The latest free agent signing for the Los Angeles Sparks is also the biggest. Forward Nneka Ogwumike, the 2016 league MVP who has spent her 11-year WNBA career with the Sparks since being drafted No. 1 in 2012, has officially re-signed with the team.
Terms were not announced by the Sparks, but a source confirmed that Ogwumike, 32, has a one-year deal for $165,000. It's considerably less than the supermax of $234,936, but it was something Ogwumike was willing to do to help the Sparks juggle salary cap issues.
They currently have two pregnant players on the roster in forwards Dearica Hamby and Katie Lou Samuelson. Hamby, due in March, is expected to play in 2023, while Samuelson, due in August, is not. Los Angeles also recently lost free agent signee Stephanie Talbot for the season because of a knee injury suffered while playing overseas.
Ogwumike's signing wasn't a surprise, as she previously spoke of her intent to return. But the timing was strategic, as she has worked with Sparks general manager Karen Bryant, assistant GM Eli Horowitz and coach Curt Miller on a new direction for the Sparks, plus maintained flexibility because of the salary cap.
Ogwumike, a five-time All-WNBA first- or second-team player and five-time All-Defensive player, has averaged 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds in her WNBA career.
"I feel like I'm reaching a pivotal point my career and understanding what I want it to mean," Ogwumike told ESPN. "I'm excited to see a lot of the enhancements that we're making. I'm grateful to be surrounded by both players, coaches and staff that have a greater vision for the organization.
"I feel really good with where I'm at and how I'm progressing as an athlete. I want to be able to win and do that with some great people. I really do believe in this organization."
The Sparks, an original WNBA franchise going back to the league's launch in 1997, have won three championships, most recently in 2016. But the team has gone 12-20 and 13-23 the last two seasons, missing the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time since 1997-1998.
Coach/GM Derek Fisher was fired this past June, center Liz Cambage -- who had been signed earlier that year as a free agent -- left the team in July and the Sparks finished the season under interim coach Fred Williams.
Miller, who spent the past seven years as the Connecticut Sun's head coach and took them to the WNBA Finals in 2019 and 2022, moved to the Sparks this past October. Bryant, a longtime former Seattle Storm executive, joined the Sparks as a strategic advisor in 2021 and became chief administrative officer and GM in January.
Both said Ogwumike's input was essential in making offseason moves.
"She's had a front-row seat in the franchise for many years, and has seen the things that have worked and things that have not been as successful," Bryant said. "Her global view, playing experience and credibility were hugely valuable to us."
Miller said that Ogwumike's presence with the Sparks was a big reason he joined the franchise. He previously worked with her as an assistant coach in Los Angeles in 2015.
"The conversations with Nneka and the collaborations we had -- we wanted to do this with players who really want to be with the Sparks," Miller said. "This is a fun, new era and Nneka is the centerpiece of what we're going to try to do. Her communication throughout this whole free agency has been an incredible partnership.
"And she's an outstanding, versatile player. She probably doesn't get the credit she deserves for how versatile she has been."
In January, the Sparks obtained veteran guard Jasmine Thomas and the No. 10 pick in the upcoming WNBA draft in a trade with Connecticut. They also made a trade with the Las Vegas Aces for Hamby and a 2024 first-round pick. Hamby was part of the Aces championship squad last year.
The Sparks signed free agents Azurá Stevens, Talbot and Chiney Ogwumike, Nneka's sister. The Sparks subsequently signed guard Yang Liwei from China on a rookie scale deal after Talbot's injury. Jordin Canada, Reshanda Gray and Karlie Samuelson, Katie Lou's sister, have signed training camp contracts.
Chiney Ogwumike previously played for Miller in Connecticut. The Ogwumike sisters played two seasons together for the Stanford Cardinal, and both have been with the Sparks since 2019.
"We're really two entities that are stronger together," Nneka said. "It's always something to be celebrated. And I really want to take that to another level in winning with my sister."
Nneka Ogwumike has been not just a pivotal figure for the Sparks, but also for the WNBA as president of the players' union executive committee. She was part of the negotiations on the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, which launched much more active free agency periods the past three years.
This year's free agent moves such as Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot going to the New York Liberty and Candace Parker to the Aces have ushered in discussion of the latest era of WNBA superteams. Ogwumike said she approached free agency differently: Rather than look at where else she could go, she focused on helping the Sparks return to being a destination team.
"It's really been a breath of fresh air, a revelation in a lot of ways," she said of the organizational changes. "I consider myself a student of many things and love surrounding myself with people that challenge me and commit to critically thinking and strategizing.
"I almost feel like a part of me has been lying dormant for a while, and now I'm reawakening that visionary part of me."