball in the halls, and she didn’t grow up watching the game. Looking back, Nneka says she wasn’t good, but she was tall. So luckily, that was enough for her to make a team. It was only up from there.
By the time she reached middle school, she’d already begun to display terrific fluidity, a nice 3-point shooting range, and strong shot-blocking and rebounding ability. But there was something more about Nneka. “Without a doubt she was head and shoulders above everyone else and not just because of her size or talent,” Ann said. “For someone her age she just had such poise and presence. You could just tell she was raised the right way.”
In high school in Texas she played on the varsity team for three seasons, during which Cy-Fair posted a 108-2 overall record and a 50-0 district slate. Her senior year, Nneka carried Cy-Fair (39-2) to 35 straight wins and earned the coveted state crown. She was named MVP of the state tournament.
Her numbers were steady but not astounding that year – 18.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, 2.5 steals per game – because she was focused on making her teammates better. “She would tell me (her numbers) just don’t matter – all that mattered was the team,” Cy-Fair coach Ann Roubique said. “She wasn’t saying it to be nice or to keep peace. It was genuine. On the flip side, when the game was tight she wasn’t afraid to tell her teammate to get her the ball.”
But the accolades didn’t stop there for the budding star. She was named the 2007-08 National Gatorade Player of the Year, and also won a similar award at the state level in Texas. Nneka Ogwumike also took home Miss Basketball Texas honors and was a McDonald’s All-American, too. Her high school career ended with 2,204 points, 1,287 rebounds, 172 assists, 262 steals, and 133 blocked shots.
Nneka chose to attend Stanford over Baylor, Duke, Connecticut, Tennessee and Notre Dame. And while she began her college career at Stanford “Nerd Nation,” Nneka as one of the top recruits in the country, when she stepped on the floor at the Farm’s Maples Pavilion, adjusting to the style of collegiate play didn’t come naturally.
“At the beginning, working with her in practice, I’d be like, ‘Nneka, what’s your go-to move?’” said Stanford assistant coach Kate Paye, who recruited Nneka to Palo Alto. “And she’d say, ‘I don’t know, they would throw it up to me and I just put it in the basket.’”
Nneka knew she had to improve. After asking a lot of questions and working at it, today Nneka knows what she wants, even before she gets the ball.
As the Guardian reports, “She’s observational; her plays often begin with a pause. She sizes up her defender, logging subtleties of foot placement and leverage, and only then goes to work: hammering her defender back with a well-placed shoulder and rising for a jump hook, or pivoting past some misallocated attention for an easy lay-in. Her strategies sync to the demands of the moment. You can watch her for an entire quarter and not be sure which hand is her dominant one.”
While Nneka developed her own game in college, she continued to be invested in that of others. Throughout her college career from 2008 to 2012, Nneka was the kind of player who was concerned with what was best for her team. She kept everyone light when that was needed; made sure there were no gaps in communication between the players or coaches; and took responsibility even for things that weren’t her fault.
Nneka finished her Stanford career as a three-time All-American and the second all-time leading scorer in program history. In 2012, the Los Angeles Sparks drafted her with the No. 1 overall pick.
On April 16, 2012, the Los Angeles Sparks picked Nneka first overall in the 2012 WNBA Draft. This time, the work she’d already put in meant she didn’t have much trouble adjusting to a new level of play. She earned WNBA Rookie of the Month four out of five times in her rookie season, and was awarded 2012 WNBA Rookie of the Year.
By the time the 2014 season rolled around, Nneka’s talent was on full display. She averaged 15.8 ppg and was voted as a WNBA All-star for the second time in her career along with her sister Chiney Ogwumike, becoming the first pair of sisters to be selected into a WNBA All-Star game.
Nneka continued to stay committed to LA, resigning with the team once her rookie contact expired in 2016. That year, Nneka finished third in the league in scoring (19.7 ppg), was third in the league in rebounding (9.1 rpg) and was first in field goal percentage (.665). So it was no surprise she took home the Most Valuable Player award for the league, and racked up her first Championship that year as well.
That year Nneka was also a key contributor to the Sparks winning the WNBA championship (their first since 2002) in a hard-fought five-game series against the championship-defending Minnesota Lynx. In game five, Nneka locked in 12 points along with 12 rebounds, and scored a game-winning shot after grabbing an offensive rebound to put the Sparks up 77–76 with 3 seconds left in the game.
True to her core as an eager learner, Nneka’s game has continued to evolve over her years in the league. Today she’s stronger and faster. Offensively, using her brilliant footwork, she has taken her game out to the foul line, and she has an explosiveness that seems to get more refined and effective every year.
Defensively, she puts her new speed to work as well. While the game has evolved, with bigs now spreading out to the perimeter, easily creating mismatches, Nneka keeps those roamers locked down. She’s learned to guard players of all positions – guards, forwards, and centers – using her quickness, her leaping ability, and her Stanford smarts.
Most recently, Nneka has been focused on getting incrementally better each day. She sticks to a strict routine involving daily vitamins, activation exercises, and workouts. And she has gained an appreciation for weightlifting, especially as part of her recovery regimen. She’s also working on trying to speed up the release on her shot.
Nneka’s focus is sharp. She’s resilient, strong, passionate, and exudes joy. Here are a few of the best moments of Nneka shining.
OK back in 2016 this lady was already sinking threes, and hitting innocent bystanders with the Euro-step.
Like any strong big, Nneka knows her first priority is to be in position to get the rebound when her teammates take a shot. And she wisely uses the glass to convert on those high-stress opportunities, knowing she’s likely going to get hit on the way up.
Her blocks though! She great at finishing on the left, even one handed. She has a lethal spin, both because of her pacing and because of locking the defender behind her with her elbow. Nneka also has the ability to find the space in between two bigs, and the agility to weave through it. And of course, she’s solid on isolation plays, using her size and explosiveness as leverage.
Nneka holds, protects, and shoots the ball above her head, making her very tough to defend. Even though she’s tall, she leverages her speed, getting her shoulders down and pushed out ahead of the defender. When rebounding, she smartly goes right back up with the ball, rather than doing a security dribble in between which can risk getting it stolen or allowing the defense back on their feet.
Nneka Ogwumike is also versatile for a big, hitting deep twos regularly, and working threes into her game now as well. Meanwhile, she still owns the paint. Here, she does a great job calling for the ball by getting position in the lane, keeping her arm out on the back side closest to the basket, and finishing. Game over.
While Nneka started out not knowing what she wanted to take any time she got the ball, these days, she certainly knows. Here are a few of her frequent moves that work wonders.
Nneka’s go-to move is a dribble drive hard from the elbow for a layup. For these, she finishes on the left side frequently. You’ll even see her tuck under the backboard and come out with the reversal shot.
Whew, this queen has a wicked spin. She’s fast and she’s got the elbows to knock you out of place. She also keeps a good, hard grip on the ball, making it easy to rip through, and doesn’t bring it down below her waist unless the situation dictates it.
When Nneka sets a pick, she’s great at rolling to the other side to get the quick pull-up two, or taking the drive to the basket on the slip cut. Basically she looks to make herself a threat, as much as the guard with the ball.
We can’t not mention her ability to flat out reject baskets. She’s great at getting the clean hit as the offense looks to shoot – she does this as high up as outside the three-point line closing out the shooter, as well as within the paint.
Nneka started in the paint, and has worked her way out to being comfortable with perimeter creativity. Today, Nneka can drive and finish at the bucket, pull up with floaters or mid-range shots, and increasingly can shoot the ball from great range — making her dangerous everywhere.
Nneka is both tall and has long arms, and she uses her natural gifts to her advantage. She often shoots the ball above her head, making it almost impossible for the defense to get a touch on. And she’ll use her length to reel in the ball while holding off defenders with her opposite arm.
Nneka is an experienced vet and her confidence is contagious. At this point, she’s comfortable converting in high-stress environments. Need a bucket to get the W? She’s got you covered with a pull-up two or a put back. You can pretty much count on it.
Relentless rebounding is basically synonymous with Nneka’s name. She has the ability to log double-doubles regularly.
A vocal leader, Nneka lets people know what she sees on the court, and is the eyes behind them. Plus, she’s incredibly well spoken off the court, in terms of articulating her team’s vision and her vision for herself.
She knows how to draw the foul and convert. But, she was the most efficient shooter in the history of basketball in 2016, so we’d expect nothing less.
Nneka can hit ’em with the spin, the reverse, use the area behind the basket, or pull back out for a pull up two. And she’ll do it all in one or two dribbles, and sometimes no dribbles. Just look at this mid-air finish (at 0:23).
Nneka is a shooting threat from outside the paint, especially over the last three years. Nneka’s .353 career three point percentage is impressive. Don’t believe it? Here she is hitting a three in action (at 0:13).
Her screens are a huge part of her team’s successes, creating a ton of open looks for their shooters. She’s great at getting set and in position, and landing a really hard screen without getting called for an illegal move.
Let’s break down a few of Nneka’s opportunities to continue growing her game.
As Nneka Ogwumike shared with Kristine Leahy of Fair Game, she is obsessed with donuts. It all began in Texas at a place called Southern Made. Then it evolved into Krispy Kreme. But she found out she has a dairy allergy, so she had to switch it up again to vegan donuts. OK just kidding, she’s allowed to eat sweets! It’s just hard to find something she can improve on.
Stretching the court is impactful. But having a four or five that can handle the ball, and push, pass, and shoot – now that’s next level. Candace Parker next level. Nneka has decent handles. It would be interesting to see her team put her in the position to use them more. Because then the four other people on the court with her would be incredibly dangerous!
Nneka is usually one of the first players down the court. This makes sense because she’s doing her job of getting under the basket for the rebound. But she has an opportunity to switch it up every once in a while. She can lull the defense to sleep by slowing her run down the court. Just cruise a little, rather than being one of the first. Then, burst through at the top of the three, make the catch, and take it to the hole.
Our girl has a wicked pump fake. She can expand this arsenal. She can use the players around her to make it look like she’s going to pass the ball off. For example, walk it up and out back towards the guard at the top, to make it look like a dish, especially if that guard is a good shooter because the defense will have to bite. Then, she can instead whip around and attack.
There are times where Nneka gets pushed up too far off the block. She should try to work the angles in the paint to always get the easiest play when possible. On screens, she can try to beat the defense to her block spot and lock them down. Then, sit low, keeping all her weight in her lower legs, and just lean on the big, as close to the basket as possible. This should, surprisingly, help her conserve energy.
Her level of efficiency has to make you consider whether she should be taking more shots. We’d love to see her asked to deliver on more isolation plays.
She’s gotten beat a few times from near the top on defense. She should watch the offensive player’s feet, and when the legs split she’ll know it’s a signal that the attack is imminent. Then, she can step back and beat her to the spot she’s driving to, or rush her to force her decision making. To react most quickly, Nneka should be sure her weight is on her toes and off her heels. If the player drives to the right, she can block with the left.
Nneka Ogwumike has broken a ton of personal records, as well as league records. Let’s take a quick look at how she’s impacted the game, starting even before college, with the USA Under 18 Team.
Nneka was a member of the USA Under 18 Team that won gold in Argentina on in 2008. She led team USA to a 5–0 record, while leading the team in scoring and rebounding, and was named MVP of the tournament.
For college, Nneka chose Stanford. And four years later, she left as the second all-time leading scorer for the women’s basketball program. Here are a few other college career highlights:
Here are just a few highlights:
Magic Johnson said Nneka is one of the smartest players on and off the court, and is like the woman version of a combination of Magic Johnson and LeBron James. When you look at Nneka’s career statistics, efficiency and consistency are what set her apart — especially when you look at her high field-goal percentage.
Nneka has steadily increased her points per game, and she’s spent six seasons in the top 10 players. Her rebounding has also been strong, leading her to be in the top 10 players for two seasons. You’ll also notice her increase in steals per game over the years, which put her in the top 10 across the league for five seasons.
When you look at her performance, holding it steady for time in the game, she still nets out as a strong scoring threat. And she’s evolved into a decent three-point shooter.
You might be curious about Nneka’s salary. Nneka’s 2021 salary is $190,555, though historically she’s made much of her earnings overseas in Russia. In 2020, as leader of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, Nneka led the way to a new CBA agreement to benefit all the women in the league, with a goal of increasing their WNBA salaries. Ahead of the negotiation, Nneka and the executive committee outlined three priorities:
Within those priorities lie a handful of line items ranging from domestic violence policies to player marketing.
The new deal, agreed to in January 2020, boosted player salaries – by more than 80 percent for the WNBA’s top players. And it gives players an equal split of revenue, provided certain benchmarks in broadcast contracts, licensing deals and sponsorships are met.
Most importantly, “Female athletes will no longer be punished for being female. Under the deal, players on maternity leave will get their full salary. The league will reimburse up to $60,000 in costs for adoption, fertility treatments and surrogacy.”
“The league also will provide dedicated nursing areas in arenas. Players with children will get an annual, $5,000 childcare stipend, as well as a two-bedroom apartment. Given that female athletes’ prime years are also their prime child-bearing years, these are not small gains.” reported USA Today.
Though, Nneka is not stopping at raising the players’ earning potential. As she sees it, it’s her job not only to help the women in her league get an appropriate share of the league’s revenue, but also to make sure the league is growing in the right ways.
Speaking of growing the league, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said when she first took the reins of the league she wouldn’t have thought that a pair of WNBA players would co-star in a film with LeBron James. And now, they have.
Nneka is known as a leader both on and off the court. “Watch. Learn. Lead.” That’s the formula she has used to topple obstacles, according to her sister, Chiney.
“We grew up knowing what excellence was. In our culture it was just the staple and the standard.” Nneka shared on The Daily Show. Today, she’s set the bar for young women everywhere who dream of stepping on the court themselves someday.
Nneka did not even realize she could earn a living playing basketball until halfway through her senior year of college. As she tells it, “Her sister Cheney was saying ‘You can do this!’ and I was like ‘Oh, OK, I can.'” Now, multiple years into the league, as the president of the WNBA players union, Nneka is making sure young women everywhere know their earning potential. Because players can earn up to 10 times more overseas, she has made it her mission to keep local talent local, by advocating for more compensation.
“Our goal is to not have to need that. At least, to not make going overseas a priority. Ultimately, we have the best players in the world playing in both leagues, and when you’re doing that over time, it wears on the body, and now you have to think about rest, you have to think about where the money is at. I don’t want us to get to a point where people are forgoing playing in the WNBA, because it is the best league in the world, and it’s important for us to understand that we can get to a point where that is the only league we’re playing in. That’s what everyone wants. But we have to put the investment in for that to happen.” she shared with ESPN.
Nneka is also playing a critical role in addressing the lack of representation for female athletes, as well as for diverse female athletes. She shared in The Players Tribune’s The Tea, when she was younger there wasn’t necessarily anyone that looked like her or had her same background that allowed her to use them as her dream setter.
In recent years, she’s run into the issue of representation even during something as seemingly trivial as a photoshoot. For example, the make up shade used on her was too dark. While she went along with the photos on set, once she saw them she had to stand up for the way she was being represented and ask them not to use them.
“I was like wow I’m in a space now where I’m comfortable saying I wanted to be represented as such. And so that disconnect with representation, it occurs all the time, and it’s not even just with race, it’s with women.
There are more male coaches than female coaches. So we have to play at a championship level and connect with someone who already we don’t share much in common with simply just because of who we naturally are…We need women representing women, coaching women.” said Nneka.
“She has the intelligence, she has the trust of the other players,” Tara VanDerveer, Nneka’s former coach at Stanford University, said. “She’s going to make decisions not for herself or her own team, but that are in the best interest of the whole league.” reports the Guardian.
Speaking about her activism and the league’s activism Nneka told NPR, “You know, I think for us, because we always live in the action – as women in sport, women in the workplace, women in the world, we always live in the action. And I wouldn’t necessarily say that the fear of repercussion for standing up was nearly as much as the fear of the world we were living in currently. And I think that perspective allowed us to understand like, hey; it’s now or never. You know, this place, this globe that we’re on is seemingly falling apart, and we don’t want to be a part of that.”
When it comes to her on-the-court leadership style, Nneka’s approach is similarly opportunistic. She tries to stay present, “I focus on the now. So right now, it’s all about getting better today.”
The leader has also made an impact throughout various media.
Nneka was featured in ESPN The Magazine’s 2017 Body Issue, sharing how proud she is of her body and its ability to compete at the highest level despite not getting a lot of rest. She actually declined to be featured the first time they asked because she felt a little too young and unestablished in her career. But was grateful they asked again.
And in 2021, Nneka made her acting debut, appearing in LeBron James’ sequel to the 1996 blockbuster that featured no women basketball players: Space Jam. The original Space Jam had five NBA players on the Monstars, while the new Goon Squad features two WNBA players (Nneka as Arachnneka and Diana Taurasi as the White Mamba) and three NBA players — and the women are the only MVPs.
For Nneka, part of joining the cast of Space Jam: A New Legacy was to challenge herself. “Acting was not easy, but I loved the challenge,” she explained.
But another reason she accepted the challenge was to make sure that every kid who watches the latest film in the series can see themselves on screen. Nneka grew up watching the movie with her sisters, not even realizing the impact it was having on her in real time.
She reflected on her being a part of the film, “It’s just so meaningful. And I speak from experience growing up and like seeing people on the screen, seeing people on the court that look like you…. I say this all the time, you know, when people think about representation, especially in sport, they think about immediately what we see on the court. And no, it’s about GM, president, media, everyone, whether it’s advocacy or allyship, and so I felt that doing this movie, watching this movie, and I hope that the young kids feel it too.”
“We always want to be able to create a legacy,” Nneka said. “The women of the ‘W’ have shown, especially in the last couple of years, what they want to do, and I’m just very grateful to be able to work with so many phenomenal women and represent them.
“So, there’s no stopping now.”
In the future, Nneka would like to go back to school, get a PR/Communications degree, and be president of a club or a league. Along the way there, she’s going to continue to make her mark.
Nneka continues to focus on amplifying social justice issues, writing an op-ed on the significance of the WNBA’s social justice push along with Sue Bird, saying:
“Every player in the league understands how competing on the basketball court—and having that effort celebrated—can break down the toxic ways in which society genders girls and women. As athletes of all nationalities, races, orientations, and backgrounds, we know how much representation matters; as the saying goes, if you can see it, you can be it.”
In 2020, we saw Nneka and her colleagues already in action, during opening weekend, as they made the focus on Breonna Taylor as much as possible.
According to the LA Times: Nneka and other WNBA players spoke with Tamika Palmer, Breonna Taylor’s mother, on a webinar the week prior. “It was a remarkable moment,” Nneka said. “I think it gave a lot of the players that motivation that they needed, maybe as a reminder or just as simple motivation to understand that we’re really playing this season for a much bigger purpose.”
The league also brought awareness to Breonna by featuring her name on the back of every jersey. In terms of what else the season could hold, the women are leading the way.
“We are leading and they are following based on how we want the season to be in terms of how we express ourselves with Black Lives Matter and social injustice,” Nneka said to USA Today. “There are no plans I can tell you as of now. But I will say we are very much on the calls navigating and coordinating how we want to express ourselves collectively and individually.”
“At a time like this, we can continue to amplify our voices,” Nneka Ogwumike said. “With Black Lives Matter, with representing women, with causes that are important to our league. There’s an opportunity to really do this right.”
Beyond her activism, Nneka would also like to make an Olympic appearance in the future.
In 2021, USA Basketball made the controversial decision to keep Nneka off the Olympic roster, despite being named the MVP of the 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. Furthermore, Nneka was one of eight core players for USA Basketball in 2019-20, having signed a contract, which meant giving up lucrative opportunities overseas to commit to the national team helping the team to qualify for Tokyo.
Unfortunately, she missed being selected for the Olympics for the third straight time. Today she’s only WNBA MVP to not be named to an Olympic roster.
When Nneka tried to make the best of her situation by looking for an opportunity to play for Nigeria along with two of her sisters – Chiney and Erica, FIBA denied her waiver request citing that she was too associated with USA Basketball already. “I still have a lot of pride and high hopes for the Nigerian team as it’s composed now,” Nneka said. “So, maybe this time around, I won’t be a part of it directly, but I certainly do hope that I can be in the future.”
As for how she weathered the latest storm, Nneka said,“ I’ve always been described as resilient, and I think I had to kind of tell myself that a lot to make sure that I believed it because it’s been a few weeks of feeling unvaluable or unworthy. For me, it was less about, ‘OK, I gotta get back to Nneka’ and more about, ‘OK, [which] Nneka is about to rise from the ashes out of this?’”
One thing is for sure: Nneka will rise.
Up next, get the answer to the world’s most obnoxious question: “Why does nobody watch the WNBA?” Which, for the record, is categorically untrue.
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Discover surprising Nneka Ogwumike facts and learn all you need to about the Los Angeles great!
Nneka Ogwumike’s position is power forward.
Nnemkadi “Nneka” Ogwumike (pronounced NEH-kuh Oh-gwoo-MIH-kay). Listen here.
Nneka Ogwumike’s Twitter is @nnemkadi30.
Nneka is 31 years old.
Nneka went to Stanford.
Nneka’s Instagram is @nnekaogwumike.
No Nneka Ogwumike is not married.