Scouting Overseas: Can Ezi Magbegor & Mercedes Russell Keep the Storm Afloat?

For the Seattle Storm, this chaotic offseason has brought an overwhelming amount of goodbyes. During free agency, the reigning champions lost three key pieces from the roster that carried them to two titles in the past three years: Alysha Clark signed a new deal with the Washington Mystics, while a sign-and-trade sent Sami Whitcomb and former Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard to the New York Liberty. 

The Storm have offset their losses at the wing positions, bringing in Katie Lou Samuelson and Mikiah Herbert Harrigan in subsequent trades with Dallas and Minnesota. But when it comes to filling the hole in Seattle’s starting lineup left by Natasha Howard’s departure, the Storm appear to be looking inward. 

Barring another big trade, the Storm project to go young at the five, splitting minutes between centers Ezi Magbegor and Mercedes Russell, who will be entering their second and fourth years in the WNBA, respectively. While both Magbegor and Russell have shown flashes of potential in the early stages of their careers, they are stepping into shoes incredibly difficult to fill. Natasha Howard played a huge role in the Storm’s success during her tenure with the team, anchoring the league’s top defense last season (first in defensive rating) and playing at MVP level to keep the team in contention when Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart missed the 2019 season.

While no one expects Magbegor or Russell to transform into MVP candidates overnight, the Storm will look to their young bigs to step up, each taking on a larger role as they split the newly freed-up minutes. The question remains: Can Magbegor and Russell play at a high enough level to allow the Seattle Storm to compete for a third title in four years? 

We won’t know the answer for sure until the summer, but we can begin to get a picture by looking overseas. Both players have gotten a chance to play starting minutes in international play, with Russell playing for Turkish club Galatasaray and Magbegor playing with the Melbourne Boomers in her native Australia. Up against some of the world’s best basketball talent in EuroLeague and the Australian WNBL, Magbegor and Russell have had plenty of opportunities to show off all they can contribute for Seattle next season—as well as the parts of their game they’ll have to work on to help the Storm reach their ceiling. 

 

Rebounding

One of the most important things Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor will need to bring to the Storm this year at center, obviously, is rebounding. Both have put up respectable rebounding numbers overseas, with Ezi grabbing 8.8 rebounds per game (rpg) with the Boomers, and Russell averaging 7.3 rpg, tied for twelfth in EuroLeague play. But big numbers like that are to be expected with both players on the taller side of international centers at 6’4”—how much do these averages actually tell us about their ability to rebound against WNBA talent?

With Natasha Howard’s departure, the Storm lost one of the most aggressive hustlers on the glass in the WNBA. Though on the smaller end of WNBA centers at 6’2”, Howard more than makes up for the size disparity when rebounding, outworking and outsmarting opposing players and ending last season 15th in the league in overall rebounding, and, perhaps even more importantly, seventh in the league in offensive boards. To replicate the success Seattle has had over the past few seasons, Magbegor and Russell need to bring that same brand of intensity and good decision-making when hitting the glass, especially on the offensive end.

Ezi Magbegor’s 8.8 rpg for Melbourne are jump-off-the-page impressive, good for fourth in the WNBL even while sharing the floor with fellow top-five rebounder Cayla George. Clearly, Magbegor is able to leverage her size into consistent rebounding in most situations; one small concern, though, is her ability to rebound against larger defenders, like in this play against Liz Cambage, who stands at 6’8”, and her Southside Flyers.

While Magbegor starts under the basket, ready to contest for an offensive rebound, Cambage is able to shimmy her out of position with ease by the time the ball hits the rim. Being strong-armed on one possession by a player like Liz Cambage is not necessarily a huge condemnation of Magbegor’s game; however, Magbegor will be called upon to contest Cambage and players of her size and caliber on the boards in extended minutes for the Storm, and they’re going to need her to step up and hold her position on the low block. 

Over in the EuroLeague, Mercedes Russell has looked ready to rumble for rebounds. Having established herself as a reliable rebounder averaging 6.1 rpg for a short-staffed Storm team in 2019, Russell looks skilled and aggressive on the glass in play for Galatasaray. Take this board from the club’s match last month against French squad Basket Landes, where Russell skies for an offensive rebound over multiple defenders.

A few things stand out about this play. Russell gets to her spot early, positioning herself for the offensive board before her teammate, Epiphanny Prince, even lets the three fly. She does a good job tracking the ball’s motion once she’s established this position, and remains fluid and mobile enough to hunt it down, even slipping around a box out in the process. Russell is able to avoid stepping out of bounds despite all this motion and the bodies around her, drawing a foul and getting sent to the line. This kind of fierce, smart rebounding is an incredibly encouraging sign from Russell, especially on the offensive glass. If she can keep this kind of play up into the WNBA season, Seattle’s shooters will feel that much more confident letting it fly.

 

Post offense

While Seattle gets most of their offense from stars at the guard and wing positions, it’s always good to pair that with a center who can find her spots cutting to the rim and posting up on possessions when defenses overcommit to Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird, or Jewell Loyd. Luckily for Seattle, Ezi Magbegor may slot perfectly into that rim-running, posting-up utility role in their offense. Magbegor averaged 15.4 points per game (ppg) in Australia this past season, ninth overall in the WNBL. While it’s doubtful that she’ll hit that same mark playing in the WNBA next season, she has shown her offensive success is the real deal. 

In the small sample of minutes Ezi Magbegor played for Seattle last year, Ezi looked great on cuts to the basket, scoring 39 points on 30 such possessions, putting her in the 55th percentile in the league, per Synergy. Over in Australia, though, she’s looked even more fatal on cuts to the basket. Just look at this give and go, where she creates her own offense by passing to the top of the key, clearing room for Magbegor to cut to the basket and draw the mismatch for two easy points.

In a system like Seattle’s, filled to the brim with premier perimeter talent, this kind of play could be Magbegor’s bread and butter offensively. Another area where Magbegor has continued to thrive is transition offense, number one overall in transition last season (per Synergy) with 1.846 points per possession (ppp), though in small sample size (24 points on 13 possessions). Playing with the Boomers, however, Magbegor has gotten a chance to show that her high marks are no fluke. Magbegor does excellent work of navigating fast break opportunities, like in this this play, where she hunts down a smaller player in transition after a missed free throw from Liz Cambage:

With Seattle having so many offensive options for opposing defenses to cover, it’s easy to see Magbegor continuing to find opportunities to wreak mayhem in transition this WNBA season. All in all, Ezi Magbegor projects to be an exciting and dynamic piece of Seattle’s offense next season.

Mercedes Russell struggled on offense for Seattle last season, coming in at 0.75 points per offensive possession according to Synergy, and shooting just 41 percent from the floor. She’s fairing far better with Galatasaray, however, putting up 13.7 ppg on 57.4 percent shooting across the club’s six EuroLeague matches. Hopefully for Seattle, having success overseas will help Russell enter the 2021 season with a renewed confidence in her offensive game. The tools are there for Russell to contribute, she just has to have the sureness in her game to break them out consistently. Look at this slick looking Dirk-style one-legged fadeaway she broke out in January after posting up a defender:

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Defense

Of course, Seattle depended on Natasha Howard’s defense more than anything else; thus, they will look to Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor to step up defensively this season. In particular, the two of them will have to lock down the post and disrupt offenses by forcing turnovers in order to emulate the role Howard played in Seattle’s defensive success.

Luckily, Mercedes Russell looks up for the task. Mercedes has shown a lot of promise defensively over her young career, and showed solid defensive efficiency last year, allowing just 36 points on the 49 man-to-man possessions, putting her toward the top of the league in overall defense—in the 88th percentile, per Synergy. While this may be small sample size theater, Russell has backed up these numbers by playing some really nice looking defense for Galatasaray. She’s averaged a solid one steal per game over EuroLeague play, but, even more importantly, has established a strong post presence, forcing mistakes and preventing buckets. Just look at this play, where Russell establishes firm post position early, defends actively with her feet, and is able to force Basket Landes forward Abby Gaye to take—and miss—a worse shot.

But her disruptiveness in the paint doesn’t end there. Like the outgoing Natasha Howard, Russell is able to use smart and aggressive defense to force turnovers. In this play later in the same match, Russell locks up Gaye in the high post, keeping her out of her comfort zone close to the basket and forcing her to make a wild pass into the paint that ends up flying out of bounds.

For Ezi Magbegor, defense should be a priority for her as she looks to add to her already promising skillset. Magbegor had some defensive struggles last season for the Seattle Storm, particularly having trouble defending the few post-ups she was called on to defend last year, giving up 15 points on 16 possessions, putting her in just the 36th percentile when guarding such plays. All the physical tools are there for Magbegor to be a successful defender—her height, her strength, her length. What she really needs to get there is more time and reps defending elite offensive talent to help her develop her defensive decision-making. Take this play, where she overcommits to trying to deny an entry pass into the paint, isn’t able to deflect that pass when it comes, and ends up allowing Liz Cambage an open path to an easy bucket.

All in all, Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor have the opportunity to be difference makers this coming season for the Seattle Storm, taking their young careers to a new level. In many ways, the Storm’s ability to be a top-level contender rests on their center rotation’s ability to provide value in a support role. Between Magbegor’s brimming offensive potential, and Russell’s burgeoning ability to lock down the post, they might just have what it takes.

 

WNBA stats courtesy of stats.wnba.com and Synergy. EuroLeague stats courtesy of fiba.basketball. WNBL stats courtesy of wnbl.basketball. 

Game clips courtesy of the FIBA and WNBL YouTube channels.

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