May 18, 2022
For Ezi Magbegor, defense and development shine against Phoenix
"Every day, really, with Ezi, it's amazing to see her growth," said head coach Noelle Quinn.
At the age of 21, Ezi Magbegor was one of the most promising players in the league, with athleticism and feel to dream on. At the age of 22, Magbegor is turning that potential into production.
After suffering a third-straight loss on Saturday, falling 69-64 to Phoenix, Seattle sits 1-3 in the standings. That’s the Storm’s worst start since 2016, and their historical precedents aren’t encouraging; across the five years Seattle opened 1-3, it had a 46.5% overall win percentage, with only one winning season among them.
The good news is that 2022 is unlike 2003 or 2012-14 or 2016. These Storm have played four games without their starting center (a narrative I’ve already exhausted), two without the best player in the world over the past five years, and two without their lead bench creator. (That’s Mercedes Russell, Breanna Stewart, and Epiphanny Prince, respectively.) Unless a slew of injuries is about to end Stewart’s career, a la Lauren Jackson in 2012, there’s little reason to bury our preseason favorite just yet.
There are silver linings to this start, too. While there’s always the cliché about overcoming early adversity, more importantly, role players have gotten the chance to step up. Off-ball guard Gabby Williams and combo forward Stephanie Talbot, for example, have both had big games. But the most notable showcase has been from third-year big Ezi Magbegor.
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Magbegor entered the 2022 season as one of the most promising young defenders in the league, already solid in rotations, capable in space and on switches, and demonstrating great feel for help. But since development isn’t linear, you can never count too much on projecting growth. Questions remained over whether her help defense could truly be a plus trait, or whether she could hold up one-on-one in the post, or how much she could even stay on the court.
Through four games, Magbegor is answering those questions with flying colors. Never was that more on display than Saturday against the Mercury; the 22-year-old finished the game with eight points (4-10 FG, 0-1 3pt.), 10 rebounds, two steals, and seven blocks — second-most in Storm history, per Across The Timeline. And all that in 34 minutes, the second-highest total of her career, thanks in large part to committing only one foul.
“[Magbegor]’s learning and growing,” said Seattle head coach Noelle Quinn. “She’s getting better. And, I think, the more comfortable she becomes, the more aggressive she becomes, and the more the execution of [our] schemes are just even better. And every day, really, with Ezi, it’s amazing to see her growth.
“I’ll continue to stress: she’s similar to being a senior in college. So understanding where she’s at in her young career, I’m just happy that she’s with us and progressing.”
It’s safe to say that Magbegor is executing Quinn’s gameplans with aplomb. Seattle’s defensive schemes are not the most physically demanding in the league, but they’re probably the toughest to learn. That makes Magbegor’s execution of the Storm’s “Anti-Tina Charles” gameplan all the more impressive. In her minutes, Magbegor was tasked with maintaining Seattle’s usual SOS traps and the hedges it has used more this year, helping direct switches and rotations, and providing secondary rim protection. All that, plus the added responsibilities of the “Anti-Tina Charles,” which worked as follows:
- Keep a body on Charles at all times. So switch every time she would roll or dive, and hand her off to a downcourt defender before switching off again.
- Provide help every time Charles got within 10 feet of the rim. This would usually come from the defender two passes away — since she’s too good of a passer to be beaten by one-pass-away help — or from Brianna Turner’s defender.
- Have Magbegor start halfcourt possessions defending Turner, that way Magbegor would be able to help onto Charles rolls or dives from downcourt, without vacating a catch-and-shoot threat.
“I think [I] just made more of a focus to be there defensively,” said Magbegor. “I think, obviously, [we’re down] a couple of our key players, [so I was] just focusing on defense, focusing on helping my team… and just being a defensive presence.”
Magbegor didn’t hold Charles to 2-for-8 shooting by herself, but she did a great deal of the work in keeping the center in check. On Magbegor’s first rep in the primary action, she perfectly directed a peel switch out of horns, while picking up Charles and working well to prevent her from establishing good post position on Shey Peddy’s gator. Charles drilled a tough turnaround jumper over Magbegor, but the Storm big’s defensive work portended an excellent afternoon.
If Magbegor had only defended Charles well in space, it would have been enough. But she was able to do so while still keeping an eye on the rim. From helping with blocks to forcing a bad-pass turnover, she helped hold Phoenix to fewer than half as many at-rim shots as Seattle, per WNBA Advanced Stats.
If Magbegor had only defended Charles well in space while still protecting the rim, it would have been enough. But she was able to do so while capably switching onto guards and wings. Mercury combo guard Skylar Diggins-Smith experienced this first, with Magbegor forcing a tough dump-off pass on a drive before making Charles adjust for long enough to incur a three-second penalty on Turner. And Magbegor’s footwork in being able to slide alongside wing Diamond DeShields in transition was significantly more difficult than Magbegor made it look.
If Magbegor had only defended Charles well in space while still protecting the rim and switches, it would have been enough. But she was able to do so while displaying her usual athletic feats, the ones that have resulted in unbridled optimism for three years.
The only thing Magbegor didn’t have success with were the occasions that Charles took the time to work her in the post. That was one of those preseason questions for Magbegor, and it clearly remains an area of concern.
The thing about that problem is twofold: One, Charles has made a Hall-of-Fame career off the back of doing this to everyone in the league — there’s no shame in not being able to stop her; And two, one-on-one post defense is one of the least important skills for a big (past a certain threshold), given the variety of ways that defenses can provide post help (check out Liz Cambage’s postseason record if you disagree).
“I think [I’m] just learning how to have [Russell’s kind of] presence on the floor. She is a tall player, so [I’m] just kind of trying to make up for that loss,” Magbegor told The Next. “And then, things I need to improve on: we’re obviously down a couple of bigs, so just being smart defensively, and staying on the floor; And then just cleaning up the ball and making sure I crash the offensive board, as well as boxing-out and getting the defensive boards as well.”