July 19, 2023 

Nneka Ogwumike is the steadying influence the Sparks need

With the Sparks being tested with adversity, they've leaned on their leader

To say this season has been a tough one for the Los Angeles Sparks would be an understatement.

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What started out as a season built on fresh optimism and renewed energy has quickly dissolved into one where the Sparks are just trying to get to the next game as healthy as possible. Over the past month, the Sparks have seen injuries/absences from Lexie Brown, Layshia Clarendon, Chiney Ogwumike, Nia Clouden, Dearica Hamby and Karlie Samuelson. That’s in addition to Katie Lou Samuelson, who will be out this season as she’s expecting her first child.

Hamby and Samuelson have since returned and Clarendon is set to return following the All-Star break, so the Sparks are slowly but surely getting back to full strength. It’s just been tough to establish any sort of continuity and rhythm with so many players being out of the lineup.

Thankfully for the Sparks, that same optimism and positivity from the beginning of the season is still there despite the obstacles that have popped up. That’s largely in part due to Nneka Ogwumike, the unquestioned leader of the team. The president of the WNBPA, Nneka’s charismatic and upbeat personality, has been crucial in keeping the team together and keeping morale high.

The Sparks have certainly faced adversity over the past couple of seasons, but through it all, she’s been the light leading the way. As the oldest of four sisters, that’s where it all began.

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“I think it’s kind of innate to me, it’s kind of how I naturally am. I also think being the oldest kid in the family; you have to serve as a constant to people at times. I have a lot of experience keeping my sisters calm. And being on teams and kind of having a voice of reason being a part of how I lead,” Nneka told The Next while in Las Vegas for All-Star Weekend. “It’s not like I’ve always been like this, but there’s also an aspect to evolving with your own experiences. The alternative to being positive is way more work. I just try my best to keep hope alive and make sure people don’t underestimate themselves.”

Following the Sparks’ loss to the Las Vegas Aces right before the All-Star break, Nneka beamed in her postgame media availability when speaking about the career years several of her teammates have been enjoying. The Sparks had just lost, 97-78, but she made sure her teammates got their proper recognition.

It hasn’t just been Nneka’s leadership off the court and in the locker room that’s made a difference though. It’s been her demeanor and lead-by-example style on the court that everyone else on the team falls in line with.

Leading on the court hasn’t come as easy for Nneka as off the court, however. In basketball, a team’s point guard is the quarterback on the floor and an extension of the head coach. The point guard handles the ball, runs the offense and gets the team into their sets. As a post player, Nneka has leaned more on her voice during the heat of the moment in games.

“Being a leader is one thing, but then when you’re on the court you still have to do your job and try and figure out exactly what your role is in that regard. It’s different because I’m a post player,” Nneka said. “Being a leader as a post player is kind of different because you’re not really the one who’s manning the offense and bringing the ball up and seeing things. So I try my best to provide more vision and provide more perspective and clarity. I feel like I’ve done a lot more of that this year.”

As important as Nneka has been to the Sparks this season in terms of leadership, she’s quick to point out that it’s not all her. She’s as selfless a star as there is in the WNBA. Over the past couple of seasons, she’s remarked how many of her recent teammates have been much younger than her, closer in age to her two youngest sisters, Erica and Oliva.

This season, in particular, the Sparks brought in a few more veterans with experience in the league. Back during training camp, Nneka was ecstatic over the fact that she had a couple more strong voices in the locker room alongside her. They’ve been important as well during the Sparks rough stretch over the past month and as is her leadership style, Nneka wants them to get their due as well.

“There’s more people than just me who’s in there providing a healthy environment in the locker room. I think that’s a really big strength of our team this year is that we have a lot of good people and everyone kind of leads in their own way,” Nneka said. “Of course, on each team, you’ll see there’s a little bit more prominence in one player when it comes to designating a captain or leader, but we have a team full of leaders, we have a locker room full of people that want to see each other do well. I can’t take the credit on my own for maintaining that. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can grow in that in the second half of the season.”

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When it comes to on the court play, Nneka has certainly been doing her part. In her 12th season in the WNBA, she’s having one of the best seasons of her career. Now a seven-time All-Star, she’s averaging 19.8 points per game, 9.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.6 steals. Her points per game and rebounds are both career-highs. She’s shooting 53.2% from the field, 32.4% from the 3-point line and 90.1% from the free-throw line. Her free-throw percentage is also a career-high.

But when it comes to the Sparks’ outlook for the second half of the season, she echoes a mantra that Sparks head coach Curt Miller has often said after each game this past month. And that’s to get healthy and stay healthy.

“At the end of the day, you feel good, you play good. Making sure that people stay healthy, that people feel confident in their recovery and feel confident in their contributions,” Nneka said. “Whether they’re getting rest in this break or getting recuperated in this break, I just want everyone to feel good about their bodies and their minds and our identity as a team.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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