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Rookie Magbegor quietly making big impression with Seattle Storm

Ezi Magbegor shoots during practice. NBAE/Getty Images photo.
Ezi Magbegor shoots during practice. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

Seattle Storm rookie Ezi Magbegor might be soft-spoken, but her game is already speaking volumes.

The 6-4 Australian standout glides up the floor like a guard, can defend any position and averages 7.1 points in 13.6 minutes per game, at a team-best 56.7 percent shooting rate. She averages almost one block per match up, just behind teammate and former MVP Breanna Stewart.

Magbegor is often the first reserve to be inserted after back up point guard Jordin Canada, and her minutes are inching upwards. Her fluidity, her instincts for the game, her sophisticated moves and her increasing shooting confidence have caused many, from television commentators to coaches to peers, to take notice.

“She’s such a gifted athlete,” Storm interim coach Gary Kloppenburg said. “She’s a long, athletic player that can learn, and she’s getting better skill-wise all the time. She’s a hard worker, has a great attitude and brings physicality. She will increasingly find her way into getting more minutes with us.”

A seasoned player like Magbegor, who at 21 already has three years of professional playing experience in the WNBL under her belt, could easily be a sixth woman or a sometimes-starter in the WNBA. But on talent-laden Seattle, tabbed to win the Championship this season, Magbegor is working her way up. And she’s fine with that.

“My role is to bring a bit of energy,” she said. “At the moment I’m playing behind Breanna Stewart, (reigning defensive player of the year) Natasha Howard and Mercedes Russell. I’m being that presence on the court and doing the little things – getting rebounds and setting good screens. When it’s my time, I’ve got to be ready for that.”

Magbegor wasn’t quite ready last year, when Seattle took her in the first round of the WNBA draft when she was still 19 years old. Both she and the franchise agreed she’d be more prepared for the league if she played another season in Australia and honed her skills.

“They wanted me to work on my game a little bit more and prepare myself for coming here,” she said. “And it was great that it worked out. There wasn’t any pressure to come over then.”

She entered this year with her sights set on leaving for the same WNBA franchise for which her mentor, basketball great Lauren Jackson, played. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, league play was suspended, and Magbegor suddenly had to decide whether or not to still go to the U.S.

“I definitely had to weigh the pros and cons,” she said. “I was in a training environment where I was away from my family, so we definitely had a lot of back and forth (discussion). Getting support from the WNBA and getting info from them helped with my decision.”

Continuity and franchise stability eventually prevailed.

“At the end, it came down to sticking with a plan,” Magbegor said. “Coming to the WNBA in 2020 was always the goal. And everyone on the Storm team was going (to the Bradenton bubble), which was helpful as well.”

Magbegor then applied for an exemption from the travel ban Australia had placed on citizens, prohibiting them from leaving the country. She took a leap of faith and bought her plane ticket. And then she waited.

“It was a long process,” she said. “I was hanging around, not sure if I would get to leave. The exemption came Sunday afternoon, and…..my flight from Sydney to San Francisco was from Sunday night to Monday. So I had four hours to get everything together.”

Ezi Magbegor looks for a pass out of a double-team. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Melbourne native, who just celebrated her birthday last week, is the youngest to play in the WNBA since her other role model, Aussie standout Liz Cambage, came to the league in 2011. Jackson, 39, Cambage, 29, and Magbegor each played in the Australian club system and were drafted into the league at age 19. But the WNBA that Jackson entered in 2001 is much different than today’s, with its healthy mixture of highly-developed athletes of all ages.

“Lauren (Jackson) had to adjust to the physicality,” said the Storm’s first coach, Lin Dunn, who helped get Jackson to Seattle. “They were knocking her around even though she was tall, which is what happened when you were 19 and playing against 30-year-olds who had been in the weight room.”

Magbegor holds her own in the paint and plays solid defense – traits that were honed after Jackson’s warnings.

“Lauren would tell me that if you’re weak on the court or come across as being weak (in the WNBA), they’re professionals and they’re going to take advantage,” Magbegor said.

Her bond with Jackson formed during her time playing for the Melbourne Boomers, where Jackson was an assistant general manager when Magbegor came to begin her professional career, at the age of 15. They remained close when Jackson was appointed the head of Basketball Australia last year.

“She was actually helping me prepare to come to Seattle in the months leading up to May, but then the COVID pandemic hit,” Magbegor said. “I was looking forward to doing workouts with her in Melbourne, but we only ended up getting in one before the stadiums closed down.”

They are in touch, and did one live broadcast on Instagram last month.

“She’s always been supportive, sending me messages,” Magbegor said. “Hearing that she sees a lot of potential in me…..that’s pretty incredible to hear from Lauren Jackson.”

Magbegor also looks up to Cambage, and said she learned a lot playing against her.

“My first Opals squad, Liz was on the team, so I’ve been lucky enough to be around her for the last few years,” Magbegor said. “She’s great to learn from off the court and on the court. She doesn’t back down. I know she’s not going to go easy on me.”

“It’s been great to learn how to guard her and how to counter her. She’s tall, and it’s hard to get shots over her. She helped me adjust my game in that aspect.”

Magbegor’s rise has been unlikely, given her humble beginnings. She took up the game when she was eight years old because her older sibling played. A few years later she was playing for a fifth division team in north Melbourne when a coach spotted her and invited her to try out for the state team. She made the squad. At 15 she got a scholarship to play at a state team a few hundred miles away from home, and she went. In 2017 she made the Opals squad and the following year, they played for the FIBA World Cup in Spain. She also played in the Commonwealth Games.

That year Magbegor also took a visit to UConn, as she was considering playing there. Ultimately she decided to play professionally, which best aligned with her goals.

“That’s the number one goal for me, to go to the Olympics and represent Australia,” she said. “I was hoping that would be this year, so hopefully it’ll be next year. My WNBA goal was to be drafted. I want to have a long career and become one of the great players in the WNBA.”

Magbegor said it means a lot to her to be with the same WNBA team for which Jackson played, and helped guide to two titles.

“She loved this organization,” Magbegor said. “It’s a great organization, from the player group to the coaches, to everyone that supports the team.”

Ezi Magbegor flies over the Sky defense to lay the ball up and in. NBAE/Getty Images photo.

The Storm might indeed be the best fit for Magbegor, as they’ve taken their time over the years to develop players and invest in them for the long haul, rather than switch up rosters often for quick results. As a result, they have a deep roster that has a chance of repeating its Championship success from 2018 this season.

Seattle is also building for the future with Canada, who will eventually take longtime point guard Sue Bird’s place, and players like Magbegor and Russell.

Kloppenburg, who was assistant to Dunn when Jackson played for the Storm, said current coach Dan Hughes and the staff were excited to draft Magbegor.

“It’s a good situation for her – there’s no pressure on her,” he said. “We can keep bringing her along and developing her. We feel good about our depth, and we can keep rotating fresh players in.”

Jackson, who is encouraging Magbegor to develop her outside shot more, said she has unlimited potential.

“Skill-wise and in her athleticism, she’s superior,” Jackson said. “The way she can move and jump – she’s very agile, and for somebody of her height, it’s very rare.”

What the self-described “low-key” Magbegor, whose main non-basketball activity is reading, may need to develop most is an on-court attack mode.

“She’s definitely that talented – I don’t think that’s the issue,” Jackson said. “I think it’s going to be her mentality, and finding that….something that makes the very best of athletes, and that’s the desire and that will to win. She’s got to find that in herself. And when she finds that, she’ll be unstoppable.”

Jackson called Magbegor, who is taking college courses while in Bradenton, an intellectual.

“She’s such a beautiful human being. A thoughtful, deep human being,” Jackson said. “But that kindness – she’s got to find a way that when she steps on the court, that goes out of the door – and she turns into Ezi the basketball player.”

“I don’t think there’s anyone her height with her athleticism in the league, at the moment. Skill-wise, she’ll keep developing and evolving. But it’s a mentality she’s got to develop.”

Magbegor said her “poker face” belies her passion.

“People say they can’t read me, but that’s just how I play,” she said. “I definitely have that competitive nature, which varies within games. Even though I don’t show it, it’s definitely there.”

Ultimately, Jackson is confident Magbegor will be successful.

“I think she’s playing better in the WNBA than she played here,” Jackson said. “She’s got the opportunity to really shine (with the Storm). She’s got Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird to work with and learn from.”

“It’s nice to see her spreading her wings and going for it. The sky is definitely the limit for her.”

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