Will Erica Ogwumike follow her sisters to the WNBA?
It’s unclear if she’ll be drafted, but the point guard is making her own path
In early February, Rice University point guard Erica Ogwumike boarded a plane to Dallas alone. The previous night, she had dropped 25 points during a home game against the University of Alabama at Birmingham. But while her team remained in Houston to practice, the grad student prepared for her team’s next opponent on the plane.
In Dallas, Ogwumike would spend the day on the campus of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, one of nine medical schools she was accepted to last winter. (The following day, she dropped 25 points and 17 rebounds in a victory against Middle Tennessee.)
“She’s in quite a unique situation,” said Ogwumike’s sister, Nneka. “Whether she plays basketball or not professionally, she very much knows what she is going to do.”
Erica Ogwumike is the youngest sister of Nneka and Chiney, who both are stars for the Los Angeles Sparks and former No. 1 overall WNBA draft picks. On Friday, Ogwumike will find out if her future also will include the WNBA when the league holds its draft (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET). Should her name not be called, or if she isn’t invited to join a WNBA training camp — if and when the WNBA returns — her backup plan is to pursue a career in medicine.
Ogwumike, 22, decided on a pre-med track as a sophomore. She developed a passion for the field through shadowing opportunities at the Texas Medical Center, the biggest medical complex in the world, which sits blocks away from the Rice campus.
“Nobody in my family does anything medical-related, so it was kind of like a shot in the dark,” Ogwumike said.
Given the demanding requirements of being a Division I basketball player, pre-med is an uncommon path for student-athletes. Ogwumike had to learn quickly how to manage the rigors both paths require. During her medical school process, Ogwumike said, she missed most of Rice’s preseason, as she was flying to schools across the country for interviews.
“Everyone said as a student-athlete, being pre-med, going to medical school is one of the hardest things to do,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “She’s a different breed.”
Said Nneka Ogwumike: “I tell her all the time that she’s a robot.”
A few years ago, Ogwumike didn’t believe professional basketball was a part of her future at all.
Her path to the WNBA draft has been far different from that of her sisters — from her position to her hype in high school to the college she attended. Despite winning a state title in high school and being named MVP of the championship game, Ogwumike said she didn’t receive as much attention as other players in her state.
But while Ogwumike wasn’t ranked as a top-10 recruit in the country, she played on an AAU club team that included top players, including DiDi Richards, who recently won a national championship with Baylor University; Joyner Holmes, who played for the University of Texas and is a projected first-round pick in Friday’s draft; and Ariel Atkins, another UT standout who recently won a WNBA championship with the Washington Mystics.
“I always knew what elite competition and talent looked like because I played with it,” Ogwumike said. “But I never really got that type of publicity or recognition. I never really knew it was possible.”
It wasn’t until her sophomore season, after transferring from Pepperdine, that Ogwumike began to see a future in hoops. She’d go on to become one of the top players in Conference USA and led Rice to its first ranking in the AP Top 25 last season. Ogwumike would end her college career as a two-time conference player of the year.
Besides her ability to score, averaging 19 points this season, Ogwumike is one of the best rebounding guards in the nation. At 5-foot-9, she led her conference in rebounding with 10.4 per game, which ranked in the top 25 in the country.
“That’s another trait of that family,” said Dallas Wings head coach Brian Agler, who previously coached Nneka Ogwumike as head coach of the Los Angeles Sparks and has followed Ogwumike’s career.
According to Chiney Ogwumike, Ogwumike’s rebounding ability is no accident. It was a skill born out of necessity. Growing up with three taller older sisters, Chiney Ogwumike being the tallest at 6-foot-3, if Ogwumike wanted any possessions when she was younger, she had to learn to rebound against taller competition. (The fourth Ogwumike sister, Olivia, 24, played with Ogwumike at both Pepperdine and Rice. Olivia Ogwumike graduated in 2019 and is now pursuing an MBA.)
“That’s how she became tenacious,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “If she wanted the ball, she had to go and get it herself.”
But for talent evaluators, questions remain on whether Ogwumike can have this kind of success at the next level.
Heading into the draft, Ogwumike has been able to lean on her sisters for advice. (She says she’s asked about 3,000 questions.) But what’s been equally valuable has been having a front-row seat to the success of her sisters. Nneka Ogwumike, a 2016 WNBA champion and MVP, has become the president of the WNBA Players Association, and Chiney Ogwumike, a former rookie of the year and two-time All-Star, also works as a sports analyst at ESPN.
“She told me she has visibly seen and visibly witnessed how my career has taken its own path and she really likes that,” Nneka Ogwumike said.
In December, Ogwumike started a YouTube channel to jump-start her own brand. Ogwumike posts videos on the channel, titled D1 to Dr., about how to beat the Medical College Admission Test, life as a pre-med student-athlete and other topics.
“I use it as a platform to share with other people,” Ogwumike said.
While practicing social distancing at home during the pandemic, Ogwumike said, she has been inspired by the medical response she’s seen across the country from doctors, nurses and first aid. It’s only further stoked her passion for the medical field.
“Seeing them go to work with the potential to risk their lives every day in order to save other people, I think it’s something that’s just very moving and inspiring,” Ogwumike said. “It excites me because it’s like, wow, I could have this same passion as I continue to learn more about medicine. It excites me for my future whenever I do go to med school.”
The professional field Ogwumike will enter first depends on the outcome of Friday’s draft. With time to decide where she would eventually like to attend med school, and med school not beginning until the fall, Ogwumike wants to allow her WNBA process to play out before making any decisions.
Ogwumike, who will watch the now virtual draft with family, is an intriguing prospect for WNBA teams. But it’s still unclear where exactly, if at all, she’ll be selected in the draft. ESPN has her going in the third round. Agler said he wouldn’t be surprised if Ogwumike was selected in the second round. Ogwumike is preparing for any outcome.
“I think I’m in a pretty unpredictable position,” she said. “I could get drafted, I could not get drafted.”
Ogwumike said that the weight that her last name carries in basketball may give her longer looks not afforded to other players, especially coming out of a mid-major. But she is proud that her path to the draft has not mirrored her sisters’ journeys — outside of her No. 13 jersey (the same as Chiney Ogwumike’s).
“I’m not the same player as them,” Ogwumike said. “I think they’ve had to understand what type of player I am. That makes me feel more comfortable that the recognition that I am getting is because of my skill and talent.”
To watch their youngest sister’s journey, one that had little crossover with their own, has been a joy for Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike to observe.
“To see her end up exactly probably where we are, doing her own thing, while she has completely had a different style,” Chiney Ogwumike said. “It’s been the best kind of surprise.”