WNBA

Arike Ogunbowale is in the middle of everything

Arike Ogunbowale is carrying a difficult load for the young Dallas Wings, responding with production and searching for efficiency.

Arike Ogunbowale has her hands in everything. At the first broadcast timeout of Tuesday’s 74-62 win over the Sparks, she’d already accumulated 6 points on 3-of-5 from the field, along with a rebound and an assist. The point total could have been higher but coming off a curl on her first possession, she opted to pass up an open lane for a step-back jumper. A few minutes later, a step-back 3-pointer went halfway down before rolling out. Over that stretch, she touched the ball on essentially every possession and, as the box score implies, she made things happen.

The Wings desperately need Ogunbowale’s offense — the 22-year-old rookie is leading her team in field goal attempts and points, ranking second in assists and free throw attempts. With All-Star Skylar Diggins-Smith yet to appear in a game for the Wings this season after giving birth to her first child, Ogunbowale is operating as de facto point guard, advancing the ball and initiating the offense, splitting time between attacking on her own and navigating a maze of off-ball screens to find another opportunity to loft that lightning-quick jumper.

Clutch shots highlighted Ogunbowale’s resume as a star at Notre Dame, but volume and activity defined her collegiate career as much as anything. As a senior she averaged 21.4 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, tacking on nearly two steals. She did everything for the Irish and watching her try to carry this offensive load for the Wings, it seems like a clear match between player and context.

Of course, the results have not exactly been ideal. After that hot initial stretch, Ogunbowale played another 25 minutes in which she totaled 8 points, and assist and 2 turnovers, shooting 2-of-9 from the field and missing all three of her shots from beyond the arc. And the activity on the defensive end is interrupted with ill-timed moments of passivity — missed box-outs and rotations — or simply channeled into high-speed lateral slides into a screen that should have been anticipated.

And that’s the reality of Ogunbowale as a talented, aggressive rookie on a team that’s in an undeniable rebuilding situation. She has an enormous lead in the rookie scoring race, but she’s shooting less than 40 percent from the field and 30 percent from behind the 3-point line. She has the opportunity to make plays nearly every trip down the floor but for every net-positive one, there’s been a net-negative one to balance it out. That’s the reality of learning on the fly on a team that is without it’s two best players from last season.

But don’t be mistaken, she is learning. The Wings dropped their first five games of the season but have gone 5-4 since with a point differential that’s closing in on positive territory. Among those five victories are wins over the Lynx and Sun, two of the four best teams in the league so far. And over this nine-game stretch, Ogunbowale has averaged 17.1 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. Her shooting percentages are still a work in progress, as is her defense, but the team’s offense has been better by 7.4 points per 100 possessions with her on the floor during this run.

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The Wings, collectively, are one of the youngest teams in the WNBA and the impending return of Diggins-Smith will scaffold things at both ends for Ogunbowale and the rest of her teammates. Her future is bright and getting brighter every day. But for the rest of this season, expect to continue to see her in the middle of everything, figuring out the dynamics of shot selection, defensive rotations and passing angles against the WNBA’s superior talent, skating that knife’s edge on every possession, between disaster and making the incredible plays that only a star can.

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