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Nneka Ogwumike and the Sparks Are Shining Brighter Than Ever

*Note: This story was originally published on July 1 and was updated on July 14.

Candace Parker is the face of the Los Angeles Sparks, and for good reason, but Nneka Ogwumike has been the team’s best player this season. She’s leading the team in both scoring and rebounding, pouring in 19.1 points and hauling in 8.5 rebounds a night. On a league-wide level, those marks are good enough for seventh and fifth, respectively.

Yet despite those stellar numbers, what has really set Ogwumike apart this year has been her efficiency. She’s shooting an absolutely ridiculous 71.2 percent from the field, more than four percent higher than the current single-season record of 66.8 percent, set by Tamika Raymond back in 2003. And not that Raymond’s mark isn’t impressive — it certainly is — but she took only 193 shots the whole season, while Ogwumike is already at 212 with 14 games left to play.

That’s what makes Ogwumike’s performance so impressive. She isn’t a role player that shoots once in a while. Her 10.6 shots a game are 20th in the league, and she’s the Sparks’ leading scorer.

In addition to her potentially historic field-goal percentage, Ogwumike has already set two new WNBA records this season. Over a three-game run in June, Ogwumike knocked down 23 straight buckets, etching her name in the record books with the most consecutive made field goals in WNBA history.

Amid that stretch was her 12/12 performance against Dallas on June 11, which set a new mark for most shots without a miss in a single game. That’s not to mention her 12-for-14 (June 14), 13-for-14 (June 30) and 10-for-11 (July 13) shooting nights.

So just how has Ogwumike been so sharp from the field this year? Let’s take a closer look at all of the ways that she scores:

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Post Moves

With her athleticism, strength, balance, patience and wide array of moves, Ogwumike is almost unguardable in the post. From the opening game of the season, she was serving notice that guarding her on the block was going to be a problem.

“Hey there Stewie. I got you a welcome-to-the-league present: Take this nifty up-and-under move!”

nneka post 1

Later in the season, at home against the Chicago Sky, she used a similar move. But this time, she pulls her defender out a bit by making her first move away from the rim. Then, instead of going up with the fake as she turns, she steps through, right into the space that was just vacated by her defender.

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Here, she shows off yet another move, as she sets her defender up with an initial move to the midline, then spins and drop-steps back toward the baseline before finishing with her left hand.

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Finally, we’ll see a perfect example of her patience as she goes up against Carolyn Swords. Ogwumike doesn’t panic after the first move is cut off; she just keeps working that pivot foot, eventually finding the opening she was searching for.

nneka post 2

This move also brings up a sub-point to the post moves section. Ogwumike is often blessed with the opportunity to play one-on-one. Just look at how much time she has to operate in the post on that play against Swords. The Liberty center actually plays pretty good defense, but she just has no shot when Ogwumike has all that time to fake and counter.

In fact, in all the examples above, Ogwumike’s defender is left alone to try and and stop her. That task is nearly impossible, but the Sparks just have too many weapons for opposing defenses to feel comfortable sending double teams all the time.

There’s Candace Parker, of course. Kristi Toliver is shooting 46 percent from three, Alana Beard is a menace driving to the basket, Jantel Lavender is coming off an All-Star campaign, and the list goes on. Plus, the Sparks do a fantastic job with spacing, meaning anyone wishing to come double will have much more distance to cover to get to Ogwumike, giving her plenty of time to realize what’s happening.

There really is just no good option in trying to defend the Sparks, which would explain why they’re 15-1.

Strong Finisher At The Rim

Getting into the paint for a look at the rim is one thing, but actually finishing the play off is quite another. Whether it’s around, over or through, you’re going to have to get past at least one defender in the process, all while getting slapped, bumped and scraped.

Somehow, none of these things seem to bother Ogwumike. At least not enough to prevent her from converting bucket after bucket.

A help defender flying across the lane, arms outstretched? No problem.

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A help defender plowing into you as you spin? Nope, also not a problem.

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Crashing into your defender in mid-air? That’s right, still not a problem.

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Ogwumike’s ability to finish these difficult attempts, which many others often fail to do, is just one of the many reasons her field-goal percentage is sky-high.

Putting The Ball On The Deck And Driving Past Other Bigs

Ogwumike, as we’ve seen, is more than capable of using her strength and skill to put on a clinic down low. Yet while she scores about 90 percent of her baskets in the paint, that’s not always where the possessions begin.

As noted above, the Sparks have great spacing, with all five players sometimes out along the three-point line. This creates plenty of driving lanes, something Ogwumike likes to take advantage of once in awhile — especially when she’s being guarded by a slower big.

Don’t let her prowess in the post fool you; she’s got some quicks. Look at this example, as Ogwumike blows past Emma Meesseman, despite the Mystics forward playing a few feet off her.

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And here, she needs just one dribble to go right to the rim around Erika de Souza.

nneka drive 2

She might not be a sharpshooter from the outside, but Nneka doesn’t cease being a threat just because she’s more than a few feet from the basket.

Running The Floor

Speaking of Ogwumike’s quickness, it doesn’t apply to just the halfcourt. She is both willing and capable of running the floor like a guard, creating easy chances for herself. Watch as she outruns three Mystics players to get a wide-open layup.

nneka break 2

And sure, quickness is a great asset to have, but this also comes down to hard work and desire. The second Ogwumike sees her team in possession of the ball, she puts her head down and sprints straight to the rim.

nneka break 1

Crashing The Offensive Glass

The last trait of Ogwumike’s game we’ll look at also has plenty to do with hard work: offensive rebounding. In addition to being fifth in the league in overall rebounding, at 8.5 a game, Ogwumike is also tied for ninth in offensive rebounding, grabbing 2.3 per game.

Since most offensive boards come near the paint, this means a number of extra shot opportunities for Ogwumike. Which, on a Sparks team with so many talented offensive players, can sometimes be in short supply.

Often, Ogwumike simply creates these chances by outworking her opponent. Take this play, for example. When the shot goes up, Ogwumike is at the elbow, and her defender has inside position. But by the time the ball has hit the rim, Ogwumike is already drawing even, eventually ducking inside the defense and muscling her way to the ball for an easy stick-back.

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Of course, there arestill times when Ogwumike’s excellent athleticism comes into play. Such as on this shot, as she out-jumps the 6-foot-6 Sylvia Folwes for the board.

nneka off glass 2

Whether it’s with her post moves, running the fastbreak or crashing the offensive glass, Ogwumike has spent her whole career hard at work creating excellent opportunities for herself and her team. It’s resulted in a Rookie of the Year Award, multiple All-Star apperances, and trips to the playoffs. But this year, with her shooting percentage at never-before-seen levels, and the Sparks off to a historic 19-1 start, the rewards have been brighter than ever before.