There’s little doubt the Dallas Wings hit the jackpot in the 2019 WNBA draft when it selected Arike Ogunbowale with the No. 5 overall pick.
The second-year point guard, who ranks second in the league with a 20.2 scoring average, will certainly be at the top of the Storm’s scouting report when the teams match up 5 p.m. Friday at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
And the Minnesota Lynx appear to have landed a gem with forward Napheesa Collier, last year’s rookie of the year winner, who was taken one spot behind Ogunbowale.
At the end of the first round, Seattle seemingly took a gamble and used the No. 12 pick on Ezi Magbegor, a little known post player from Australia who stayed home and skipped the WNBA season last year.
Initially, the 6-foot-4 rookie center with a 6-7 wingspan didn’t appear to have a spot on a veteran-laden team that’s in contention for its second WNBA championship in three years.
“She’s a pretty intriguing player because she’s long and she’s really athletic,” coach Gary Kloppenburg said after the team’s first training camp practice on July 11. “She’s advanced. I know she’s had some good coaching down there in Australia. … I imagine if she had played in college, she would be a top-five player (in the draft).
“She’s got a tremendous upside. Great attitude. Really smart. Wants to get better. She’s a student of the game and she’s picking stuff up very quickly. It’s going to be fun to see. There’s no pressure on her. We have a good, deep team and we’ll just work with her and try to develop her. I can see her getting some time this year for sure.”
A little more than a month later, Magbegor has exceeded expectations while rocketing up the depth chart and becoming a fixture in the rotation.
Heading into Friday’s games, Magbegor led the WNBA with a 66.7% field goal percentage, while averaging 6.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 13 minutes.
“I wasn’t really sure what to expect,” she said Monday during a Zoom call after scoring a career-high 13 points on 6-for-8 shooting against the Chicago Sky. “I was expecting the physicality to be a lot greater, which it definitely is. So just getting used to that.
“I’ve got such a great team around me, so they helped me fit into the league and get used to the style of play. …. It’s adjusting on the fly and implementing that into games.”
Magbegor’s transition from the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBL) in Australia to the WNBA has been easier after fostering mentoring relationships with guard Jewell Loyd and forward Crystal Langhorne.
“Obviously, I’m not a post player so I can’t give her tips for playing down there, but I want her to understand that she can always have someone to talk to,” Loyd said. “I know the potential that she has. I want her to feel comfortable and completely herself all the time.”
Langhorne, 33, reached out to the 21-year-old Storm rookie early in training camp and began tutoring sessions that covers a wide-range of topics, including scouting reports on WNBA players.
“My rookie year, I was just kind of out there and no one really helped me with that stuff and I remembered that,” said Langhorne, a 13-year WNBA veteran who is one of four active players to appear in 400 games. “As a vet, I don’t want any young player to feel like that. I just try to help her all the time.
“I just know it helps if someone — especially at your same position — talks to you and helps you through things.”
Said Magbegor: “When we’re on the bench, she’s always telling me this player is doing this, so be ready for that. She’s always constantly preparing me for those matchups with those players, which is super helpful.”
Magbegor’s rapid ascension through the ranks has come at the expense of Langhorne, Mercedes Russell and Natasha Howard, whose production has dipped from last season.
At times, the league’s youngest player has been the Storm’s best post player behind two-time WNBA All-Star Breanna Stewart.
“Sometimes with rookies they second guess,” Stewart said. “Ezi came in and was like, ‘This is what I can do. I can get offensive rebounds. I can get put backs. I can take you off the dribble and I can block shots.’ With her being a sponge and continuing to be really open on stuff and willing to learn, she can go a long way.”
It’s premature to suggest Magbegor is vying for the WNBA Rookie of the Year award, but the race is wide open considering the top candidates — New York’s Sabrina Ionescu and Atlanta’s Chennedy Carter — will miss a handful of games due to injuries.
Magbegor doesn’t have the burden or responsibility of carrying a team like many of the league’s top rookies. She’s been able to make significant strides in relative anonymity off the bench similar to Storm reserves Jordin Canada and Sami Whitcomb.
“That second unit is a big reason why we’ve been able to win these games,” Kloppenburg said. “It’s a good role for Ezi right now.”
The Storm (8-1) doesn’t need Magbegor to be a star just yet.
However, if the early results are an indication, Seattle might have nabbed a budding star to pair with Stewart for the next 5-10 years.
“It’s exciting for the franchise, for the organization and for Seattle,” Stewart said. “I’m just looking forward to what’s coming up. … Ezi is going to maximize her potential and it’s going to be exciting.
“You can see that she’s expanding her game already. She can shoot the three and make herself an outside threat. It’s going to be a tough matchup when the two of us are in the game. You’ll have to give up something.”
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