More than a few times last year, Ezi Magbegor displayed glimpses of greatness during her first season with the Storm that put her in the conversation for Rookie of the Year honors.
The 6-foot-4 Australian center started two of the first three games this season before moving to the bench where she struggled to find consistent minutes amid a string of unproductive outings.
During a miserable 14-game stretch, Magbegor averaged just 2.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 10.0 minutes, which caused concern among WNBA observers who believed she was going through a prolonged sophomore slump.
Still, Storm coach Noelle Quinn kept faith in the 21-year-old prodigy, who was chosen to the Australian national team that’s heading to this summer’s Olympic Games.
Quinn attributed Magbegor’s struggles to her adjusting to Seattle’s new lineup and a crowded roster on a championship-contending team that limited her opportunities early in the season.
“Sometimes we look at the game and player’s performances, but as a coach you see what happens day to day and the preparation,” Quinn said. “Ezi had a great offseason as well. The type of player, I wasn’t concerned. It was just a matter of time for all of us to get our comfort and find our sweet spot.
“She stays the course. She doesn’t waiver. … I would always talk to her, and she was always ready. That’s what we’re seeing is the preparation and just the opportunity to showcase what we know she can do.”
When the Storm released 16-year forward Candice Dupree on Friday, everything changed for Magbegor.
That night she tallied 12 points, which tied her scoring total in the previous four games combined, during a 91-88 Seattle win that snapped a two-game skid.
And Sunday, Magbegor put together her best outing in a Storm uniform — a career-high 20 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the floor and was 6 for 6 on free throws.
“The energy she brought running the floor, finishing around the rim, going by her defender, shot blocking, rebounding and all the intangibles that Ezi presents,” Quinn said following the 84-74 win against the Los Angeles Sparks. “All the while keeping a very straight face and going to work and putting her hard hat on and doing whatever we ask of her to do. Amazing effort on both ends of the floor.”
It was a bit of a mystery who would benefit the most from Dupree’s departure, which has also led to more minutes for backup forwards Stephanie Talbot and Kennedy Burke.
Dupree ranks fourth on the WNBA’s all-time scoring list, but the seven-time WNBA All-Star struggled in a limited role off the bench while averaging just 5.9 points and 2.5 rebounds in 16 games.
The 36-year-old veteran averaged 14.4 points and 6.6 rebounds during her previous 15 years in the WNBA before joining Seattle in the offseason on a one-year, $170,000 contract.
The two sides agreed on a $142,000 buyout, according to HerHoopStats.
“It just wasn’t quite the correct fit for us on both sides,” Quinn said. “Sometimes things just don’t work out. As long as there is transparency with what’s going on. We were talking through some things and understanding and trying to adjust through some things with a new system, a new team and things of that nature.
“No hard feelings. Candice is an amazing player, and she’s done amazing things in our league. Her career should be highlighted and will be highlighted someday. She has a lot of basketball to play. It just didn’t work. Good, bad or indifferent. We have players here that we’re focused on.”
The sample size is relatively small, but Magbegor has more than filled the void in the rotation created when Dupree left.
“It’s pretty rewarding, but early on this season I still needed to be more effective with the minutes that I do get,” Magbegor said. “I’m grateful that I got more minutes in the last couple of games, but I think earlier on I still need to bring that energy off the bench and help my teammates where I can, no matter how big or small the minutes.”
Following Wednesday’s 7 p.m. game between the Storm (14-4) and Los Angeles (6-11) at Angel of the Winds Arena, Magbegor and Talbot will join the Australian women’s basketball team in Las Vegas to prepare for the Tokyo Games and miss Seattle’s two contests against the Phoenix Mercury.
Magbegor figures prominently in the Storm’s future considering the No. 12 pick of the 2019 WNBA draft is one of just four players currently with the team who is under contract to return next year.
“Ezi is still developing into where we see her, (and) we see a bright future,” Quinn said. “She’s super athletic. She takes one step and she’s at the rim. Those minutes are going to be available for her to continue to flourish and thrive in those situations. Again, we talk about the preparations. She’s staying prepared. She’s working hard. We see it every day. It’s just a matter of her getting those opportunities and taking advantage of it.”
Magbegor, who continues to back up center Mercedes Russell, has displayed a diverse offensive skill set during her two years that’s comparable to Storm superstar Breanna Stewart.
“We’ve seen glimpses of what Ezi can do and what Ezi can bring to the floor,” guard Sue Bird said. “Obviously, anyone at her size, the way she rebounds and the way she blocks shots, it’s kind of a given. But what we have seen the glimpses of are the times when she’s driving to the basket. Or the times when she gets iso’d one on one on the block. Every now and then has the ability to step out and hit a shot and make you pay if you drop off.
“For somebody who is 21, it’s a pretty good sign when you see these glimpses. As she gets older and she gets more confident in her game and more comfortable in this league, you’ll just see what are glimpses now into more of a consistent all-around game that she brings every single night. It’s easy to forget with her just how young she is. … She’s still really young, and the sky is the limit for her.”
— WNBA All-Star guard Jewell Loyd, who missed Sunday’s game against Los Angeles due to a sprained left ankle, returned to practice Tuesday. Quinn was hopeful Loyd would be able to play Wednesday against LA.