Nneka Ogwumike has been all over headlines this year as her MVP-caliber performance helped the Los Angeles Sparks to a 20-1 start. But don’t forget about the other Ogwumike: Chiney.
The younger of the dynamic Ogwumike sisters, Chiney was the No. 1 overall pick by the Connecticut Sun and Rookie of the Year in 2014. Due to a knee injury, however, she missed the entire 2015 season, sitting helpless as the Sun, beset by injuries, stumbled to a 15-19 record, last in the Eastern Conference.
The months following the conclusion of the 2015 season were foundation-alerting at the Mohegan Sun Arena, as a new head coach, Curt Miller, arrived along with three first-round picks. Then, last year’s Most Improved Player, Kelsey Bone, was dealt to Phoenix for Courtney Williams, giving Connecticut four of the top eight picks in the 2016 WNBA Draft.
One thing that remained constant, though, was Chiney Ogwumike. And how could that not be the case? Besides just the talent that allowed her to nearly average a double-double in her rookie season, she’s the perfect person to make a cornerstone for a franchise that was, in essence, starting over this season.
“She has a great personality, a great attitude,” Sun Head Coach Curt Miller said after Wednesday’s win over the Dallas Wings. “She’s a very optimistic person, she keeps the locker room very happy.”
The praise flowed as Miller continued, “She really brings that culture that we’re looking to create in the locker room. Off the court, on the court, she’s a really great teammate, and brings a lot of great positive energy to our team.”
Ogwumike’s team-first mentality is evident immediately. She brings every question, even those about her excellent individual play, back to the team. When she scores a great bucket, it’s because her teammates were unselfish and put her in position; When she leads the team with a big night, she’s proud of the way her teammates played. It’s no wonder Coach Miller is so effusive with his praise.
But no matter how nice a player is, locker room benefits can only get you so far. You need talent in order for your team to take the next step. Luckily, Chiney has plenty of that. She may be the younger Ogwumike, but her talent is just as big.
The first few months of 2016 didn’t show that, however, as Ogwumike began her return to the court following a her year-long absence and, well, she just wasn’t the player we all remembered from her Rookie of the Year campaign in 2014.
It took until her eighth game for her to score in double figures, and she didn’t have a double-digit rebounding game until a week ago, and her last three games are her first three double-doubles of the season. As Ogwumike goes, so do the Sun, and they struggled without her at her best, dropping 10 of their first 12 games.
But as Ogwumike remarked to WNBA.com after Wednesday’s game against the Wings, “Our record does not indicate how hard we’re playing.” It’s true.
Ten of their 16 losses have been by single digits, including two each to the New York Liberty and Los Angeles Sparks, two of the best teams in the league.
Since that 2-10 start they’ve played above .500 at 5-4, including a win over the mighty Minnesota Lynx. The way they’ve bounced back, coupled with the fact that many teams are struggling this season, has left them right in the playoff picture despite being 7-16.
Chiney and company are of course buoyed by these facts, but in typical Ogwumike fashion, they’re going to stay level-headed about their situation.
“We’re just trying not to get too high, not to stay too low,” Ogwumike said Wednesday. “We know that regardless of the outcome we need to play a way we’re proud of. We’re gonna strive to play really hard and build on something so that when we come back (after the Olympic break) we can be right in the hunt.”
Right in the hunt they are. The Mystics and Storm, who are tied for the eighth seed, are just two games ahead of the Sun, and with 11 games left in the season, that’s a very manageable deficit.
A deficit that was decreased Wednesday afternoon, as the Sun led from start to finish in Dallas, defeating the Wings, 89-78. It was none other than Ogwumike leading the way, as she poured in a career-high 26 points, hauled down 15 rebounds, blocked a career-high seven shots, and tied a career-high with four steals.
“She really established her presence early,” Coach Miller noted postgame. “And we never trailed in the game. There was never a tie, there were never any lead changes. She really helped establish that from the tip, and gave us great energy that we needed to start the game out.”
Now with three straight double-doubles, and July averages of 17.2 points on 62.5 percent shooting, 9.6 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 2 steals a game, there’s no doubt that Chiney Ogwumike is back.
However, when asked if her improved play was a result of finally feeling comfortable again between the health of her knee and getting back to competitive basketball, Ogwumike attributed her success to the team. Shocking, right?
“I felt back to normal,” said the Sun star. “I think it’s more so our team. Our chemistry is building, we’re learning how to play with each other, we’re figuring out our core of players that want to go to war with each other.”
11 (regular season) games are left in that war, as Connecticut tries to battle their way into the playoff picture. With General Ogwumike in form and leading the way, the young Sun have a bright chance of doing just that.