<
>

Can Sparks' Nneka Ogwumike repeat as WNBA MVP?

play
Remembering Nneka Ogwumike's championship shot (0:39)

Relive Nneka Ogwumike's shot that put the Los Angeles Sparks ahead of the Minnesota Lynx in the decisive Game 5 of the WNBA Finals. (0:39)

Fans called her "Coooooop," and she's still a benchmark player. Only Houston's Cynthia Cooper has won back-to-back WNBA MVP honors; she did it in the league's first two seasons, 1997 and 1998.

Los Angeles forward Nneka Ogwumike will be the latest to try to repeat. Ogwumike is coming into this WNBA campaign from a strong showing overseas in Russia with Dynamo Kursk, and she will be just 27 this July.

"She can keep developing her game," Sparks coach Brian Agler said. "If there's one thing I know about Nneka, it's that she's going to work at it. She's got tremendous work ethic and a great attitude. She's a really driven type of player and person. She puts in the extra effort and takes care of herself."

Here's a look at Ogwumike and four other strong preseason MVP candidates for 2017:

Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles

What a blockbuster season 2016 was for Ogwumike. She averaged 19.7 points and 9.1 rebounds while leading the league in win shares (9.5), player efficiency rating (31.5), offensive rating (135.0) and true shooting percentage (.737).

MVPs almost by definition are efficient, but Ogwumike took that to an extremely high level. For example, her true shooting percentage, which is a combination of 2-pointers, 3-pointers and free throws, was the best in WNBA history by a pretty big margin. Candice Dupree's .699 was next best in 2010 with Phoenix.

Ogwumike made adjustments and improvements even while the playoffs were unfolding and never seemed to be at a loss for energy. She excelled in leadership, playing well in tandem with Parker, who got the WNBA Finals MVP award, and Ogwumike hit the game-winning shot in Game 5 that gave the Sparks their first WNBA title since 2002.


Maya Moore, Minnesota

You could have made an MVP case for Moore each of the last five seasons; she won the award in 2014. She had her biggest overall numbers then, but Minnesota didn't make the WNBA Finals that year. Moore can carry a tremendous load, but the Lynx are at their best when she doesn't have to do that to such a huge degree.

Moore understands and embraces that, which is a key to why the Lynx won a title in 2015 and came within seconds of doing it again in 2016. Moore has worked on understanding her teammates and helping them meet their potential. Last year, her assist average (4.2) and assist percentage (24.5) were both the highest of her career, reflecting how strong a playmaker she is while still being an elite scorer (19.3 PPG). That's been evident in her U.S. national team performance, too; she won a second Olympic gold medal in 2016. Defensively, Moore continues to become more proficient and efficient.


Tina Charles, New York

Last year, she was again at the center of attention for New York, which is what she's used to. Like Moore, Charles had career highs in assist average (3.8) and assist percentage (23.5), especially impressive considering she led the league in scoring (21.5 PPG) and rebounding (9.9 RPG).

That put her in the running for MVP, which she won in 2012. Ultimately, Ogwumike's shooting efficiency was a key to why she won. But it was still a memorable year for Charles, who won her second Olympic gold medal. Charles has improved her outside shot, and that's a tribute to her growth. But that shouldn't make her any less aggressive going inside, where she's always at her best and most lethal. The Liberty will look to her even more for leadership this season, and she's ready for that.


Breanna Stewart, Seattle

The 2016 No. 1 draft pick, Stewart came into the WNBA with four NCAA titles at UConn. But guess what? She still exceeded expectations. A runaway winner as Rookie of the Year, she also contended for MVP and top defensive player. It was nice to see her so engaged in building her presence off the court as well, not just for herself, but for the league's benefit.

Few have entered the WNBA as capable of making such a great and immediate impact on both ends of the court. Stewart was fourth in the league in win shares (5.5) and defensive win shares (2.5) in her first season, while averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. Stewart was the youngest player on the U.S. women's hoops team that won gold in the Olympics, and she helped the Storm get back into the postseason after a two-year absence. She'll keep building on all of that.


Elena Delle Donne, Washington

This is a good place to bring up Cooper again. She was already 34 when the WNBA began, so she played just four full seasons. She won the WNBA title each of those seasons and has the best career player efficiency rating -- 28.27-- in WNBA history. Who's No. 2 in that category? Delle Donne, who is at 28.20 after four seasons in Chicago. To put that in perspective, the league-average PER is 15.

Of course, now Delle Donne has moved on from the Sky; she got a requested trade to the Mystics, who are near her Delaware home. Washington coach Mike Thibault might be able to make it even tougher for defenses to key on her. Delle Donne, an Olympic gold medalist last year, has ground to gain defensively and the desire to prove she can attain another level there. While a change of WNBA scenery might not have been mandatory for her to keep progressing, it likely can help.