WNBA forward Nneka Ogwumike said that although she will miss playing with Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray, she's excited about her future with the Los Angeles Sparks. Ogwumike has signed a multiyear deal to remain with the team, a deal that became official Tuesday, and spoke about her hopes for the future of the franchise.
"It's not about staying here simply out of comfort because it's what I'm used to," Ogwumike, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft by the Sparks, told ESPN. "I want to contribute to the forward movement of the franchise. When I feel good about something, I just know, and that's kind of what I'm rolling with."
Ogwumike had played her entire Sparks career with Parker, the 2008 No. 1 pick, and they won a championship together in 2016. But Parker left last month as a free agent, as did Gray, another Sparks starter who was also on that 2016 team. Those moves didn't deter Ogwumike from committing to stay in Los Angeles.
Parker went to Chicago and Gray to Las Vegas. Ogwumike said she understood they did what was best for them.
"I've really just been leaning in on supporting people and the choices that they make," Ogwumike said. "I'm very comfortable with being in my position now with the Sparks."
As president of the players' executive committee, Ogwumike has played a leading role with the union and the negotiation of the most recent collective bargaining agreement in January 2020. That prompted more free-agency movement the past two offseasons than the league had ever had before.
"It's really great to see the conversation and energy around the WNBA, and the movement that we're seeing," she said. "It's exciting to see players taking their careers into their own hands. To see teams building and restructuring. It's important for us to really celebrate that. I think it's trending in the direction we want to see the league go."
In Ogwumike's case, the Sparks gave her the core player designation, which technically meant she wasn't able to negotiate with other teams. But players with the core designation can try to force their way out via trade, which is what happened with Natasha Howard and Seattle this year; Howard is now in New York.
Ogwumike wanted to at least talk to some other teams to experience what the free-agency process was like. Sparks coach and general manager Derek Fisher didn't object, saying he felt that giving Ogwumike that freedom actually would strengthen her relationship with the Sparks.
"We didn't want to view the core designation as something that would penalize a player of Nneka's caliber," Fisher said. "I think our relationship of being really transparent and communicating with each other has been building over the last two seasons of working together."
The Sparks finished 15-7 last season and lost in the second round of the playoffs. Ogwumike didn't appear in the playoff game because of a migraine headache. The stress of last season in the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, took a toll on Ogwumike.
"I look at last year as something I needed to go through but hopefully don't have to process again," she said. "Because it was a lot. But I'm so grateful for the experience, especially with what we were able to achieve as a league. We got to compete in a year where we didn't know what was going to happen for any of us.
"And I have a new perspective on things going forward; I don't know who I would be right now without last year. On the other side of it, this version of me is someone I hope can keep elevating the Sparks."
Ogwumike will be joined in Los Angeles by her sister, fellow forward Chiney Ogwumike, who competed with the Sparks in 2019. The team agreed to a multiyear deal with Chiney last week. Among the other moves the Sparks have made were the signings of free agents Amanda Zahui B., Bria Holmes and Erica Wheeler.
"Playing alongside Chiney is easy; it always has been," Nneka said of her younger sister, who was the 2014 No. 1 WNBA draft pick. "And Chiney has always stepped up to the challenge. I just want to be able to support her any way I can."
Having both sisters to anchor the Sparks pleases Fisher, too.
"Nneka is one of the most accomplished and efficient players, and a former MVP," Fisher said. "She and Chiney represent greatness on the court, but who they are as people is even more important in terms of what we're trying to build in this new era of Sparks basketball."
Nneka Ogwumike 'very comfortable' in her role with Los Angeles Sparks