Nneka Ogwumike’s teammates have already left for greener pastures. She watched her former point guard Chelsea Gray lead the Las Vegas Aces to the best record in the WNBA this season. Candace Parker, whom Ogwumike viewed almost as an older sister on the Sparks, won a championship with the Chicago Sky immediately after leaving the struggling franchise that drafted her.
Yet with the Sparks heading into their second consecutive early offseason after Sunday’s dismal 116-88 finale against the Dallas Wings, Ogwumike didn’t hesitate when asked whether she wanted to return to L.A. next year.
“I would love to be back,” she said cheerfully.
After rolling her ankle midway through the fourth quarter of Thursday’s blowout loss to Connecticut that sealed the Sparks’ playoffless fate, Ogwumike missed Sunday’s season finale. The Sparks (13-23) now limp into the offseason with nine losses in their last 10 games and six important unrestricted free-agent decisions.
Ogwumike is the biggest name on the docket. Why, after the gradual decline of the franchise, a coaching change and a teammate quitting midseason, is Ogwumike confident in this organization’s future?
“I would describe this season as living in a house you didn’t build,” she said. “So next year we can build our house. I know the floor plan next year.”
The plan, Ogwumike hopes, includes a deeper bench. The 32-year-old forward was the Sparks’ only All-Star this season. She had her best scoring year since 2017 in averaging 18.1points and 6.6 rebounds per game but was one of just two players averaging double figures in scoring on the team’s roster at the end of the season. Brittney Sykes, who had a career-high 35 points Sunday, averaged 12.7 points.
“Being the one that scores all the points, it’s a heavy cross to bear,” Ogwumike said. “It sounds fun, and it sounds like everyone wants it, but for me, I am all about having, you know, like a goon squad. It’s not about having one player that’s doing it all. … I can imagine most players would want that. I look forward to seeing that be able to happen.”
Ogwumike, speaking less than an hour after the season ended, said she hadn’t approached ownership or management about what she hopes can be done for the future.
Interim head coach Fred Williams, who took over in June when Derek Fisher was fired, has already talked with team officials about possibly returning next season, he said Sunday. An L.A. native, Williams said he would be “honored” if he were asked to be the head coach of the Sparks.
But unlike Fisher, who handled both coaching and general manager duties, Williams said he wanted to focus more on coaching while working with a separate GM on player personnel decisions. One of the top decisions he would want to make next season is getting Ogwumike help.
“You don’t want to have her so much playing against a five player, a big post player a lot,” Williams said. “It’s no big secret: You gotta find somebody, a big hammer in the middle that’s just going to dominate.”
Liz Cambage was supposed to be that player. But the 6-foot-9 center abruptly quit the Sparks in July while averaging 13 points per game, her fewest since her rookie season.
Cambage’s free-agent signing was celebrated with an in-person news conference outside the arena as Fisher hoped to energize the fan base with a new star.
But when it went awry, the Sparks went back to Ogwumike to steady the ship. She shouldered the task with grace through the last day of the season as she stood up from her final interview with a wave and a smile.
“See you next season.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.