- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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BRISTOL, Conn. -- The woman who was considered the one lock-solid, absolute sure thing in this WNBA draft was herself not sure about playing pro basketball until about a year ago.
Stanford forward Nneka Ogwumike was chosen first Monday by the Los Angeles Sparks. For all the program's accolades, the Cardinal had never before had the top WNBA draft selection from its ranks.
"And we could potentially have three No. 1 picks from our school this year, with Andrew Luck and Mark Appel," said Ogwumike, ever the proud alum.
Yes, she is already a graduate, having finished the work for her degree three weeks ago. Later this month, Luck will start his pro sports odyssey with the NFL draft, while the same is expected for Appel in June's MLB draft.
Suffice to say, those two have aspired for a long time to play sports for a living. But with Ogwumike, that wasn't the case -- and not just because the salaries for women's pro hoops are not in the realm of football or baseball.
"Being in the WNBA became a reality for me maybe last summer," Ogwumike said. "Because I wasn't sure if I was too invested in playing professionally. Now that I see the opportunities that it brings, it's more than I could ask for."
Ogwumike, whose parents came to the United States to attend college, then settled in the Houston area to raise a family, grew up believing that nothing was more important than education. And part of that thought process was having multiple career possibilities.
She and her next-youngest sister, rising Stanford junior Chiney, went to Comets games when that franchise was still in Houston. It wasn't that Nneka didn't believe in the WNBA or sense its impact or come to truly love playing basketball. She just never considered it as her only avenue.
"Sometimes I feel weird, because I know some people who are so invested in sports only," Ogwumike said. "It's been a different journey for me, because my parents always said: 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Don't just limit yourself to one option.'
"That's been my take on life. You shouldn't just focus exclusively on one thing. But you also shouldn't take your eye off the prize."
The Sparks didn't, and nothing tempted them. The 6-foot-2 Ogwumike averaged a double-double this season, 22.5 points and 10.2 rebounds, as she played in her fourth Final Four. She is the most polished athlete in the draft and would have been the national player of the year if a certain 6-foot-8 junior from Baylor hadn't snagged those accolades.
Brittney Griner seems sure to be the top pick in next year's draft, which has more immediate-impact picks. For 2012, there are few players besides Ogwumike that you would wager with certainty will play big roles this summer. We could be pleasantly surprised, of course, and the league's coaches/general managers hope we are.
But Ogwumike seems a sure bet: an amazing leaper with speed, strength, body control, excellent footwork and great decision-making skills. Now she's eager to head south in the Golden State to start her next endeavor.
"I look at the talent on that team, and it's going to be really fun," Ogwumike said of the Sparks. "I really hope that I can come in and not just contribute, but impact other players on that team and help get them where they want to be."
That's exactly how she should be thinking, because the Sparks very much need that attitude. A decade has passed since Los Angeles won the second of its back-to-back WNBA titles in 2002. New coach Carol Ross hopes that a team that meandered through last season under two different coaches -- finishing 15-19 and missing the playoffs -- has greater cohesiveness and strength of purpose in 2012.
The player who defined the Sparks for their first decade-plus, center Lisa Leslie, has been retired since 2009. The franchise player drafted No. 1 in 2008, Candace Parker of Tennessee, has been the pro that L.A. expected her to be -- when, that is, she has been on the court. Between injuries and time off for pregnancy, Parker has played just 85 games over her four WNBA seasons.
"Lisa is not there anymore, but I got the chance to know her a little bit," Ogwumike said of Leslie. "I've never played against Candace, but I've watched her play. It will be amazing to play with someone like that. I think I can learn so much from her. I look forward to introducing myself to her and getting to know her as a teammate."
Ogwumike played 145 of 149 games in her four seasons at Stanford, never missing any significant time. She has not only been durable, but has shown marked improvement in every aspect of her game from year to year.
This season, she honed her mindset. The oldest of four sisters, she's a natural high achiever and leader. But more than ever, she took the reins at Stanford last summer. And simultaneously, her certainty that she would play in the WNBA crystallized.
In fully grasping the impact she had on her Cardinal teammates, she realized that she could do that on a different level in pro ball. Not just with her fellow players, but in the community.
"I think the facilitator for that was we lost so many veterans," Ogwumike said of graduation losses that included two WNBA draft picks last year, Kayla Pedersen and Jeanette Pohlen. "And I realized, OK, this is my team now, I need to do something more. Everyone is going to be looking at my every action and listening to every word."
At the pro level, even a young player can lead in both overt and subtle ways: with dependability, fostering camaraderie in the locker room, keeping an even-keel temperament. And despite the Sparks' depth in the post, Ogwumike is talented and smart enough to quickly grasp L.A.'s new system and be a big contributor. Plus, her sunny-side-up personality could melt a glacier.
Her goodbye to Stanford is at the team banquet Wednesday, and she said she'll talk this week with Cardinal coach Tara VanDerveer about more of the nitty-gritty realities of competing in pro ball. She's ready.
"At this point, it's all about what you believe you can do," Ogwumike said. "If you doubt yourself, then you might not produce as much as you expect to.
"I think if I stay focused, concentrate and don't worry too much about expectations and pressure, that I'll be just fine."
12dBonnie D. Ford