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Nneka Ogwumike likes being in driver’s seat as revamped Sparks steer to future

Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike advances the ball.
Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike advances the ball against the Chicago Sky on Aug. 16, 2019 in Chicago.
(Charles Rex Arbogast / Associated Press)

Nneka Ogwumike has called Los Angeles home her entire pro career so she is happy to be staying in the city for a 10th season — one she hopes culminates in a second WNBA championship.

“I feel great!,” Ogwumike said in a news conference Wednesday, one day after the Sparks announced the 30-year-old forward had re-signed with the team, although no contract details were released. “I’ve been working out, I don’t want to say heavily, but intensely this offseason. Everybody needed rest after last year and I’ve taken full advantage of that. I’ve been working with a strength coach I’ve had since college and she keeps me on my toes.”

With the departure of stars Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray, Ogwumike has been given the keys to the car and the six-time All-Star embraces the role as the face of the franchise.

“I don’t think leading is a heavy burden at all,” Ogwumike said. “I try to do it by example. As far as being handed the keys there were times I’ve felt like the designated driver so I’m very familiar with being behind the wheel, but I’m now officially the longest person that’s been on the Sparks. That holds a lot of history, a lot of legacy, a lot of growth. All I want to do now is contribute to the championship culture we’re looking to cultivate. I love driving!”

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In January, the Sparks designated Ogwumike as their core player, meaning the organization maintains exclusive negotiating rights, but she was able to meet with other teams.

“Both sides came from the perspective of this is free agency and this is what it’s all about,” she said. “I guess you could say we met in the middle. I really wanted to honor the process and I wasn’t necessarily encouraged, but I was supported through that because we have a coach who gets what free agency is about. It’s something he’s very familiar with. I took into consideration my options but I was transparent. That’s how I wanted to approach it and I’m happy that I did.”

Nneka Ogwumike, the WNBA most valuable player when she led the Sparks to the 2016 championship, has re-signed with the team.

Ogwumike, who has served as president of the WNBA players association since 2016, is excited to be joined by younger sister Chiney, who a little more than a week ago signed a multiyear deal to stay with the Sparks after opting out of the 2020 season.

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“I’m very excited … I have experience playing with Chiney for a long time,” she said. “She’s acrobatic in a lot of ways because she juggles so much. Being on the court and having fun, that’s when she’s playing her best. I look forward to milestones with my sister that maybe have never been done before. Loyalty to family brings the beast out of her and I’m looking forward to that.”

The Sparks have reunited with guard Kristi Toliver, who was part of the 2016 championship team in Los Angeles, and signed center Amanda Zahui B., coming off a career year for the New York Liberty highlighted by her career-high 37-point effort against the Sparks in 2019.

“To know you have someone like Amanda who dropped 40 on us now coming to your team, is exciting,” Ogwumike said. “I’m excited to play with her. There’s cohesiveness we hope to build and I have other partners in crime in the front court in Kristine [Anigwe] and Seimone [Augustus].

Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike gathers a pass.
Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike gathers a pass in front of Phoenix Mercury forward Brianna Turner during the first half on July 25, 2020, in Bradenton, Fla.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

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Asked if she talked about a change in her role with coach Derek Fisher (who played on five NBA championship teams in two stints with the Lakers), Ogwumike confessed she has not.

“We haven’t really discussed that,” she said. “There are huge shoes to be filled, but I’m so much a team player. I want to be as impactful as I can. Fish hasn’t wavered from what he’s brought to this team. I can see what he’s trying to do with focusing on what we have. I lean heavily on his five rings as I hope everyone does. He has knowledge to understand what it takes for an entire group to work as a machine. I hope to get as many rings as he has.”

Chiney Ogwumike is returning to the Sparks this season to restart her basketball career, which has allowed her to expand her horizons and help others.

The Sparks are not projected to make the playoffs in 2020-21 but Ogwumike is not focused on what others say, only on what she can control.

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“This has been the most competitive league we’ve seen, so no games will be easy,” she predicted. “I don’t focus on projections or who we don’t have. It’s more about who we do have and being able to create the style Fish wants us to play.”

Since being drafted No. 1 overall by the Sparks in 2012, Ogwumike has started all 267 regular-season games she has played with Los Angeles. She averaged 13.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists last season, scoring 10 or more points in 14 of 18 games while becoming the 24th player in league history to reach 2,000 rebounds.

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