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Ogwumike Chasing Basketball Immortality To Close Season

The year was 1973. The legendary Wilt Chamberlain, in his final NBA season with the Los Angeles Lakers, left basketball pundits with one last seemingly unbreakable record – a 72.7 shooting percentage over the course of an entire NBA season.

The day is June 11, 2016. It’s over 40 years since Chamberlain set that mark, and another Los Angeles post player is proving to be unguardable. On this night, Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike shoots 19 times, 12 times from the field and seven from the free-throw line.

She doesn’t miss once.

Ogwumike finished the game versus the Wings with 32 points as her Sparks improved to a then 9-0 record. Los Angeles, in large thanks to Ogwumike’s efficient shooting, which currently stands at a historic 71 percent for the season, began the 2016 season at 20-1, matching the 2000 Comets for best 21-game start in WNBA history, and ultimately went into the Olympic break with the best record in the WNBA (21-3).

While absolute perfection like that June night in Dallas has eluded Ogwumike since, she remained as efficient as ever. There was a 12-for-14 performance three nights later in a win versus Chicago, a 13-for-14 night in a win versus Atlanta on June 30 and a 10-for-11 outing in a July 13th win over Chicago. Only once this entire season did her shooting percentage fall below 50 percent, a 3-for-7 performance against San Antonio on June 4.

“Obviously her efficiency is incredible, it’s almost unthinkable,” Sparks coach Brian Agler said. “It doesn’t matter what level you’re playing at — WNBA, NBA, international — when you’re playing and being that efficient, she is having a season that is unmatched and (we) just haven’t seen something like this occur.”

Unless, of course, you think all the way back to Chamberlain.

Many of Chamberlain’s records, based on his ahead-of-his-time dominance, are often thought of outliers in basketball circles. And although Chamberlain’s record has been approached recently by NBA centers DeAndre Jordan and Tyson Chandler — largely aided by a high percentage of dunks — Chamberlain’s mark has still stood for over 40 years.

Now, in the WNBA’s 20th season, with Ogwumike raising her game to new heights, that record – along with the WNBA mark of 66.8 percent set by Tamika Raymond in 2003 — is in jeopardy.

“For me, everybody’s been asking me what’s different for you this season,” Ogwumike said. “I wouldn’t really say anything is that different but I think that I’ve kind of realized — not my full potential — but on my way there.”

Already one of the most athletic players in the league, Ogwumike has diversified and perfected the ways in which she can score. She can post up, attack the basket via the pick and roll, connect with accuracy after a pick and pop, or methodically get easy buckets by trailing in transition. It’s worth noting that Ogwumike is also picking her spots from behind the arc, where she is 9-for-13 on the season.

It’s not just her incredible shooting; Agler also calls Ogwumike one of the team’s “defensive stoppers”, and she leads the team in rebounding at 9.2 per game.

The translation is simple: an All-Star caliber player since she was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, Ogwumike has vaulted herself into the MVP conversation in her fifth season.

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“With my career, I’ve noticed that throughout the years there’s always been a period of different surges, of different levels that I’ve been able to reach,” Ogwumike said. “And once I reach that potential I know that I have more to work on.”

When it comes to her shooting percentage, Ogwumike is chasing basketball immortality. When it comes to the WNBA season and the team’s pursuit of a championship — Ogwumike’s foremost priority — she and the Sparks are chasing another larger-than-life center in Sparks legend Lisa Leslie. Leslie led the Sparks, one of the WNBA’s original franchises, to back-to-back titles in 2001 and 2002 – the last team to win two in a row – but the team has not won one since.

The franchise has a championship pedigree. A storied history. Another Laker legend in Magic Johnson is in the front office. And the presence of another bonafide superstar in Candace Parker, who was drafted first overall in 2008 and has kept the Sparks a perennial Playoff team since she entered the league.

The only thing missing is a new banner in Staples Center.

“I think we have always been aware of our championship caliber but we never really knew what to do with it, and I think this year we got a hold of it and we are running with it,” Ogwumike said. “We know what our expectations are, we know where we can see ourselves at the end of the season and we truly embody the championship culture that the Sparks have had.”

The translation is simple: an All-Star caliber player since she was drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in 2012, Ogwumike has vaulted herself into the MVP conversation in her fifth season.

The Sparks have 10 games remaining in the regular season and will have their sights firmly set on the No. 1 overall seed – they currently lead Minnesota by only a half-game for the top spot – and can also challenge for the record of most wins in league history, which is 29 set by Phoenix in 2014.

With Parker and Ogwumike both playing at an MVP level, and a host of veterans like Kristi Toliver, Essence Carson, Alana Beard and Jantel Lavender all making valuable contributions, it should come as no surprise that this team has championship aspirations.

“It’s just nice to be able to bring in all the pieces together and make something work so beautifully,” Ogwumike said. “I think that the level we are playing at is representative of the experience we have on our team and the skills that we have on our team, and obviously bringing in a new coaching atmosphere in coach Agler.”

With all sorts of history on the line in the season’s last month, Ogwumike’s focus remains undeterred.

“My motivation has as always been for my teammates and I to win a championship,” she said.

So, for Ogwumike, it’s not about continuing to make 70 percent of her shots, but rather doing what it takes to help the Sparks be the one team out of 12 that’s left standing when the season’s over.

She’ll take her chances.