Without playing basketball for five months, Nneka Ogwumike is already the real MVP of the 2020 WNBA season.
“I think she’s arguably the most valuable person, player, president in the entire league at this point,” said LA Sparks Head Coach Derek Fisher. “But the great thing about Nneka is she’s not looking for credit, not looking to be celebrated.”
Ogwumike’s accolades and reputation as a big-time player precedes her. She won the WNBA’s MVP award in 2016 and is a six-time WNBA All-Star. Most notably, she’s a 2016 WNBA Champion. In fact, the 6’2 star drained the shot that won the Los Angeles Sparks their most recent WNBA title. Ogwumike is a dynamic leader on and off the court. She serves as the team’s captain and de-facto big sister for younger teammates.
As the President of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, she helped lead recent union negotiations, which culminated in a groundbreaking collective bargaining agreement between the WNBA and the WNBPA. Amongst several landmarks, the new CBA increased player salaries, compensation and benefits like paid maternity leave across the league.
However, when the WNBA postponed the beginning of their 2020 season due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Ogwumike was again thrust back to the negotiating table.
Many questioned whether the WNBA would have a 2020 season. For the 30-year-old Ogwumike, health and safety were paramount. So much so that even she had questions before deciding to enter the WNBA’s Bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, affectionately now referred to as the Wubble.
“I think people assume because I’m the President that I am automatically gung ho for everything, which is not the case,” said LA Sparks Forward Nneka Ogwumike. “Assessing my own priorities, health was a big one, not just COVID but the circumstances of not playing for five months and then entering high performance rigor quite quickly.”
“A non-negotiable for me was speaking out as a player in this world that we experience so much racism and social injustice,” Ogwumike explained.
The WNBA and WNBPA recently announced the launch of a new platform, The Justice Movement and the creation of the WNBA/WNBPA Social Justice Council. The league said it will begin the season centered around the Black Lives Matter movement. Players will wear special uniforms to seek justice for the women and girls, including Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor, Vanessa Guillen and many more who have been the forgotten victims of police brutality and racial violence. Players will also wear warm-up shirts that display “Black Lives Matter” on the front and “Say Her Name” on the back of the shirts. “Black Lives Matter” will also be prominently displayed on courts during games.
However, Ogwumike cannot just worry about herself and her Sparks teammates.
In her role as union president, she’s concerned about players testing positive for coronavirus. She has also made herself accessible to players and staff members on the league’s other 11 teams, fielding early concerns about food, lodging, amenities and quality of life inside the Wubble.
“I’m still learning how to balance it… It’s been quite challenging,” Ogwumike revealed.
Even inside the Wubble’s 22-game regular season, which has been shortened from 36 games, Ogwumike is extremely proud that women in the WNBA will be paid 100% of their salaries.
“Across the league, and really in a lot of ways across the sports landscape, the leadership position that she holds as president of the players association and the work that she’s had to put in to help us all get here is remarkable,” said Fisher.
“Having had those experiences myself as president of the (NBA) players association, it’s not easy to do both, to be a great player and be a great president but she’s doing it and she’s shown up with still that attitude of determination and grit and mental toughness that she always exhibits,” Fisher added.
Ogwumike is also one of the most approachable veteran players, new Sparks like Reshanda Gray can count on to help her get better each and every day.
“Playing against Nneka, I already knew she was a great player,” Reshanda Gray said. “But to get to play alongside her and just watch her and just learn from her, it’s an even greater experience.”
During the 2019 Season, Nneka Ogwumike was an MVP-caliber player. She averaged 16.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.9 steals per game. Ultimately, she was selected to the 2019 All-WNBA Second Team and the 2019 All-Defensive First Team. In advanced statistics that assess a player’s efficiency on the court, Ogwumike was 1st overall in Defensive Rating, 6th in Offensive Win Shares, 3rd in Defensive Win Shares and 4th in the WNBA in Player Efficiency Rating.
Meanwhile, Fisher believes Ogwumike can handle her heavy workload. However, he said it will be incumbent on the Sparks organization to monitor and support Ogwumike’s well being, for the sake of the entire WNBA.
“We have a job to do to help [Nneka] balance all of the things that she does need to manage and carry. So we have to watch her energy levels and not have her wearing too many hats over this season, because we know how important she is to everyone,” Fisher said.
As a player that has grown accustomed to annual ALL-WNBA postseason accolades, Ogwumike will be grateful for everything she earns in 2020.
“For me to walk away with anything, most importantly a championship, it’s going to be extremely well-earned. This is going to be a season that no one will ever forget so that’s the goal and that’s why we’re here,” Ogwumike concluded.