Here are just a few of the words used by coaches, players, analysts and fans to describe Nneka Ogwumike and her game: smart, efficient, athletic, quick, gritty, tenacious, physical, focused, effort, hard worker.
When speaking with her college coach, Tara VanDerveer of Stanford University, there was another word that stood out: springy.
It’s such a perfect word to describe Nneka’s ability to exploit opponents with her superior quickness and athleticism in all facets of the game – offensive rebounds and put-backs, straight line or backdoor cuts to the basket for layups, getting in the passing lane for a steal or leaping quickly to block an opposing players shot.
It’s also a perfect word to describe Nneka’s meteoric rise from All-Star sidekick to Most Valuable Player, an award she won on Tuesday after receiving 31 of 38 first place votes from a national panel of sportswriters.
In the past two years combined, Ogwumike received one fifth-place vote for Most Valuable Player as Maya Moore and Elena Delle Donne claimed the award in 2014 and 2015, respectively.
While Nneka was not playing obscurity the past two seasons — she was selected as an All-Star reserve each year, and was named to the All-WNBA Second Team in 2014 and the All-Defensive First Team in 2015 — she was not part of the MVP picture.
Since entering the WNBA as the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, Ogwumike had never been considered the MVP of her own team, let alone the entire league. During Ogwumike’s rookie season, Candace Parker was the runner-up for the MVP, then won the award for the second time in 2013, finished fourth in 2014 and was out of contention in 2015 after missing more than half the season. Heading into this season, the league’s GM’s tabbed Parker third among the favorites to win the MVP.
Parker’s yearly MVP candidacy is a common theme in the WNBA, as the league’s elite players are in contention for the top individual award year after year. Tamika Catchings has finished in the top five in MVP voting 10 times. Before Moore won her MVP in 2014, she was the runner-up in 2013 and finished fourth in 2012 in her second WNBA season. As a rookie, Delle Donne finished third in MVP voting in 2013 before missing much of 2014 and returning to win the award for the first time in 2015.
In nearly every case, players have to climb the ladder to win the MVP award, taking incremental steps over the course of their career before earning the award. Ogwumike is springing from a 10th place finish in last year’s voting to a first place finish by a wide margin, beating New York’s Tina Charles by 95 points and 23 first place votes.
Ogwumike’s rising MVP consideration went hand in hand with her rising statistics and the Sparks’ turnaround from a 14-20 team that finished with the third-to-worst record last season to a 26-8 squad that earned the No. 2 seed in the playoffs.
Ogwumike set career-best marks in points (19.7), rebounds (9.1), assists (3.1) and blocks (1.1), while falling just shy of setting the WNBA record for highest field goal percentage in a single-season – Ogwumike’s 66.5% is second to Tamika Raymond’s 66.8% from 2003. However, when you combine Ogwumike’s overall field goal percentage, her 3-point percentage (61.5%) and free throw percentage (86.9%), you get a true shooting percentage not seen in WNBA or NBA history (73.7%).
While Ogwumike’s 2014 and 2015 seasons look like mirror images of each other — look at the points, rebounds, blocks, field goal and free throw percentages — her 2016 season was leaps and bounds above what she had produced in her first four years in the WNBA.
And she did so by showcasing her full array of skills, whether it was posting up (her 1.292 points per possession on post ups ranked fifth in the league per Synergy Sports), cutting to the basket (her 121 points on cuts led all players by 23 points per Synergy), running the floor in transition (her 101 points ranked sixth per Synergy) or hitting jumpers from the elbow, baseline or even 3-point range; she knocked down 16 treys in 26 attempts after making just seven 3-pointers in her first four seasons combined.
But among all of the ways that Ogwumike contributes to the L.A. Sparks on the basketball court, there is no better play that epitomizes her game more than the offensive rebound and put-back.
It combines all of the attributes that make her such a special player:
- Great anticipation and timing to know where the rebound will fall and how to get in position to secure it
- Physicality and grit needed to box out opposing players and get them out of your path to the ball
- Quickness and athleticism to maneuver around players in the crowded paint to claim the carom
- Springiness to elevate faster than everyone else on the court and beat them to the ball
- Strength to finish at the rim while surrounded by other players, often absorbing contact, while attempting the put-back
According to Synergy, Ogwumike led all players with 80 points scored on putbacks. It is the ultimate effort play and a perfect way for Ogwumike to contribute offensively even when plays aren’t specifically run for her.
As Nneka proved this season, there are plenty of superlatives you can use to describe her game and what she brings to her team. And with today’s announcement there is one more that must be added to the list: Most Valuable.