Sparks’ Nneka Ogwumike a WNBA All-Star starter for 8th time

Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike a WNBA All-Star starter for 8th time

Putting up numbers that rival her 2016 most valuable player season, Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike was selected to start in the WNBA All-Star Game for the second consecutive season on Sunday.

The 12-year veteran is slated for her eighth All-Star Game, which will take place on July 15 in Las Vegas’ Michelob ULTRA Arena. Ogwumike was one of six frontcourt starters revealed Sunday, a group led by top vote-getters A’ja Wilson of the Las Vegas Aces and Breanna Stewart of the New York Liberty. Phoenix center Brittney Griner and Dallas forward Satou Sabally were also named starters while Indiana center Aliyah Boston became the first rookie to earn starting honors since 2014.

The backcourt starters are Las Vegas’ Chelsea Gray and Jackie Young, Seattle’s Jewell Loyd and Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale. The reserves will be chosen by the league’s head coaches, who will choose three guards, five frontcourt players and four at either position. The reserves will be announced on July 1.

Ogwumike’s 19.7 points per game matches her output from her MVP season, when she helped the Sparks to the WNBA championship, and her 9.5 rebounds are on track for a career high, surpassing her 2016 mark of 9.1. She is shooting 51.2% from the field, ranking ninth in the league, and has six double-doubles in 12 appearances with the Sparks (6-7) in early playoff position.

Ogwumike followed one of her worst seasons with two of her best, earning starting All-Star honors in consecutive years after suffering a knee injury in 2021. The injury limited her to a career-low 18 games and contributed to her controversial snub on the U.S. Olympic team for the Tokyo Olympics. Ogwumike called the knee sprain a “pivotal moment.”

“These things happen and they can happen at any point in time,” Ogwumike said of injuries. “That taught me about different ways to give myself grace throughout the process.”

The 32-year-old Stanford graduate now dedicates more time to proactively taking care of her body before and after games. She adjusts her routines to meet her daily goals depending how she feels and sticks to a strict regimen of daily vitamins and exercises to maintain a strong foundation.

Following the free-agent departures of former co-stars Gray and Candace Parker in 2020, Ogwumike has grown into the focal point of the franchise. Defenses hound the 6-foot-2 forward in the paint so aggressively that it sometimes reminds head coach Curt Miller of “watching a kids soccer game.” Miller, who was an assistant for the Sparks in 2015 when Ogwumike earned her third All-Star honor, marveled at Ogwumike’s ability to shoulder the larger load.

“She is truly the leader right now of this franchise,” Miller said. “That is a huge difference and a big ask of her. She carries that both on and off the court. With that said, she’ll be the first to tell you, she may not be the athlete that she was in ’15, but you learn and you’re smarter and you’re more efficient with your movements, you’re more efficient with your prep, you have routines off the court. You’ve just matured. … The game has slowed down for them and they just really understand how to navigate it and Nneka’s in that part of her career.”

The game in Las Vegas will cut into Ogwumike’s precious rest time, but she’s looking forward to the annual event that shows the league’s growth in fan and player engagement. She is excited for former Sparks teammate Kristine Anigwe’s fashion show as the current Chicago Sky forward is also Ogwumike’s personal stylist.

On the court, Ogwumike is relishing the opportunity to play with different teammates, especially Boston, whom Ogwumike met at the WNBA draft in April. The veteran forward said watching Boston, who less than three months ago was playing in the NCAA tournament with South Carolina, is like “witnessing the future of the league.”

“I always enjoy coming to All-Star games and seeing first-time All Stars,” Ogwumike added, “because it’s amazing to watch people’s dreams come true.”