LOS ANGELES (AP) - Nneka Ogwumike is poised to take her stellar rookie season to the big stage. The Los Angeles Sparks forward, who was leading Stanford to the Final Four just a few months ago, will get even more exposure when the Sparks return to the WNBA playoffs starting Thursday.
She teamed with Candace Parker, herself a college phenom at Tennessee, to help the Sparks to a 16-1 home record, tied for best in the league. The rookie and the veteran have blended seamlessly while starting all 33 games during the regular season, capping it with identical double-doubles in the Sparks' final game before the playoffs. They were both chosen the league's player of the month for September.
"She sets the bar really high. It's definitely elevated my game," Ogwumike said Wednesday about Parker's influence on her. "It's brought some things out of my game that I kind of took for granted. I've gotten better at the small things that a lot of people don't want to do. I embrace it."
Ogwumike, the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft, averaged 14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists. Parker, healthy the entire season for the first time since her rookie year in 2008, averaged 17.4 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists. Their shooting percentages were nearly the same, too. Ogwumike shot 53 percent from the floor and 73 percent from the free throw line to Parker's 48 percent and 71 percent.
"She's definitely not playing like a rookie," Parker said. "What's so special about Nneka is she has a tremendous upside. There's a lot of players that come out of college and they are the player they're going to be in five years. She has room to get better and she's still so good now."
First-year coach Carol Ross likes how Ogwumike and Parker complement each other.
"They're both high energy on both ends of the floor," she said. "Nneka has more power and Candace has more finesse."
The second-seeded Sparks (24-10) host No. 3 San Antonio (21-13) in their playoff opener on Thursday at Galen Center, Southern California's home arena. The Sparks were forced to relocate for one game because of a "Batman Live" show at Staples Center.
The Sparks lost three of four games to the Silver Stars this season, including their only home loss. They won seven of eight to start the season, then sandwiched a nine-game winning streak around the Olympic break before winning five of their last six to finish with their most victories since going 25-9 in 2006.
Ogwumike has been a big part of that, earning multiple player of the week honors while becoming the frontrunner to win the league's rookie of the year award.
"She's a player that brings a lot of energy and fills in a lot of the holes that we have," Parker said. "She's going to play with energy and a gutsiness every night."
Parker's high standards include not being excited about simply earning a playoff berth after missing out last season.
"This is what we're supposed to do. We haven't done anything yet," she said. "At Tennessee, making the NCAA tournament or making it to the Final Four was not enough. We were disappointed at the end of the season if we lost. That's the mentality we're bringing to this organization again."
Ogwumike's repeated trips to the Final Four with Stanford didn't result in a national championship, priming her to want to win one on the pro level.
"It's similar to March Madness, anything can happen in the postseason, everyone is playing for that one thing," she said. "I definitely expect elevated play, aggressiveness, the atmosphere is going to change."
Transitioning to life in the pro ranks has been smooth for Ogwumike, who lives in her own apartment in the same complex as several of her teammates. Her family has flown in from Texas to visit, while younger sister Chiney has been down from Stanford, while Ogwumike made the hour flight north last weekend to see old friends. At other times, Ogwumike is content to explore Los Angeles on her own or find books to read. She plans to play in Poland during the WNBA offseason.
"I couldn't have been brought into a better program," she said. "I wasn't sure exactly what to expect from living in LA and being on a new team. I was a little skeptical, but everyone was so nice and welcoming."
Ogwumike isn't shy in the locker room, successfully wheedling extra cards for free smoothies out of her teammates after a recent game.
"I just like to have fun with my teammates," she said. "It really baffles me when my teammates that were on the team last year talk to me about how different it was when they didn't make the playoffs. I can't even imagine the LA Sparks being any other way. I'm just happy to be a part of that change."