Entering the 2019 season, one of the more interesting questions for the Los Angeles Sparks was how they would manage their abundant frontcourt depth. Between Candace Parker, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike, Maria Vadeeva, and Kalani Brown, there were five players worthy of regular minutes at the four and five spots.
Unfortunately for the Sparks, injuries, national team commitments, and one ill-timed Space Jam 2 shoot have prevented them from exercising the full might of their frontcourt at any point this season.
With Vadeeva returning from EuroBasket, this week was supposed to be the first time that head coach Derek Fisher would have his full complement on five frontcourt players at his disposal. Instead Parker suffered a right ankle injury in the first quarter of Tuesday’s loss to the Dallas Wings, and Vadeeva is out indefinitely with a knee injury sustained while playing for Russia, per Sparks PR.
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Now, Los Angeles is back to two Ogwumikes and Brown, the team’s first-round draft pick, which was good enough for a 90-84 win over Indiana Friday. Nneka Ogwumike led the way with 22 points and 6 rebounds, while Chiney Ogwumike added 19 points and 9 rebounds, well above her season averages of 11 points and 7 boards.
That continued a pattern of the younger Ogwumike elevating her game as a starter, which happened earlier in the season during the six games the Sparks played without Vadeeva and Parker. The team went 4-2 with the Ogwumikes starting and Brown being the lone big off the bench. Four of those games were on the road, and L.A. was also missing Alana Beard at the time.
The key difference in those six games was Chiney Ogwumike. The younger Ogwumike has made it clear throughout the season that she is willing to do whatever it takes to be a part of a winning culture with the Sparks, but there’s no denying that she has been more effective within the starting lineup.
Ogwumike has shown an ability to shoulder a greater minutes load when backup options aren’t available. She averaged 29.6 minutes when starting next to her sister versus 22.8 in the other contests.
The most striking difference comes in her scoring. Chiney Ogwumike scores 17.3 points per game as the starter with Nneka, but has only averaged 6.1 points in the other eight games this season. In the games without Parker and Vadeeva, Ogwumike has a net rating of plus-3.2. That drops to minus-0.8 for the whole season. Her offensive rating during that stretch was 101.4 points per 100 possessions compared to 95.1 for the season.
Kalani Brown has been essentially the same player throughout the season, and though Nneka Ogwumike plays more minutes when she needs to, her per-game averages inch up only slightly. The key to the Sparks surviving without Parker and Vadeeva is Chiney Ogwumike’s offensive production.
That was the case again against the Fever. Ogwumike had 7 of the team’s 13 offensive rebounds and was plus-22 as the Los Angeles starters pummeled their Indiana counterparts.
Ogwumike spoke about how she was rising to the challenge on the offensive end on June 15, after the last Los Angeles played without Parker during her first injury absence.
“I know how hard Chelsea’s been working. I know how hard TRP’s been working, I know hard Nneka’s been working. And I just wanted to be aggressive,” Ogwumike said. “Because for our team, Chels does a lot, run the offense and score and be clutch. Right, Chels does a lot, TRP’s getting the toughest defensive matchup on the perimeter, Nneka’s getting the toughest defensive matchup in the center position, they’ve done a lot.
“So for me, it’s like, I need to do my part, and take some pressure off of them and just go hard, right? So that they don’t feel like they always have to, they have someone that can have their back and make things easier for them. So that’s just my mentality, going as hard as I can so that these amazing women that are doing their jobs can continue to operate.”
The Sparks debuted another new starting lineup in Friday’s win, with Chelsea Gray, Riquna Williams, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, and the two Ogwumikes. The lineup had been minus-23 in 35 minutes entering the game, per PBP Stats, but as starters, they outscored the Fever by 21. Nevertheless, the bench did concede a 19-0 run to end the game, so Fisher might consider more staggering going forward, particularly because Alexis Jones remains out with a knee injury.
This victory demonstrated that the Sparks have the ability to weather the storm of this recent injury bug. That’s the beauty of having a 2018 All-Star in Chiney Ogwumike coming off the bench.
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