Nneka Ogwumike is 'glue' for Los Angeles Sparks

Nneka Ogwumike is averaging 16.0 points and 8.0 rebounds this season, including 25 points and 15 rebounds Saturday at Madison Square Garden. Shane Bevel/NBAE/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES -- Nneka Ogwumike is not on summer vacation. Even if it sometimes seems a little like that to her.

"I guess when I come from overseas, it feels less like a job," the Los Angeles Sparks forward said of her WNBA season. "It's enjoyable, and I look forward to it. It's the highlight of my year."

Ogwumike's other job is in Russia, where she plays for Dynamo Kursk. The switch back home to the United States is understandably pleasant. Especially so now, with the Sparks off to a 3-0 start. They're one of two unbeaten teams (along with Minnesota) as they head into Tuesday's game at Chicago (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET).

But Ogwumike was just as upbeat in 2015 about her "summer job," even though the first several weeks of the Sparks' season then were anything but fun for her or the team.

A year ago right about this same time, we checked in with Ogwumike and she was very optimistic about the Sparks' potential, despite forward Candace Parker sitting out the first part of the season. But then Ogwumike suffered a sprained ankle in an exhibition game in late May. (The season started in June then, with no major international competition to have to fit in like this year with the Olympics.)

And very little went right for L.A. for nearly two months. Ogwumike missed the first four games as the Sparks lost their first seven. They finally "celebrated" their first win on July 2, Ogwumike's birthday. But the victories remained sparse until both Parker (who was resting) and guard Alana Beard (foot injury) returned in late July.

In August, Ogwumike was out six more games because of a concussion. Still, she finished the regular season averaging 16.5 points and 7.3 rebounds.

"I thought last year was sort of unfair to her, with all the injuries we had and with her missing 10 games," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "And then trying to play her at the 3 [spot] so much. Now, she'll defend out on the perimeter, but we're going to primarily keep her playing the 4 spot offensively."

L.A. ended up making the playoffs last season but had to face eventual champion Minnesota in the first round. So just as the 2014 season had been tumultuous with Sparks firing coach Carol Ross at the All-Star break, 2015 under Agler had plenty of challenges for L.A., too.

But 2016 -- yes, it's very early -- seems different. In tangible ways -- the Sparks didn't get their third victory last year until July 21 -- and in more intangible ones.

"I really feel like the chemistry has been established," Ogwumike said, even though she and other key players such as Jantel Lavender and Kristi Toliver were late arrivals just before the Sparks' opener. "That doesn't mean we're going to just automatically come in and play well on the court, but it means we get better in practice because we understand each other."

Admittedly, the Sparks haven't yet played their chief rivals, Minnesota and Phoenix, and won't until June 17-24. And they have two more games -- at Chicago and Connecticut -- on this road trip before going back to the Staples Center.

But they've dominated both Seattle (home) and Washington (road) by 30 points, and won 79-72 in overtime at New York.

In that game Saturday at Madison Square Garden, Ogwumike had 25 points and 15 rebounds. She's averaging 16.0 points and 8.0 rebounds in this, her fifth WNBA season.

Ogwumike will be 26 this July. The former No. 1 pick, selected by L.A. in 2012, sometimes can't quite believe she's now a "veteran" player.

"I guess maybe I am," she said, laughing. "It's funny how that happens. I'm still adding to my game. I don't tell people I developed a [3-point] shot, but that I've developed the confidence in it.

"Before I would think twice. But overseas, I shoot it without thinking at all. I want to be able to add that here -- obviously within reason."

She hit one Saturday against the Liberty and now is 2 of 3 on the season.

"Jantel is a really good perimeter shooter; she and Candace really stretch the defense," Agler said. "Nneka has worked on that part of her game. Her strength is getting things at the rim and finishing there. We'll try to keep her there. But I want her to keep expanding her game as well."

"She knows just one speed, and that's to go hard. She's not going to back down. She's infectious with our team, sort of the 'glue' person. She keeps things together; she's connects with everybody." Sparks coach Brian Agler on Nneka Ogwumike

Ogwumike, with career averages of 15.1 points and 7.4 rebounds, is one of the league's premier forwards, and she has plenty of international experience now, too. She played for the United States in the 2014 FIBA World Championship and was hoping -- like Parker -- to make this year's Olympic team. Neither did.

"It's kind of a beautiful problem to have: There are only 12 spots, and we have so many players for them," Ogwumike said of the Olympic squad. "It's still a dream of mine, so my eyes are on Tokyo [site of the 2020 Olympics]."

It's that optimistic attitude that is the immeasurable benefit that Ogwumike also brings to the Sparks.

"She's very competitive, smart, an extremely good athlete," Agler said. "And she knows just one speed, and that's to go hard. She's not going to back down. She's infectious with our team, sort of the 'glue' person. She keeps things together; she's connects with everybody. She's a great leader that way."