Sparks expected to take Nnemkadi Ogwumike with first draft pick

When Sparks General Manager Penny Toler learned last fall her team had landed the top overall pick in Monday’s WNBA draft, she jumped and laughed.

“I was real surprised,” said Toler, whose team had a sparse 104 chances out of 1,000 to receive the first overall selection, the fewest of any of the four teams in the lottery mix.

It was much-needed good fortune for a team that has recently teetered toward the unlucky.

Superstar Candace Parker has missed more than half of the Sparks’ games over the last two seasons because of injury, playing in 27 of 68 regular-season games. Without Parker, the team has struggled, finishing last season with a record of 15-19 and missing the playoffs for the fourth time in the franchise’s 15-year history.

Toler hopes getting the first draft pick will help turn things around.

The Sparks are expected to select Nnemkadi Ogwumike, a 6-foot-2 forward from Stanford who led her team this season to a No. 1 regional seeding and a fourth straight Final Four appearance while averaging 22.5 points and 10.2 rebounds.

“The kid is awesome,” Toler said of Ogwumike. “She has great leadership skills, she works hard, she has all the intangibles.”

Ogwumike would give the Sparks depth down low, adding strength to a rotation that will include Parker, DeLisha Milton-Jones, Jantel Lavender and Nicky Anosike.

“You know, assuming that that happens and I end up in L.A., I think I’m looking forward to playing with a lot of experienced posts,” Ogwumike said during a conference call last week. “I think it will be a learning process. I can still elevate my game at this point.”

For Ogwumike, the days leading up to the draft have been a bit surreal. To help assuage her nerves, she said she has turned to shopping.

Only a short while ago, what’s predicted to happen in Monday’s draft seemed like nothing more than a distant fantasy.

“As a freshman, I never really thought that I would be in this type of position,” she said.