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The Rise — And Rise! — Of Nneka Ogwumike

The WNBA is on a break for the Olympics, but when the league picks up play again next month, it will return to an exceptionally top-heavy ledger. The Minnesota Lynx, last year’s champs, rank second in the West with a scorching 21-4 record, and the New York Liberty lead the East at 18-8. No surprises there — the Lynx and Liberty were the WNBA’s two best teams for most of last season. But both have been outshone by a team that went 14-20 a year ago: the Los Angeles Sparks, owners of a ridiculous, Golden State Warriors-esque 21-3 mark.

The Sparks haven’t wanted for star power since Candace Parker arrived in 2008, but the team has struggled to capitalize on her greatness, topping out in the playoffs with a trio of conference final losses. That could change this year, however, thanks to an out-of-this-world breakout season by 26-year-old forward Nneka Ogwumike. Ogwumike has always been good, but she’s currently putting on one of the greatest single-season performances in WNBA history, and it has the Sparks finally playing like champions.

Ogwumike, who went to Stanford, went No. 1 overall in the 2012 draft, so she hasn’t emerged from obscurity. And during the first four years of her WNBA career, she built a reputation as a do-everything complement to Parker, garnering three all-star nods and a 2015 all-defensive team selection. But Ogwumike hadn’t really broken into the best-player-in-the-league conversation — she’s had barely any MVP traction in her career, and last season (while battling injuries), she dropped to ninth place in both player efficiency rating (PER) and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (WS/48).

This year, though, Ogwumike should be the first player mentioned in any MVP discussion. She leads the league — by miles and miles — in both PER and WS/48. And if we combine those two stats into one master “statistical plus/minus” (SPM) metric scaled like adjusted plus/minus,1 Ogwumike is having the second-best individual season in WNBA history, among players with a minimum of 400 minutes played:

PLAYER YEAR TEAM MINUTES PER WS/48 SPM*
Lauren Jackson 2006 SEA 848 34.9 .501 17.3
Nneka Ogwumike 2016 LAS 741 33.2 .479 16.3
Lauren Jackson 2007 SEA 1020 35.0 .447 15.0
Cynthia Cooper 1997 HOU 982 32.2 .459 14.8
Cynthia Cooper 1998 HOU 1051 31.1 .457 13.6
Elena Delle Donne 2015 CHI 1032 32.7 .405 13.0
Lauren Jackson 2003 SEA 1109 32.1 .398 12.9
Sheryl Swoopes 2000 HOU 1090 32.0 .434 12.8
Yolanda Griffith 1999 SAC 979 31.9 .397 12.6
Tamika Catchings 2007 IND 678 29.4 .389 12.1
The top WNBA seasons of all time, by statistical plus/minus

*Based on a combo of player efficiency rating and Win Shares Per 48 Minutes

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

We’re only about 70 percent of the way through the schedule, so Ogwumike’s pace could drop off a bit in the Sparks’ last 10 games more on why that might happen later. For now, though, she is playing at a level few have achieved in league history. (That, incidentally, makes her absence from the U.S. Olympic team in Rio even more glaring.)

Looking at the list above, most of its players already had an existing portfolio of great years. But Ogwumike’s never done anything quite like this before, which is why her 2016 also stands out as the greatest single-season improvement in WNBA history among players with at least 400 minutes in back-to-back years:

STATISTICAL +/-
PLAYER YEAR TEAM PREVIOUS SEASON CURRENT SEASON CHANGE
Nneka Ogwumike 2016 LAS 5.3 16.3 +11.0
Tamicha Jackson 2002 POR -8.7 1.6 +10.3
Tina Thompson 2006 HOU -4.2 6.0 +10.2
Kedra Holland-Corn 2003 DET -5.9 3.8 +9.7
Sylvia Fowles 2010 CHI -0.2 8.9 +9.2
Skylar Diggins 2014 TUL -6.6 2.3 +9.0
DeMya Walker 2005 SAC -3.6 5.2 +8.8
Lady Grooms 1998 SAC -9.5 -0.8 +8.7
Chamique Holdsclaw 2002 WAS 2.1 10.4 +8.4
Jia Perkins 2007 CHI -3.8 4.6 +8.4
Biggest single-season improvements in WNBA history

Min. 400 minutes in each season.

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

If you set up a projection for each WNBA player using a simple method that looks at her previous three seasons and regresses to the mean, Ogwumike would have figured to produce a +6.2 SPM this year — good, but hardly the best in the league. Based on the historical accuracy of similar projections, the odds of a projected +6.2 SPM player actually having a +16.3 season were about 1-in-2,000. Ogwumike’s leap from merely good to now otherworldly ranks among the most unlikely upgrades in all of basketball history.2

How did she do it? Statistically, Ogwumike improved her key indicators across the board:

paine-ogwumike-1

Of particular note, Ogwumike has become one of the league’s top rebounders and defenders, while also increasing her offensive responsibilities as a scorer and playmaker — and she’s done it all despite being moved into more of an off-ball role this season. Ogwumike still ranks as one of the top post scorers in the game, but, according to Synergy Sports, her rates of post-up plays, rolls after ball-screens and spot-up jumpers have dipped, in favor of cuts without the ball and a license to crash the offensive glass with abandon (she ranks fifth in the WNBA in offensive rebounding rate this season).

And her shooting efficiency has been outrageous. In one June outing, Ogwumike shot the ball 20 times (12 field goals and 8 free throws) and didn’t miss once. Her true shooting percentage this season is 76.9 percent, by far the best single-season mark in WNBA history. The difference between Ogwumike and No. 2 (70 percent, recorded by Candice Dupree in 2010) is the same as the difference between Dupree and No. 27 on the list.3 She’ll probably come back down to earth a bit before the season ends — she’s currently hitting 71 percent of her 2-pointers and 69 percent of her threes (granted, on 13 attempts) — but Ogwumike’s shooting touch has been the cherry on top of a magical all-around statistical season.


Listen to our sports podcast, Hot Takedown, discuss Nneka Ogwumike’s incredible season.

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“She is laser-focused. Very focused on her job at hand and her team is very unselfish in the sense that they always find the open man,” Ogwumike’s sister (and fellow WNBA player) Chiney Ogwumike told the Norwich Bulletin earlier this month. “Since she moves a lot and is a hard worker, she tends to be the one who is open. I think the Sparks have figured it out. You pass up good shots for great shots and for a long time, (Nneka) has taken a back seat with regard to conversations of dominant players in the WNBA. Finally, people are starting to hear her out loud because of the stats.”

In fact, her sudden greatness has enabled L.A. to shift toward a more dynamic brand of basketball. The Sparks were already one of the league’s top passing teams a year ago (by assists per field goal), but this year’s version is leading the league with an even higher rate of helpers per bucket. They’ve also eschewed pick-and-rolls, post-ups and isolations for quick off-ball cuts and more action in transition. So far, these changes have yielded the most efficient offense in WNBA history per 100 possessions, with Nneka Ogwumike at the center of everything.

Of course, the Sparks still have to prove they can advance deep into the playoffs — the team had the West’s second-best record in each of Ogwumike’s first two professional seasons and could not break through to the Finals. But L.A. currently has the WNBA’s best efficiency differential since the Houston Comets of Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes. It’s a testament to Ogwumike making the rarest of basketball transformations, from a solid second banana to an all-time great.

Footnotes

  1. For this, I simply regressed PER and WS/48 against regularized plus/minus for the NBA — as the best available proxy for the WNBA, for which we wish better data existed — and then adjusted each player’s statistical plus/minus until the team’s rating matched the sum of its players’ ratings.

  2. Even on the men’s side, no NBA player has ever improved in SPM so much between seasons as Ogwumike.

  3. That’s one argument that Ogwumike’s percentile chart above understates her improvement — she was already reasonably near the top of the league in a few categories, but this year she has blown those numbers away, which you can’t really tell when the best in the league is capped at the 100th percentile no matter the underlying number.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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