For the best part of a decade, the Opals relied rather successfully on an imposing paint presence. Now, Ezi Magbegor looks like she’s ready to take on the responsibility as their most valuable big, and most valuable player. Australia should push all the chips to the centre.
Thrust into the role, she has often been the conduit offensively but has also brought a fresh defensive intensity.
The 21-year-old’s stellar play at the Games was enough to see the Aussies squeeze through to the quarter-finals after a late demolition of Puerto Rico.
It should’ve been enough against China but Magbegor wasn’t fed the rock even though she went six of nine from the field while the Opals’ shooting abandoned them until it was (almost) too late.
The rising star wasn’t as prolific on Monday night, as Marianna Tolo assumed that role exceptionally and chewed up a lot of Magbegor’s playing time. However, a win against Puerto Rico, as exhilarating as it was, won’t be giving the USA night sweats.
If the Opals are any hope of medalling in Tokyo, the Aussie front court is the how and Magbegor is the who. But Ezi, who went 59 per cent from the floor in the group stage, needs more touches and more shot attempts.
For comparison, Belgium’s Emma Meesseman, who is leading the tournament with 27 points per game, is shooting a similar percentage but gets up 19 shots each contest. Ezi gets ten.
It’s becoming glaringly clear that she is one of the few who can create her own shot. Rather than reinventing the way the Opals have learnt to play on short notice, they should plug Magbegor into the Liz Cambage-moulded offence more often, position her in the post early, and see how it goes.
Should they fail, Magbegor would at least have that experience.
From failing to make an under-16s Victorian metropolitan team to Australia’s should-be focal point in the Olympic Games, Magbegor’s rise for the Opals, much like her predecessor’s fall, wasn’t forecast.
Her origins don’t exude Australian-ness… whatever that is. She was born in New Zealand to Nigerian parents, and moved across the ditch at the age of six.
But as many Olympians have proven, Aussie spirit has little to do with birthplace. Ezi Magbegor has pedestalled an Opals jersey, or bodysuit I guess, for a long time and couldn’t see herself playing in anything else.
“I remember coming home from school and watching the Beijing Olympics,” she told Women’s Health before the Games.
“But it was seeing the Opals play in Rio that made me think, ‘I definitely want to be at the Olympics one day’.”
If who Magbegor idolises is any tell, the Aussie could be in for an outstanding career.
“I really look up to Lauren Jackson and what she’s achieved and done for the sport,” she told Women’s Health.
“She had a prolonged career and played in the WNBA and really showed people what she was made of.”
The Olympics have certainly spotlighted what this 21-year-old is made of. Going forward, she seems comfortable as the Opals’ go-to. Magbegor even acknowledged this onus speaking to News Corp following Liz Cambage’s unexpected departure.
“Obviously, I’ll have to contribute a little bit more in this new role,” she said.
“But I think I play better when I play free and when I can play without any pressure.”
While not wanting to heap on that pressure, comparisons to Cambage are inevitable given the position, given the responsibility for the team’s success.
The Opals’ success at the Olympics have come when they insert Magbegor into that Camabage template, using the young big as the main channel for the offence.
If only there was some sort of gauge to see how Magbegor stacks up against the Opals’ former best player. Hold up…
When Magbegor matched it with Cambage
The two clashed in the WNBA back in May and, undersized, Magbegor held her own in the paint in her first start of the season. While not matched up on her Australian counterpart for the entire game, she managed to out-rebound Cambage and post a double-double in the process.
Magbegor finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, while Cambage had 18 points and eight boards as well as the win.
Similar stat lines. Similar roles. Similar Olympic success? Maybe.
But Magbegor has continually displayed something entirely different to Cambage, notwithstanding three and a half inches in height and a welcome humility.
A game-high 17 points against the gold-medal favourities in Vegas. A game-high 20-points against Belgium. A game-h… you get the point. Only that’s not different. Cambage could do that, Cambage did do that – she did it better. The real addition to the Opals’ playing dynamic is in the 80-odd feet of hardwood before the Australian basket.
Opals coach Sandy Brondello spoke highly of this perk before the Olympics.
“It allows us to play a little bit faster, it allows us to play a little more aggressive on defence, it allows us to run,” she said.
Yet, Brondello hasn’t fully committed to the young centre.
Running the floor is pivotal as it means the Opals don’t always have to face a set defence, which can get them into trouble on poor shooting nights.
See Ezi’s transition and one with three minutes left in the fourth quarter against China as a case in point.
It means Australia can switch more confidently, can better guard the perimeter and can play a scrappier brand of defence. Illustratively, Magbegor is leading the Opals in blocks and is second in steals. Scrappy indeed.
— 7Olympics (@7olympics) August 2, 2021
Plus, she can shift laterally to stay in front of smaller guards, which means fewer blowbys and more of this:
— 7Olympics (@7olympics) July 27, 2021
It remains to be seen if the Opals will have the same kind of success under the skilful centre. But there is versatility and there is promise if they dare to put her in the driver’s seat. Such an honour wouldn’t be received so blithely by Ezi either.
“I didn’t consider myself a role model until recently,” Magbegor told Women’s Health.
“Young people send messages or come up to me, or parents tell me their daughter looks up to me, which is really nice.
“I want to show people that nice is cool, I guess.”
Who knows if a neck-straining sum of medals is in Magbegor’s path but if the Opals don’t buy in, they might be leaving one in Tokyo.