If there was one bright spot in Opals’ chaotic, disappointing Olympic campaign, it was the emergence of Ezi Magbegor as a legitimate force on the international stage.
After a stellar season with the Seattle Storm in the WNBA, Magbegor has returned to Australia and aims to play a key role in Opal’s 2022 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup campaign.
Magbegor’s talent and athleticism were evident in Tokyo but it remained to be seen if she could translate that into the next step.
In the 2022 WNBA season, Magbegor answered that question with a resounding yes.
Magbegor, a legitimate contender for Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year titles and winner of second-team All-Defensive honors, started most of the season for the Seattle Storm and only relinquished her spot when as the Storm defeated eight-time All-Star and former MVP Tina Charles midseason.
But how did Magbegor take their game to the next level and what does that mean for the Opals?
Athletics leads to offensive wins
It’s the offensive end where Magbegor has made the biggest step forward, increasing her points per game from 6.7 to 9.5 in the 2022 WNBA season with a true shooting percentage of 59.36 percent, which is by far above the league average of 54 percent.
On a team featuring WNBA stars like Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Tina Charles, Magbegor would never be the offensive focus.
Instead, she’s worked hard to position herself in the right positions on the pitch and uses her athleticism to score.
Being able to punish a defense that isn’t paying close attention to you is crucial, otherwise the offense will falter. Magbegor is great at this.
In this game against the Washington Mystics, she’s able to work the ball down and take advantage of the attention Stewart is drawing to slice to the basket.
Magbegor has great hand and body control that allows her to catch and finish even in traffic and through contact on the trail.
This is an underrated skill that makes her a great pick and roll partner.
Below we see a Stewart-Magbegor pick and roll where Magbegor is able to roll to the hoop and kick defenders aside to finish.
For the Opals, Magbegor won’t have players like Stewart to work with, but she should continue to be an effective pick-and-roll partner for her Seattle Storm teammate and fellow Opals Steph Talbot.
At 3 point shooting, Magbegor needs to improve to take her game to the next level.
Magbegor has only attempted 29 three-pointers all season, despite shooting a respectable 34.48 percent.
In the 2022 WNBA season, Seattle’s offense often faltered with two non-shooters in Magbegor and Gabby Williams, which was a major factor in Seattle’s decision to sign Tina Charles.
But Magbegor is a good free-throw shooter (her career average is 76.47 percent), a key predictor of three-point shooting, so she definitely has room to improve.
A defensive star in the making
Even after the signing of Tina Charles, there were many who argued that Magbegor should keep starting and the defensive end was the reason for that.
Magbegor is second in the league in blocks per game with an average of 1.76 and leads the league in blocks per 48 minutes (a statistic that accounts for the variation in minutes played).
That includes a career-high seven blocks against Phoenix Mercury on June 12.
At 193 cm and a wingspan of 2 meters, Magbegor’s length gives her presence in the ring.
She can skillfully switch on her opponents, contain them and block the shot.
But Magbegor is not just a color-bound center. Her speed and range mobility allow her to swap out guards and contain them.
Magbegor’s abilities allow the Storm to perform an aggressive pick and roll defense system, forcing guards to fly over Magbegor’s long arms.
And when defending off the ball, Magbegor’s speed and distance can allow her to recover quickly to help and smash away seemingly open layups.
Opals head coach Sandy Brondello says the Opals can benefit as well.
“You can make a lot of different plans because of her athletic ability…she moves quickly from A to B. That allows us to be a little bit more disruptive.”
Magbegor’s only defensive weakness might be her ability to protect the biggest and most skilled mail players she can push around.
However, the retirement of Sylvia Fowles marks the end of that Post player era, and there aren’t that many Post players that would scare you when you face off against Magbegor, either in the WNBA or at the World Championships.
Play a “big part” for the opals
The Opals as a team lack that dominant, individual goalscorer that many of the other world-class teams have — at least until we see what Lauren Jackson can pull off on her comeback.
Ezi Magbegor probably won’t be that player, at least for now.
What she will do is be an excellent part of a team offense, an effective pick and roll player, cutter and transition player who will help the Opals put together an offense.
On the other hand, she can be the kind of dominant defensive player who scares opposing players and helps the Opals win games.
And the Opals want her to stick to her strengths.
“We want her to stay the way she is,” Brondello said.
“Get out and run and get easy baskets.
“She’s a star in the making and she’s going to be a big part of us.”
Basketball fans in Sydney will soon see Magbegor and the Opals take on the best in the world and hopefully improve on their performance from Tokyo.
Any chance of that will depend in large part on Magbegor’s improved WNBA game, which carries over to international basketball.
If she can keep holding her opponents down defensively and outrun them on the other end, the Opals are in good shape to take on the best in the world.
ABC Sport partners with Siren Sport to improve coverage of Australian women in sport.
Georgia Munro-Cook is the captain of Australia’s women’s wheelchair basketball team, Gliders, and has a PhD in History and Gender Studies, specializing in WNBA, from the University of Sydney.