Commentary

Nneka Ogwumike fits right in

Originally Published: July 14, 2012
By Michelle Smith

LOS ANGELES -- Some people have a talent for making things look easy.

Nneka Ogwumike is one of them.

This professional basketball thing? Easy. The pressure of being the league's No. 1 draft pick? No problem. Adjusting her game to the athleticism and physicality of the world's best league? Nary a bead of sweat.

OK, maybe that's not true. But Ogwumike makes it look as if it could be: Witness her 22 points and 20 rebounds in the Sparks' 77-74 win over Indiana on Thursday, her fifth double-double of the season.

"She's even better than we thought we were getting," Los Angeles Sparks general manager Penny Toler said.

"A gem," Sparks coach Carol Ross said.

"Stellar," teammate DeLisha Milton-Jones said.

[+] EnlargeNneka Ogwumike
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesNneka Ogwumike is soaking up all the advice she can in her rookie year with the Sparks.

The raves Ogwumike has earned in the first six weeks of her professional basketball career are well deserved.

The Stanford product, who many viewed as a gap-year pick between the hype of top pick Maya Moore last season and Brittney Griner next year, is pro-ready in nearly every way.

Her game translates well -- the leaping, the energy, the nose for the rebound or the steal.

If there is major work to be done, it is on the offensive end; her midrange shooting needs improvement and her confidence to take the shot needs a boost.

Mentally, she's there. Off the court, she's already being tapped for work in community relations, has settled into life in an apartment with an extra room for family and is preparing to take the GMAT, the entrance exam for business school. She seems startlingly well adjusted for a 22-year-old rookie on her own for the first time.

"Going great," Ogwumike said with a broad smile, minutes after the Sparks defeated the defending league champion Minnesota Lynx last week. "It's been a very seamless transition."

Toler has watched the veteran players migrate to the always-willing rookie, who has been a "sponge" for advice and instruction, said Milton-Jones, a WNBA All-Star and two-time Olympian.

"There's just not a lot of time for practice in the season with the schedule we have, and she's done a great job of learning on the fly," Milton-Jones said. "She learns both visually and verbally. But I think the key factor is she's fundamentally sound. She's got the fuel and the talent and the athleticism."

Ogwumike has started every game she has played this season for the Sparks, playing alongside All-Stars Candace Parker and Milton-Jones. After Thursday's game, she was averaging 14.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and more than 28 minutes in 20 games. She is the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.

It is Ogwumike's quick transition -- along with the improved guard play of Kristi Tolliver -- that has lifted the Sparks from being in position to earn the No. 1 pick to contention for the Western Conference title.

"She's so good, but with room to grow," Toler said. "Anybody who has ever met Nneka can see she has a maturity about her. She fits right in. And playing out west, she has an opportunity to show her athleticism. With her high basketball IQ and her athleticism, she is going to be a huge star."

"I feel good," Ogwumike said. "My teammates are really supportive and I don't feel lost. I'm having a lot of fun."

Parker and Milton-Jones have taken Ogwumike under their wing, on the court and off.

Ross said Ogwumike has made it easy for the veterans.

"She embraces everything they tell her," Ross said. "She's this burst of youthful enthusiasm, but she's got wisdom beyond her years."

Ogwumike said she is refining her game to fit a more professional mold.

"It's not learning about basketball, it's learning about playing," Ogwumike said. "As time has gone on and the games came, I've become a lot more comfortable."

Defenses are boxing her out more aggressively than they did early in the season, trying to keep her away from the basket. The physicality is all she thought it would be.

"I expected fast, strong people and that's what it is in the league," she said.

Toler said Ogwumike is going to have to learn to take the shot from the top of the key. Defenses are playing off her right now, respecting her athleticism around the basket.

"You can hear me back here yelling at her to shoot when she's up there," Toler said. "I know she's thinking about getting a better shot, but she's got to take it and she's going to have to hit it. We'll take the misses right now. Once that improves, she's going to be unstoppable."

Ross joked that she's not "real anxious" for Ogwumike to discover her outside shot.

"We always need a banger down low, somebody who is going to clean up the boards," Ross said. "I like her down there."

Toler laughed at the idea that somehow the Sparks ended up on the short end with Ogwumike in a draft sandwiched around the arrivals of Moore and Griner.

"A lot of people won't say this, but I would: Griner is good, but Griner has some work to do at this level," Toler said. "You look at what player was ready to play and Nneka is that player. Griner is good, but if you look at the speed we are playing up here … the footwork, in college they can't push her off the block. Up here they are going to push her off the block.

"When Stanford played Baylor -- don't take anything away from Baylor, but if Chiney [Ogwumike] hadn't been in foul trouble, what would have happened? Griner is going to be good, don't get me wrong, but it's going to be an adjustment. She can turn around on college players, and here our 3s are going to be out there contesting those shots."

Toler said if she could have taken Griner this season, "I would have hated to see Nneka playing with the Seattle Storm, with Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird. That team would have been tough for us to defend. Nneka was the player that was more ready for the pros, and if anybody tells you otherwise, they are blind."

Despite having little time off between the end of her final college season and the start of her pro career, Ogwumike said she feels good physically. If anything, "less sore."

And she is about to get more than a month off for the Olympic break. Well, at least a week or so. Then most of the Sparks will go back to training camp. More time to learn and improve for Ogwumike.

"She is truly a package and we are so excited we have her," Ross said. "She doesn't take any of this for granted and she has no sense of entitlement, so I know she's going to improve because she works at such a high level."

Ogwumike's accolades from her outstanding college career are just now wrapping up. Following her graduation from Stanford with a psychology degree last month, Ogwumike was awarded a postgraduate scholarship by the Pac-12, which she will use to take business courses while overseas in Poland in the winter. She also received the Tom Hansen Medal for leadership and athletic excellence. She was one of two Stanford recipients, the other being quarterback Andrew Luck.

She said her life is admittedly low-key -- studying, resting, traveling -- which always seems to be a challenge for young players.

"This weekend, we play Saturday and Sunday, travel Monday and play Tuesday. It's pretty crazy, but I'm getting used to it," Ogwumike said. "It's less that my body is tired than that my mind is tired. When you take the time to rest, it's OK."

She has a revolving door for her family, including younger sister Chiney, who will stay for two more years at Stanford to lead the Cardinal and get her own game ready for the WNBA.

As for Nneka, "It is what you make it; when you take advantages of the things that are in front of you, you can't complain."

The Sparks wouldn't argue.

Michelle Smith

Contributor, espnW.com

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