The Sparks are on a three-game losing streak when they head east to face the New York Liberty in a head-to-head. This will be the final road trip of the regular season and those four games will have a huge impact on the Los Angeles playoffs. As the Sparks drop games and Stars leave the team, one player will play a key role in deciding how this regular season ends, and her name is Chiney Ogwumike.
With the departure of Liz Cambage, Chiney is in the starting XI and gets a bigger role. During games without Cambage, Chiney has seen her minutes go from an average of 19 per game to 26:43. Their overall performance has also increased, averaging 8.25 points, 1.75 assists, and 8 rebounds per game, above their season averages of 7.3 points, 1.1 assists, and 5.6 rebounds, respectively.
The Sparks lost much production with Cambage’s exit; So late in the season, the team can’t take any significant steps to improve.
“I can’t find a magic player right now that comes in and does some things,” interim head coach Fred Williams said on Sunday. “So you must run with the troops we have.”
Of the troops they have, it must be Chiney stepping up and producing more. Nneka is already playing a team high at 31.8 minutes and the other two greats (Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Jasmine Walker) are too young and inexperienced to play at a high level in August. Chiney needs to step up and get closer to her 2014 season when she averaged 15.5 points and 8.5 rebounds in 29.7 minutes of play.
She’s certainly capable of it, without Cambage; She averages 8 boards per game and had a 13 rebound game against Chicago. Rebounding is one aspect the Sparks have been abysmal all season; As a team, they’re last to rebound. If Chiney’s increase in minutes means more boards for the team, that’s a step in the right direction.
One aspect that is already likable is the chemistry between Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike. The sisters have been playing together for ages, and it shows whether they’re communicating defensively on switches, picking and rolling action on the wings, or putting up elbows on opposite ends; The chemistry they have takes years to develop. And with less than two weeks left in the season, the Sparks are fortunate to have a change in the starting XI where the chemistry between the recent signing and their MVP candidate couldn’t be better.
From a scoring perspective, bringing Chiney up to her 2014 production will be a challenge. With her 48 percent shooting from the field, she’ll likely need about 13 shot attempts to reach that number. That’s a lot of steam with a dominant size like Nneka and guards who shoot a lot like Katie Lou Samuelson. Fred needs to do more plays for Chiney to give her that look, and Chiney will likely need to shoot a little over 50 percent to get those numbers.
The color is incredible. In the four games she played without Cambage, Chiney went 10-to-17 in the paint. She was much less effective off color, going 3-for-10. Chiney needs to hit the outside of the paintshots better. It’s hard to give her any more insight into the interior since Nenka also takes up space in the paint. If Williams stops pushing her minutes, her best shot at scoring more points is by hitting more of those midrange jumpers and threes.
Being key to the Sparks season comes with a lot of pressure, but if anyone is ready for it, it’s Chiney.
“It’s been a tough three years, it really has been,” Chiney said. “And it kind of compelled you to be a pro. And at the beginning of the season I thought I wanted to play as many games as possible. That was my ultimate goal. I didn’t care what happened. I just thought if I’m available for my team I’ve won the season. And that’s why I feel like I’ve already won just for being there.
So far it has achieved these goals. She has already played 24 games and, barring injuries, will finish 31 games and start 13. Either way, Chiney has had a good season, but if the Sparks are to play past the 36 regular-season games, they need Chiney Ogwumike to be their best. The team’s next game is Tuesday at 4 p.m. PT against the New York Liberty.