July 24, 2022 

Olivia Nelson-Ododa impressing as a rookie

The former UConn center has turned in a solid rookie season so far for the LA Sparks

Usually, when college students take final exams, that’s all they have to focus on and worry about at the time. However, things are a little bit different when you get drafted into the WNBA.

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The WNBA draft is held in April when most colleges are still in session. The season begins in May when many of them are taking final exams. That was the situation Olivia Nelson-Ododa found herself in after the Los Angeles Sparks selected her with the No. 19 pick in the second round of the 2022 draft.

It was close to the end of training camp when she finally finished up her classes at UConn. At the same time, she was just trying to make the Sparks roster having a non-guaranteed contract.

“It was definitely an interesting transition I would say, in terms of having to finish out the college stuff, but yet you’re still trying to prepare for this and just trying to make the team and whatnot and get used to everything,” Nelson-Ododa told The Next. “But I would say, for me, running and playing for seven months straight definitely helps in terms of just coming straight in and rolling into training camp.”

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And with a full training camp roster and a few young players from last season already there, it was anything but guaranteed for Nelson-Ododa to still be with the team on opening night, especially as a second-round pick. In addition, the Sparks hadn’t placed Amanda Zahui B. on the suspended list yet; and with a crowded frontcourt, it looked like it was going to be an uphill battle for Nelson-Ododa.

But preseason came along and Nelson-Ododa made a strong case to be on the final roster in the Sparks game against the Seattle Storm. She finished with 15 points, 12 rebounds and five assists and shot 50 percent from the field. Fellow rookie Amy Atwell had a strong game in the Sparks’ second preseason matchup against the Phoenix Mercury and the organization had some tough decisions to make leading up to the opening night.

Ultimately, they decided to suspend Zahui B.’s contract and waive third-year guard Te’a Cooper and second-year wing Arella Guirantes, thus securing Nelson-Ododa’s place on the opening night roster. Throughout training camp, Nelson-Ododa did her best to just take it one day at a time and keep the mindset that she would go out there and show what she could do.

“I think it just made me even more hungry just because it wasn’t guaranteed. Any moment, any time, somebody could get cut, waived, whatever the case may be,” Nelson-Ododa said. “That just made me even hungrier to get a spot on this team… It made it a little bit easier coming off a season in college and just kind of going straight into it. Overall, it was just having that idea that nothing is guaranteed; you can’t take anything for granted in this league.”

Even with Zahui B. not on the team this season, the Sparks still had a crowded frontcourt rotation. With Nneka Ogwumike and Liz Cambage penciled in as the starters, and Chiney Ogwumike able to spell both, as well as second-year forward Jasmine Walker seemingly in line for playing time, it seemed likely that Nelson-Ododa would spend most of the season on the bench.

And for the most part, that held true. Nelson-Ododa was a “did not play” for the first five games of the season. But after an early injury kept Chiney Ogwumike out of the lineup against Seattle on May 20, Nelson-Ododa got the first minutes of her career. Playing ahead of Walker, she logged 12 minutes, scored six points, shot 4-for-4 from the free-throw line, grabbed three rebounds and blocked two shots.

Since then, she’s been a bit of a regular in the rotation even after the Sparks let go of former head coach and general manager Derek Fisher. She was crucial in a big road win over the Storm on June 25 when she pulled down eight rebounds, four of them on the offensive end. She’s had a few games with multiple blocked shots, including one against the Chicago Sky on June 23 when she stuck with Candace Parker and blocked her in the paint.

While a shuffling roster due to various injuries has forced Nelson-Ododa into immediate action, the Sparks have been patient with her development. The main things they’ve expected from her in her role as she adapts to the WNBA game are to play hard and bring energy off the bench.

“It’s been to go in, play hard, give really good effort, get rebounds when I can, score when I can, make good moves and good decisions… Tying that all together is kind of what they expect from me right now. That’s the role I’m trying to fulfill,” Nelson-Ododa said. “It’s been a huge learning experience for me, I’m just trying to soak in as much as I can, especially from our vets and the vets at my position. They’ve done a great job of teaching me and I’ve just been trying to take in every opportunity that I can get.”

In recent games, interim head coach Fred Williams has trusted Nelson-Ododa more and more. In four of the last five games, she’s played double-digit minutes. Some of that has come with Cambage in health and safety protocols, but it’s clear the level of trust the coaching staff has in her in such meaningful games as the Sparks continue their push for playoff positioning.

According to Williams, Nelson-Ododa is right where he expects her to be regarding her development.

“As a post player in this league with her size, she’s got to get a little bit stronger and she knows that. You see some things in her balance guarding stronger players, and she’s learning how to adjust her body to defend,” Williams said after a recent game against Chicago. “I do like her energy going to the boards, blocking shots and going to the rim. She’s getting a lot better putting the ball on the floor and she’s got a lot of upside to her. I’m really pleased with her play. We’ll continue to have her out there and her minutes will keep building as the season goes on.”

And as the season has progressed, Nelson-Ododa has looked much more comfortable when she catches the ball in the post. She’s able to get good position and when she seals her defender and calls for the ball, her teammates have actually looked for her. Sometimes it doesn’t always sync up, which is understandable as a rookie learning the pro game.

But she’s gotten better at making the right decision, whether it’s taking advantage of a scoring opportunity and making a quick, decisive move in the post or reading the defense and passing out of the post. And her activity on the boards has been exceptional. She times her rebounds well and has become one of the better players on the team already at hitting the offensive glass.

In today’s age, where the game has become more perimeter-oriented and traditional post players are becoming extinct, Nelson-Ododa is a bit of a throwback to a forgotten time. She hasn’t taken any three-point shots this season. Through four seasons at the University of Connecticut, she took a total of 33 three-point shots. While she’s been able to stay effective in a changing world, expanding her game to include the three-point shot is something she eventually wants to do.

“I just continue to work on that every day. At some point, I want to make that transition more out and stretch the floor more,” Nelson-Ododa said. “But for now, I’m just trying to make the most of what I can in my position and just work with that every single day and improve on it.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Nelson-Ododa has had a somewhat smooth transition to the WNBA. After all, she came from a program at UConn that has put countless players in the league. After the draft, Fisher mentioned that one of the main reasons why the Sparks had her on their radar was the fact that she played in a strong team system with the Huskies and for a coach like Geno Auriemma.

Throughout four seasons at UConn, Nelson-Ododa averaged 8.9 points on 56 percent shooting, 6.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.0 blocks. Aside from her on-court development, she believes one of the biggest things that Auriemma and UConn provided to help ease her transition to the WNBA is the mental aspect.

“I would definitely say that in terms of discipline, just creating that mental toughness for players and just having us go through the grind whether it was in practice or games, I think that was huge for four years,” Nelson-Ododa said. “What they’re able to teach us, especially basketball-wise, IQ-wise, I think was really big in my development. I think that plays a huge part in just kind of transitioning to the next level.”

In Thursday’s win over the Atlanta Dream, Nelson-Ododa was part of a new lineup that Williams experimented with. For a couple of minutes, he ran a two-big lineup of Nelson-Ododa and Cambage. After the game, he admitted that he was a bit apprehensive about trying it out, especially since Atlanta immediately went into a zone, but that he wanted to use that size to attack the glass and protect the paint. And above all, he wanted to get Nelson-Ododa more minutes and if those minutes aren’t always available at center, then he wanted to try her out at power forward.

Whatever her role may be as the regular season starts winding down, one thing is for sure; she’s definitely shown enough to earn the trust of her coaches and her teammates. She’s been like a sponge since being drafted, doing whatever she can to pick the brains of her veteran teammates.

“Whether it’s on the court or off the court, I just want to learn as much as I can in these months and just playing wise and just kind of understand as much as I can,” Nelson-Ododa said. “Pick people’s brains on what I can do, what I can do better, that’s huge for me. It’s just taking those little bits of feedback that I get and just putting that in my mind about things I need to just continue to touch up on.”

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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