No matter how you look at it, Nneka Ogwumike is the right pick for MVP

ByMechelle Voepel ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 28, 2016

There was a moment earlier this season when there was a bit of a strange sound in Nneka Ogwumike's voice when she was asked about the difficulty of facing defending champion Minnesota.

Was that a little edge we heard from Ogwumike? She of the perpetually cheerful disposition and easy, bubbling laugh? Yeah, it sounded that way.

She wasn't growling or anything like that. But she basically said she was pretty sure the Lynx were focusing on the Lynx, not the Sparks. Thus, the Sparks needed to do the same thing: focus on themselves.

Maybe you could call it part of the competitive evolution of Ogwumike, who accomplished a career milestone by being named the WNBA's MVP on Tuesday. She has always been a selfless player, going back to her great career at Stanford, the kind of player who was just concerned with what was best for her team.

She has maintained that attitude through her five years as a professional, including some challenging times with the Sparks. Los Angeles has made the playoffs every year since drafting Ogwumike at No. 1 in 2012. But the Sparks have won just one postseason series, 2-0 over San Antonio in her rookie year.

Ogwumike has played for three WNBA coaches, if you count executive vice president/general manager Penny Toler's 12-game stint as coach after Carol Ross was fired in July 2014.

Ogwumike has had to play out of position at times, especially last year, filling in the gaps depending on the Sparks' personnel. She has learned to guard players at different positions, using speed, quickness, leaping ability and those "Stanford smarts" to try to stop guards, forwards and centers.

At 6-foot-2, Ogwumike is what some coaches admiringly call "bouncy." I've compared her to Tigger before, and it seems apt. But there is also an explosiveness to her that seems more refined and effective this year than ever before. Which is saying something, because she has been a very good player from the first time she stepped on a WNBA court.

And then, of course, there's the "making a ton of shots" thing. That reached a new level for Ogwumike this season.

Her field goal percentage in her first four seasons: 53.5, 56.6, 52.0, and 52.5. All very respectable, as her scoring average climbed from 14.0 PPG her rookie season to 16.5 last year.

This season, she's shooting a ridiculous 66.5 percent from the field (244-of-367). Her efficiency as a scorer leads the WNBA. It's at a historical level, and it was a key factor in her winning the MVP award. She also averaged career highs in scoring (19.7), rebounding (9.1), assists (3.1) and blocked shots (1.2).

Statistically, Ogwumike's numbers made a very compelling case for MVP. But you can also point to things like the praise-filled note Los Angeles coach Brian Agler sent out to media members urging them to strongly consider Ogwumike because of everything she does, even when it's hard to measure statistically.

Sometimes on teams, the "glue" player is someone who's never going to be an MVP or win any other league honor. But she's the best at keeping everyone light when that's needed, making sure there are no gaps in communication between the players or coaches, and generally taking responsibility even for things that aren't her fault.

Ogwumike has always done that, and then add to it just that little bit of edge that seemed noticeable -- barely, but there -- this season. It has nothing to do with arrogance or irritation; it's about honing a kind of fierce competitiveness that Ogwumike knows the Sparks will need to make a title run.

Ogwumike is someone that all the Sparks know they can count on. Her impressive stats were the hard data needed to earn the MVP honor. But the winning personality she brings to the Sparks just adds a layer of evidence that this was an honor she definitely earned.

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