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. Last weekend’s star Los Angeles Sparks performance came from Nneka Ogwumike who showed up with 8-of-8 from the field, finishing with 21 points and 7 rebounds.
But, her value for her team, her league, and her community, doesn’t stop there. As the LA Times reported earlier this month, “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 records, career statistics, her strengths and weaknesses, and the impact she’s having on culture both on and off the court.
Plus, you might find out a few surprises along the way — like that she’s played with her sister Chinenye (who’s two inches taller by the way) in the WNBA, and together they have partnered with the U.S. Fund for UNICEF to support UNICEF’s efforts in Nigeria.
And, I’m just going to say it: It’s shocking that Nneka’s jerseys aren’t selling out regularly — this player’s a real one!
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 says she wasn’t good, but she was tall. So that was enough for her to make a team. Since then, she’s never looked back.
Nneka has always been a selfless player. By the time she got to Stanford, she was the kind of player who was concerned with what was best for her team. She keeps everyone light when that’s needed, makes sure there are no gaps in communication between the players or coaches, and takes responsibility even for things that aren’t her fault.
“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 Ogwumike 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.’ ” So one thing Nneka has worked on is knowing what she wants, even before she gets the ball.
Fast forward to today, where she’s able to combine her go-to moves with intelligence about the current situation and get the basket. 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.”
Another way her game has evolved is that she’s stronger and faster. Ogwumike is what some coaches admiringly call “bouncy” as written by Mechelle Voepel of ESPN. She also has an explosiveness that seems to get more refined and effective every year.
And she harnesses that speed defensively. According to SBNation, players that used to play exclusively in the post and around the rim are now spreading out to the perimeter, creating matchup nightmares for opponents. But Nneka keeps those roamers locked down, as she’s learned to guard players of all positions – guards, forwards, and centers – using her quickness, her leaping ability, and her Stanford smarts.
Nneka is known as a leader both on and off the court. “Watch. Learn. Lead.” That’s the formula Ogwumike has used to topple obstacles, according to her sister.
“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 her sisters, and they try to chase it — along with young women everywhere who dream of stepping on the court themselves someday.
Truthfully, 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, Ogwumike’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.
When it comes to her on-the-court leadership style, Ogwumike’s approach is similarly opportunistic. Nneka tries to stay present, “I focus on the now. So right now, it’s all about getting better today.”
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 lady 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.
I mean, we couldn’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.
Our girl is a vocal leader, letting people know what she sees on the court, and being 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 comes pretty close to Kevin Durant’s .381. 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.
Because Nneka is one smart cookie, she’d probably say she has no weaknesses, only opportunities. But let’s break down those opportunities nonetheless.
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 JK JK, 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. Lamar Odom next level. Nneka has decent handles. It would be interesting to see the 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. I’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.
Being a multi-faceted player on offense makes it hard to game plan for Nneka. The best option is to be all over her physically. Basically, not making any type of catch easy and giving her zero breathing room.
And then, play some mental tricks. Guard her hard, and with full bodyweight one drive play. Then the next, back away at the last minute when she expects the contact.
In the paint, rest your arm against her lower back to push her out, and firmly plant one of your knees in between her legs. Then hold your entire body weight against her. She’ll feel the elbow and plan to turn that way, thinking she’s got you hooked. Instead, keep switching the arm you’re using to push her within the play. She might not be able to figure out which way is safe to roll.
When she’s in pull-up range, keep enough distance so her elbows can’t hook you in for the spin. And always keep your arms up. She’s likely to pull the ball above her head to shoot, and if she catches it around her waist, you might be able to catch it on the way up. It’s easier to bring your arm down fast than up fast.
On the pick and roll specifically, you can aggressively switch or hard hedge against Nneka in order to prevent her from pulling up. You could also double her. But she’s likely to slice up the double, making the right pass to punish you for overcommitting. So, good luck!
Back in 2017, Nneka sat down with Candace Parker and Molly Qerim on ESPN’s First Take, to talk about the Sparks run for another title, and how the team and league have come together to take a stand against social injustice.
When asked about the “Strong” video built on Beyonce’s Sorry where players were juxtaposed with hateful messages they receive from social media, Nneka said, “We’re strong resilient women and we stand together. And we’re not afraid. We’re not afraid of any type of challenge.”
Also 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!
Nneka Ogwumike has broken a ton of personal records, as well as league records. In fact, she’s broken so many she should be one of the most frequently talked about WNBA players, among the likes of Diana Taurasi, Sue Bird, and Sabrina Ionescu. 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, Ogwumike 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:
The Los Angeles Sparks picked Ogwumike first in the 2012 WNBA Draft. And then it was game on and game over!
As the Undefeated reports, “For someone with her resume — No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 WNBA draft, WNBA champion, MVP, Rookie of the Year, six-time All-Star, All-WNBA first team, four-time All-Defensive first team, World Cup champion, EuroLeague champion, even a Polish League champion — she often finds herself left out of the conversation regarding the game’s best players.” 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.
After all that, you might be curious about Nneka’s salary. Nneka’s average salary in the US has been $114,000, and she makes the majority of her earnings overseas in Russia. Though, earlier this year, 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 salaries.
Ahead of the negotiation, Ogwumike 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, boosted player salaries – by more than 80 percent for the WNBA’s top players. And it will give 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.” reports USA Today.
Though, Nneka is not stopping at raising the players’ earning potential. As Ogwumike 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.
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.
This season, Nneka is focused on amplifying social justice issues. Nneka and Sue Bird wrote an op-ed on the significance of the WNBA’s social justice push 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.”
And 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,” Ogwumike 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,” Ogwumike 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.”
Nneka is also featured in Chicago Sky guard Sydney Colson’s series, 60 Seconds With Syd‘s installment paying special tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement. In the video, over 80 Black players from the league come together to say that their lives matter. And the Sparks are running a campaign: “Change has no off-season.”
“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.”
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
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. Find out what 6.5 million viewers have to do with it.
Written by Megan Mitzel, youth basketball coach, and Founder of Queen Ballers Club.
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