Dallas Wings' Arike Ogunbowale is top candidate for WNBA Rookie of the Year

The fearlessly aggressive mentality that helped make Arike Ogunbowale a star at Notre Dame is exactly what the Dallas Wings needed from her this season. Tim Heitman/NBAE via Getty Images

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Arike Ogunbowale drives past the amusement park all the time and wants to visit.

"We've been planning to go to Six Flags, so hopefully before the season's over," the Dallas Wings guard said of the venue that's just three miles from the team's College Park Center home arena. "I like to ride roller coasters. I'm a little nervous about it, but I'd try them all.

"I won't ride things that just drop. I don't understand those, where the drop is the whole objective of the ride. That's too much for me. But I'll do the ones with ups and downs."

She doesn't intend it as an analogy for her rookie season. Yet it does explain what it feels like to be the top-scoring rookie in the WNBA, but for a team that's 6-16.

"I'm 22," Ogunbowale said, "and I've had the highest moment of my life on a basketball court, the lowest moment of my life, and one of the toughest seasons of my life already. I think it's good for me.

"It's going to help me, and as I get older, I'll know what to do because I've been through these situations. This is a learning process."

The highest, of course, was the 2018 Final Four and her game-winning shots in the semifinals and final. The lowest was a missed free throw late in the 2019 national championship game against Baylor, as she was attempting to tie the score.

What those situations and this season have in common is that the ball will find Ogunbowale -- or she will find it -- when the stakes are highest. And the rest of the time, too.

Ogunbowale, the No. 5 draft selection in April, is one of the top WNBA Rookie of the Year candidates, a group that also includes the Minnesota Lynx's Napheesa Collier (11.8 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 2.3 APG), who was the No. 6 pick.

Ogunbowale is averaging 15.0 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists for the Wings entering Thursday's game against Seattle. But the concerning number that critics point to is her shooting percentage: 35.6, or 113 of 317.

Dallas coach Brian Agler thinks that statistic without context is deceiving. Ogunbowale always has the green light, he said, because the Wings simply don't have a lot of offensive firepower. Their two leading scorers from last year's playoff team were center Liz Cambage, who's now with the Las Vegas Aces, and guard Skylar Diggins-Smith, who has not returned from pregnancy leave. That's 40.9 points per game gone.

"Most rookies don't have to have this much placed on them when they come in," Agler said of Ogunbowale. "And we're playing her at the point guard position, which she'd never played before. She's getting everybody's best defender.

"When people plan for us, she's our No. 1 option. Most rookies don't have to deal with that. She's handled it and steadily keeps improving."

Ogunbowale is getting a crash course on what it takes to be a go-to player at the pro level, and Dallas is getting a player that fans come to see.

Cambage, who was a fan magnet in her one season with the Wings, pushed for a trade. She was to make her return to Dallas last Saturday. But she didn't make the trip, skipping the game to rest, according to the Aces. Some Dallas fans had come to cheer Cambage, others to razz her. Ultimately, what they saw was Ogunbowale's show.

Las Vegas had crushed Dallas by 32 points five days earlier, but this one was a battle until the end. The last 2½ minutes were the proverbial roller coaster for Ogunbowale, as she hit three deep 3-pointers to send the fans to their feet, but also had a costly turnover and had to commit a foul with 8.4 seconds left after the Wings had another giveaway. Ogunbowale finished with 24 points on 9-of-19 shooting from the field in a 75-70 loss.

The Wings couldn't quite take it, yet there was a buzz around the arena from the excitement of what the Wings almost pulled off, led by their dynamic rookie. The fearlessly aggressive mentality she had at Notre Dame has continued into the WNBA, and it's what the Wings need.

"If you're going to be a great player in this league, you've gotta be a confident player, be resilient," Agler said. "You're going to have your bad games, but you've got to let it go and move on to the next one. She really has the knack for doing that."

And when Ogunbowale needs a little confidence boost, she talks to her older brother, Dare Ogunbowale, an NFL player trying to secure a roster spot with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He reminds her what she already knows: Don't get discouraged now about shooting percentage.

"I just have to really put that in the back of my mind and say, 'You have to shoot the ball,'" she said. "The efficiency can be tough, but most of the time at the end of the shot clock, it's in my hands. Sometimes, I just have to throw the ball up. I've got to try to make plays."

"When people plan for us, she's our No. 1 option. Most rookies don't have to deal with that. She's handled it and steadily keeps improving." Dallas Wings coach Brian Agler on Arike Ogunbowale

New York Liberty coach Katie Smith has seen Ogunbowale at her worst, like shooting 2-of-23 at New York on June 28, and at her best, like shooting 7-of-12 for 22 points and 5 assists on Aug. 1 at Dallas. Smith knows exactly what it's like to have to shoulder a scoring load; she did that in college at Ohio State and for the first several years of her WNBA career.

"Arike's got a little bit of everything," Smith said. "She attacks, and it puts pressure on the defense. You have to be locked in, because she's coming after you. She's not afraid to take big shots. And if she gets hot, it's going to be a problem."

Agler, in his first season with the Wings, is known as a defensive coach, and he said Ogunbowale is progressing on that end of the court, too.

"We're having a lot of conversations; she asks good questions," he said. "There's traits she has that are going to make her a good defender: She's got the athleticism, the toughness, and the intelligence. She's got instincts for the game."

Ultimately, those instincts -- and the sheer joy that Ogunbowale gets from playing -- are serving her well as she adjusts to the pro game. She has been the bright spot, the continuous burst of excitement, the rebuilding Wings we're hoping for.

"This is my job, but I try to play like it's not really a job," she said. "It's a new position for me at point guard. But it's still basketball, and I've played since I was 3 years old. I'm trying to be super adaptable. New team, new offense, new situation -- but keep trying to adapt and get better in the process."