Poised and Confident Rookie Grateful to Contribute to Sparks

By Mirin Fader

When yet another reporter mispronounces her name in a post-game interview, Nnemkadi Ogwumike lets it roll off her shoulders.

She knows the drill. She laughs with the quiet confidence of a veteran and humbly sounds out each syllable, understanding that her name and the double-doubles she posts are secondary to the numbers on the scoreboard when the final buzzer sounds.

This summer is different for Ogwumike. She isn’t in Palo Alto training to bring a national championship to Stanford. She’s the number one draft pick for a Sparks team with high expectations after missing the playoffs last year. Indeed, this summer is also different for the Sparks.

“We played in four Final Fours at Stanford and didn’t win a championship,” Ogwumike said. “After leaving college I thought to myself: the seniors who graduated with me don’t have another chance to play for a championship, but I do here in L.A. I really take that to heart, whether it happens this year or in years to come. It motivates me every day.”

The 6’2’’ power forward not only averages a rookie-best 14 points a game, but does so on nearly 60 percent shooting from the field. Her efficiency has already translated to a buzzer-beater shot to beat the Seattle Storm at home, along with both Western Conference Player of the Week and Rookie of the Month honors.

Yet the likely Rookie of the Year is quick to shy away from personal accolade.

“I just do whatever I can to contribute. I’m a rookie and I’m grateful to even be here.”

Rookies are oftentimes the bag carriers, the food orderers, and the most targeted running victims at practice, but Ogwumike is responsible for much more in her starting position. For a team that currently holds second place in the Western Conference only to the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, there is no room for the mental mistakes that most rookies have.

“Absolutely none at all,” she laughs.

The Texas native both embraces her role as an emerging leader and relishes playing under some of the league’s best (such as frontcourt mate Candace Parker)—a balance she has found to be among the biggest differences between college and the pros.

“In college, you play against one or two superstars every night. In the WNBA, you play with superstars,” she said. “Sometimes I can’t believe I’m really playing with some of the people on my team. I’m just having fun learning from them every day.”

Sparks Head Coach Carol Ross believes Ogwumike’s willingness to learn separates her from other rising players in the league. “She makes it easy for the veteran players to mentor and really put their arms around her because she’s like a sponge—she wants to be great,” she said. “There are many gifted, athletic players like Nneka, but the combination between her athleticism and skill is rare. You won’t always get that full package. There’s a uniqueness about her, and I think the league will embrace her for years to come.”