Nneka Ogwumike embraces her talent
Senior acknowledging her strengths will help Cardinal teammates around her
Some top recruits go to college relatively full of themselves, even if they don't really know it. They're very good, but they've got a long way to go. And the learning process includes recognizing just why the coaching staff that pursued them so earnestly is now knocking them down a peg or two.
Then there are the young phenoms who present to coaches the exact opposite challenge: It takes them awhile to figure out that they've got the potential for greatness inside. And that it's possible to reach for that without disrupting their natural humility.
Stanford's Nneka Ogwumike is that second type of player. But entering her final year with coach Tara VanDerveer's Cardinal, Ogwumike -- widely acknowledged as the top senior in women's basketball this season -- is much more comfortable with the notion that her coaches have been right all along. She really can be as good as she wants to be.
Yeah, that sounds mind-numbingly trite yet often, what's simply put is profoundly true. Ogwumike, a 6-foot-2 post player, started her career just getting a handle on her physical talents. Now, after three trips to the Final Four with Stanford, she knows what the last frontier is for her.
"What people don't always realize is that to apply all of those skills on court, you need a mentality to do it," she said. "That may be the most important thing that any player needs. Without the mentality of being aggressive and relentless and understanding how capable you are, I don't think it's possible for you to take that last large step. It's the transition I've made, and am still making."
She's right that sometimes observers don't realize that aggressive confidence is something that players have to hone the same way they work in the weight room or practice shooting.
"As an athlete, my coaches tell me that if I really want to be good, I can be good," Ogwumike said. "It's taken me awhile to realize that. I guess I kind of expect that there's limit to everything, a cap. What I'm learning to understand, especially this year, is that I can really excel."
You might be shaking your head thinking, "This kid is a two-time All-American. Is she finally getting a clue that she's extremely good?" Well, that happens maybe more than you would expect with some players.
Also consider that Ogwumike and her three younger sisters, including sophomore teammate Chiney, weren't raised with a "put all your eggs in the sports basket" mentality.
To the contrary, sports was just one thing among many that Nneka pursued as she grew up -- and as far as her parents were concerned, sports was not the most important.
"They raised us to be the best people that we can be," Ogwumike said. "With that, you have these various titles: me as an athlete, as a student, as a sister, as a friend."
Ogwumike as "star" wasn't on the list. Neither was "future WNBA No. 1 draft pick." That Ogwumike already has achieved the first and is likely on her way to the second happened in part thanks to a naturally inquisitive mind.
Nneka every season has gotten a lot better. This season in practice, she's doing things we didn't see her do last year. She's making some jaw-dropping plays. With her, she has to understand everything and grab the big picture. When the light goes on with her and she gets something, she's really got it.” -- Stanford associate head coach Amy Tucker
For Ogwumike, when it comes to basketball, there is no such thing as too much information.
"I like learning the dimensions of all things," Ogwumike said. "It's not just for me to understand what I do, but to understand what everyone else is doing. If there arises a situation where I need to know the 3, I know the 3 and what options to look for.
"I like grasping everything that goes on on the court. Once I understand it, it stays in my brain. So I definitely still ask a lot of questions. Although, at times, Tara says, 'No questions, just play.'"
Stanford associate head coach Amy Tucker has worked with the Cardinal's top posts of the last 25 years, including All-Americans Val Whiting, Kristin Folkl and Jayne Appel. Ogwumike has been on the State Farm All-America team the past two seasons, and Tucker said that she has one quality in particular that stands out in the history of great Stanford post players.
"What really separates Nneka is her extreme athleticism," Tucker said. "We've had some great posts. Jayne was a huge presence, with her size. Val Whiting was such a great finisher, as was Kristin Folkl. Kristin had brute strength and jumping ability, but not the same kind of explosiveness as Nneka.
"We have some guards this year who are really quick. And Nneka still wins every single sprint. It's not even close. We've never had a 'big' run like that. If she wants to win a race, she wins it."
Tucker was away on a recruiting trip recently and VanDerveer hustled her over to see film of practice as soon as she returned.
"I walk into the office, and Tara says, 'You've got to see this: There's two plays Nneka made that were incredible,'" Tucker said. "Nneka every season has gotten a lot better. This season in practice, she's doing things we didn't see her do last year. She's making some jaw-dropping plays.
"With her, she has to understand everything and grab the big picture. When the light goes on with her and she gets something, she's really got it."
In particular, Tucker points to gains in Ogwumike's defense, including blocking shots.
"As a freshman and sophomore, she couldn't do that very well," Tucker said. "She didn't know how to. We'd explain a lot of it is just timing. She had the athleticism to do it. Now this year, she's blocking shots left and right."
Ogwumike has averaged 15.4 points and 7.9 rebounds for her first three seasons at Stanford. She meshed seamlessly with Chiney last season, and the sisters will interchangeably fill the power forward/center roles for 2011-12.
They will be the emotional and on-court leaders this season more than ever before, now that Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen have graduated. Nneka, in particular, will be looked to as the team's alpha dog.
"Nneka is not the underdog anymore," Tucker said. "She's not the young player with Jayne around, or Kayla and Jeanette. She has risen to the challenge. It's come full circle: She used to be the one who'd constantly interrupt practice to ask questions. Now she's the one who's explaining stuff to the other players.
"When you watch her interact with the younger kids, she's very motherly. She's a very inclusive person who makes sure everyone is involved and everyone's OK. She knows that all eyes will be on her, and what we do will be done through her. We're counting on her to be our go-to player. It could be a burden for some kids, but I don't think it is for her."
As the oldest of four children, being the nurturer comes pretty much with the birth-order package for Nneka.
"The team is young; I call the freshmen my six babies," she said. "I love helping everybody out. What I really want them to know is that this year is for everyone to have no regrets and to have as much fun as we can."
Three consecutive trips to the Final Four but falling short of the championship game have impacted Ogwumike, but she won't let it be in a negative way. Of course, she'd love to have at least one title by now. But she said that doesn't obscure what has happened for her.
"When you lose, it's all you can think about for a certain amount of time," she said. "But then I think: I've gone to places so many people only dream of going. I've played with so many wonderful players. I never take any of it for granted. That's a huge weakness, to have a complacent mentality.
"That journey is what is most exciting about my senior year. Every day is fun, and I look forward to practice. If we put in the work we need to, we won't have any regrets."
As we've clearly established, Ogwumike likes to have a complete understanding of everything. But she hasn't gotten to the point yet where she really knows how big a part of Stanford history she is.
"We have a hall of fame room that we pass by every time we go to dinner, and a collage in our locker room," she said. "Sometimes I think, 'Wow, look at all these great players on this wall.' I've never included myself. I guess I may feel more like that after I graduate. But right now, I still have more work to do."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.
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