The top two contenders for WNBA Rookie of the Year honors have their final showdown of the season Thursday night when Arike Ogunbowale and the Dallas Wings face Napheesa Collier and the Minnesota Lynx.
Ogunbowale and Collier emerged from the rookie class as the top two players in the first third of the season by showing the ability to thrive in the different roles asked of them. Ogunbowale, the fifth overall pick, has had to serve as Dallas' primary scorer with Skylar Diggins-Smith sitting out following the birth of her first child.
The Notre Dame grad leads all rookies with 16.4 points per game, which is also good for seventh overall. In addition to being the only rookie to have a 30-point game this year, Ogunbowale has 10 others of at least 20 - with seven of them coming since the All-Star break.
"She's a phenomenal player," Wings coach Brian Agler told the Dallas Morning News after Ogunbowale's 35-point game against the Sparks on Aug. 14. "People can critique on social media, they can do all they want to do, but she is a special player. There's not been many rookies like her in the league that have come in and made an immediate impact."
Ogunbowale has averaged 24.8 over her last four games, but her 20 points Sunday were not enough to lead Dallas (9-18) to a fourth straight win as it lost 78-68 at Connecticut. Allisha Gray matched her career high with 22 points for a second consecutive game, but the Wings got little offensive production beyond their talented backcourt as the rest of the team shot a combined 9 of 30.
Collier went right after Ogunbowale in the draft after a standout career at Connecticut and was the only rookie named to the All-Star team, though she was an injury replacement for A'ja Wilson. The 6-foot-1 forward is asked to be more of a two-way player for the Lynx, especially on the defensive end in the low post.
Her offensive game has gradually come around, and she carries a nine-game streak of reaching double digits into this contest. Collier, who is averaging 12.0 points and 6.4 rebounds, has made no secret about wanting to win rookie honors.
"It was a goal of mine coming in," she said last week. "Something I wanted to strive for coming into the league. It's something I think about in that sense, but not during the game. I'm just trying to do whatever I can to help this team win."
Collier has helped the Lynx (13-14) keep a firm hold on the eighth and final playoff spot as they lead both Indiana and Dallas by four games with seven remaining. She had 16 points and five rebounds Sunday, but it was not enough to prevent Minnesota from its third loss in four games - an 82-74 defeat at Seattle.
Odyssey Sims scored 30 points on 11-of-14 shooting to pace Minnesota, but the Lynx never recovered from a game-opening 11-0 run by the Storm, drawing as close as four points midway through the fourth quarter.
The teams split two meetings in Dallas in June. Ogunbowale scored 15 of her 19 points in the fourth quarter of the most recent meeting, powering the Wings to an 89-86 victory. Collier finished with 11 points and seven rebounds to go with season high-tying totals of five assists and four steals.