Vie. Feb 23rd, 2024

Nneka Ogwumike will be wearing a different uniform this season. The former WNBA MVP informed the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday she intends to leave in free agency, as reported by ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

The WNBA free agency negotiation period officially began on Sunday, but Wednesday was the first day of news that rocked the league. Ogwumike was the 2016 MVP and won the league championship with the Sparks that season. She was the No. 1 draft pick in 2012 out of Stanford and was WNBA Rookie of the Year.

Ogwumike has been through six coaches in her 12 seasons in Los Angeles. After making the playoffs her first nine years — including two trips to the WNBA Finals — Ogwumike and the Sparks have missed the playoffs three years in a row. Ogwumike, who will turn 34 in July, has been the pillar of the franchise but now is ready for another experience.

ESPN’s Alexa Philippou, Kevin Pelton and Michael Voepel look at what Ogwumike’s decision means for her this coming season, as well as for the Sparks and the league.

Where might Ogwumike land? What’s a good fit given cap space and current rosters?

Voepel: According to Shelburne, Ogwumike has already met or will meet with five teams: Atlanta Dream, Phoenix Mercury, Chicago Sky, Seattle Storm and New York Liberty.

The Storm and Mercury missed the playoffs last year, but both seem poised to make some big moves for the 2024 season. New York finished runner-up in the WNBA Finals, but it also seems pretty solid already in the post. That said, Ogwumike could help any team; last year, she had her best season statistically since her MVP campaign.

Depending on other potential moves Phoenix could make, it seems like the Mercury might be a really good fit for both Ogwumike and the team. But I could see Ogwumike in Seattle or Atlanta too.

Pelton: I think the fit in Seattle makes a lot of sense. Ogwumike could play a role similar to the one Breanna Stewart played for the Storm, while the development of Ezi Magbegor into an All-Star would give Seattle one of the WNBA’s better frontcourts. The Storm would still need to add playmaking, preferably in the form of an experienced point guard, but Magbegor, Ogwumike and Jewell Loyd would be the core of a competitive team.

Where does this leave the Sparks? What’s next for a franchise already amid a «refresh»?

Voepel: It’s hard to lose someone who’s not just a Hall of Fame-caliber player and fan favorite but also has meant so much to the league with her leadership. No player in WNBA history has given more time and energy to league issues and player needs than Ogwumike.

That said, the Sparks appear to have good personnel in place to continue the changes being made to the franchise. Coach Curt Miller (who also used to be a general manager in Connecticut), new general manager Raegan Pebley (a former WNBA player) and chief administrative officer Karen Bryant (who helped construct a championship culture in Seattle) have said they understand this is a critical time for the franchise to make sure it has a solid base for future growth. But that’s not going to be easy, and this is a blow to the Sparks fans, as Los Angeles in the past few offseasons has lost franchise stars Candace Parker, Chelsea Gray and now Ogwumike.

Pelton: The good news is the Sparks should be able to find another face of the franchise with the No. 2 pick of this year’s WNBA draft. In a typical draft, both Cameron Brink and Paige Bueckers would be No. 1 picks, so if the two of them and Caitlin Clark declare, Los Angeles is well-positioned to add a cornerstone.

The difference from when the Sparks previously drafted Ogwumike and Parker No. 1 is that both of those top prospects were joining an established star — Lisa Leslie, in Parker’s case. There might be more pressure on this year’s No. 2 pick to take the mantle right away without Ogwumike in the picture.

Long term, as free agency becomes a more important tool, it’s incumbent on Los Angeles’ ownership group to invest in a dedicated practice facility to remain competitive. Bryant told ESPN last year that practice facilities «will be the differentiator» in free agency down the road. If that’s the case, Los Angeles is falling behind as the Storm and the Las Vegas Aces build exclusive facilities as independent franchises.

Philippou: We have a lot more questions about the composition of the 2024 Sparks now than we did a week ago. Most would have assumed Ogwumike would likely return to the team she has played for her entire pro career and that Jordin Canada would be wearing gold and purple, as well, particularly after being cored. But Canada is likely looking for a sign-and-trade deal, according to ESPN’s Andraya Carter, and both departures mark a blow to a Los Angeles team that was so close to returning to the postseason last year despite dealing with a host of injuries and illnesses. With those two gone, Los Angeles might opt for more of a rebuilding path forward.

Azurá Stevens, Dearica Hamby and Stephanie Talbot are the only players on protected contracts with the Sparks, while Lexie Brown, Zia Cooke and Nia Clouden are on unprotected deals. The front office also could look to bring back the likes of Layshia Clarendon and the Samuelson sisters, Karlie and Katie Lou.

Los Angeles lost Gray, Parker and now Ogwumike all since its 2020 second-round exit under Derek Fisher. Maybe in the modern sports era, especially with actual free agency in the WNBA these days, that sort of player movement shouldn’t be as shocking. Nonetheless, it does feel like the final blow in a relatively swift downturn for one of the league’s most iconic organizations, and it highlights the work needed to get it back toward the upper echelon.

What is Ogwumike’s legacy with the Sparks?

Voepel: She will be remembered as giving her all through a dozen years, some of which were chaotic behind the scenes. The Sparks drafted her hoping she would be a good fit with Parker and become another face of the franchise, and that happened. I doubt any Sparks fans are angry with Ogwumike for leaving; they know how loyal she has been and that she needs to do this for herself.

But I’m sure there is a lot of sadness, and it’s going to hurt the fans to see her wearing another uniform. She will be considered one of the Sparks’ all-time greats, along with Leslie and Parker.

Pelton: I think her legacy is the 2016 WNBA championship, won in a thrilling five-game matchup against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, who had knocked the Sparks out of the playoffs the year before. Finals MVP Parker and Kristi Toliver deserve plenty of credit too, along with L.A.’s role players and coach Brian Agler, but that was the season Ogwumike came into her own as the league’s regular-season MVP and scored the winning basket with 3.1 seconds left in Game 5. The 2016 trophy is the only one the Sparks have won in the past two decades, and it wouldn’t have happened without Ogwumike.

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