Ezi Magbegor becomes the first University of Canberra Capitals player to win the WNBL Rookie of the Year Award

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On Thursday, January 11 University of Canberra Capitals forward Ezi Magbegor was announced as the winner of the WNBL’s 2017/18 Betty Watson Rookie of the Year Award, polling 41 of a possible 42 votes. Ezi was very efficient in her debut WNBL season during 2017/18, shooting the ball at 52% from the field and averaging 6.6 points per game from under 13 minutes court-time per game.

At the end of the 2017/18 WNBL season the coaches and captains from all eight WNBL club’s each cast their 3,2,1 votes for the Rookie of the Year Award and were unable to vote for players from their WNBL club. Magbegor became the first University of Canberra Capitals player to win the WNBL’s Rookie of the Year Award, falling one vote short of receiving the maximum votes possible. The Canberra Capitals also had the runner-up – point guard Madison Rocci on 24 votes ahead of  Dandenong Rangers forward Kiera Rowe in third place on 14 votes.

On winning the Betty Watson WNBL Rookie of the Year Award Magbegor commented “There are so many experienced girls who have come before me who have won this award, so it is honestly such an honour to receive it.” Previous winners of the WNBL Rookie of the Year Award include Ezi’s Canberra frontcourt teammate Lauren Scherf and Australian Opals Olympians Lauren Jackson, Laura Hodges, Kathleen MacLeod, Abby Bishop, Cayla George and Steph Talbot.

Of the players in the WNBL that made at least 10 field goals during the 2017/18 season Ezi ranked fourth for field goal accuracy – shooting at 52% from the field to be ranked behind fellow front-court players Liz Cambage (61%), Jennifer Hamson (55%) and Darcee Garbin (53%).

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In early July 2017 Ezi signed with the University of Canberra Capitals for the 2017/18 WNBL season, commenting “I’m excited to sign with the UC Capitals and I’m looking forward to playing against and learning from some of the best players in the league. Lauren Scherf is someone I look up to, who can play both outside on the perimeter as a shooter and inside the paint, so it will be good to learn from her. Getting that exposure in the WNBL and having [head coach] Paul Goriss as coach is a great opportunity for me to improve my game.”1

Goriss had previously coached Ezi at Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence and in the Australian junior program. The rapport between player and coach made Ezi’s transition to playing in the WNBL and the decision to join Canberra easier. On the Capitals signing Ezi for the 2017/18 season Goriss commented “Ezi is arguably one of the best players in her age group in the world. She can run the floor very well; she can rebound, block and change shots. She has exceptional athletic talent. We are giving Ezi the opportunity to come and play in the WNBL and get some experience which she needs to be a future Opal. We are delighted to welcome her to the UC Capitals family.”2

Before making her WNBL debut Magbegor had proven herself on the international stage at junior level, representing Australia in three under-age tournaments including the 2016 Under 17 World Championship where she was part of the Australian Sapphire’s team that won the gold medal, and she was also awarded individual honours – being named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) and was selected in the All-Star 5. Ezi had also played three seasons in the SEABL for the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence from 2015 to 2017, in 2017 she averaged 13.1 points and 9.0 rebounds per game whilst having a field goal accuracy of 57.4%.

Whilst Magbegor played her debut WNBL season she also completed her year 12 studies at UC Senior Secondary College Lake Ginninderra. In July 2016 Ezi commented to SBS.com.au on her playing style, saying “I just try to work on running hard on offence and defence, getting good posts, defence as well and focusing on all the little things that add up. Being a big it’s good to be athletic and I think I can use it to my advantage. There are girls bigger than me and obviously I’m not as strong as them, I just get knocked over, but I use my athleticism to my advantage.”3

Only three players from Canberra’s 2016/17 core rotation returned for the 2017/18 season – guards Kate Gaze and Abigail Wehrung along with forward Keely Froling, however the club recruited several experienced players as well as some talented youngsters for the 2017/18 season. One of the most decorated players in the history of the Canberra Capitals returned and was appointed club captain – point guard Natalie Hurst who is the only player to have been involved in all seven Canberra WNBL Championships. Other experienced recruits included three players with WNBA experience – imports Mistie Bass and Jordan Hooper along with two time Australian Opals Olympian Rachel Jarry. Magbegor was joined on the Capitals roster by one of her BA CoE teammates in point guard Maddison Rocci. The Capitals also recruited small forward Chevy Paalvast and 21 year old forward/centre Lauren Scherf who had been a teammate of Ezi’s on the Australian Gems Under 19 team at the 2015 World Championships.

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In Canberra’s first game of the 2017/18 season on October 6 Magbegor made her WNBL debut against the Bendigo Spirit less than two months after her 18th birthday, Ezi impressed on debut scoring 12 points with a field goal accuracy of 63% and also had eight rebounds in the Capitals 13 point victory in a home game at the National Convention Centre. In her debut WNBL game Magbegor ranked equal first for rebounds for the game and was Canberra’s fourth highest scorer, playing 20 minutes and seven seconds court-time. The Canberra Capitals defeated Adelaide by seven points in their second game of the season to improve their record to 2-0 but then had a 13 game losing streak.

At the National Convention Centre in a Round 3 game against the Melbourne Boomers Ezi excelled,  scoring a team-high 11 points, had an equal team-high five rebounds, two assists and two blocks. Magbegor made five of her 10 field goal attempts in 19 minutes and 51 seconds court-time.

In her next five games Ezi scored five points or less, however this was followed by her most prolific stretch of the season – seven consecutive games from November 11 to December 9 where she scored at least eight points and had an accuracy of at least 50% from the field in all seven games.  This sequence commenced against Perth on the road in Round 6 with Ezi scoring 12 points – ranked second for the Capitals behind Jordan Hooper with 13, took seven rebounds and shot the ball at 50% from the field.

In consecutive games in the middle of the season at the State Basketball Centre in Melbourne Magbegor set her season-highs for two major categories, rebounds in the first game and points in the second game. Against the Melbourne Boomers in Round 7 Ezi set her season high for rebounds in a game with nine – ranked first for the Capitals in this game. Ezi also scored nine points, blocked two shots and shot the ball at 50% from the field. In a 24 hour period from 5.30 pm on Saturday November 25 each of the eight WNBL clubs played a game at the State Basketball Centre for the Cluster round in Round 8. In the opening game of the SBC Cluster the University of Canberra Capitals played the Bendigo Spirit and whilst the Capitals lost a thrilling game by three points Ezi demonstrated why she is considered one of the best teenage basketball players, not just in Australia but the world. Ezi led Canberra for scoring with 16 points against the Bendigo Spirit in just 15 minutes and 50 seconds game-time which equated to scoring a point every minute she was on court. Magbegor shot the ball at an exceptional 70% from the field – making seven of her 10 field goal attempts, she also had four rebounds, one steal and blocked one shot. With her height and athleticism Magbegor proved to be a difficult match-up, being adept at making jump shots and also after getting the ball behind the three-point line was able to dribble and drive past her direct opponent to the basket.

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On December 1 Ezi was selected in the Australian Opals squad for training camp 1 to be held in early February 2018 at the AIS training base in Italy as part of the Opals preparations for the 2018 Commonwealth Games with the Women’s basketball games to be played in Townsville and on the Gold Coast between April 5 and April 15. Magbegor was joined in the Opals squad by Canberra Capitals captain Nat Hurst who led the WNBL with 6.8 assists per game in 2017/18. The initial 18 player squad contained 13 players that played in the WNBL during 2017/18 and included 11 players that have represented the Australian Opals at the Olympic Games.  Earlier this month another three players including Perth Lynx guard Sami Whitcomb were added to the Opals squad for training camp 1.

During a Round 10 game against Sydney Magbegor was in double figures for points scored for the fifth time in 2017/18, scoring 10 points, had a team-high eight rebounds, blocked two shots and made five of her seven field goals for an accuracy of 71% in just 13 minutes and 28 seconds court-time.

In episode 11 of radio station SEN’s ‘WNBL Show’ on 12 December, 2017 Ezi Magbegor spoke to the show’s co-hosts Megan Hustwaite and Sara Blicavs. When asked about her toughest opponents in her debut WNBL season Ezi responded “A few of the toughest have definitely been Liz, Suzy, Cayla, those bigger players and more experienced players. I am used to blocking people that are shorter than me but now I get blocked, my first time going up against Liz I got blocked, I guess it is a learning experience because I have to learn how to counter her blocking me. Just playing against great players like them has been the toughest so far.”

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On being included in Opals squad for Camp 1 in preparation for the Commonwealth Games Ezi commented “I am very excited and very grateful that I have been given the opportunity, being able to train with some of the best girls in Australia is really exciting. What to expect? Just a great learning experience for me, being able to compete against Cayla, Abby, all those more experienced girls is just going to be a really good experience and I am really excited.”

In mid-December Ezi attended the University of Canberra Senior Secondary College Lake Ginninderra graduation ceremony and was recognised for her outstanding results academically and on the basketball court, receiving the University of Canberra Vice Chancellor’s Award. The University of Canberra’s Dean of Education, Professor Geoffrey Riordan commented on Ezi “Her success is partly due to her high level of commitment to the Centre of Excellence program at the Australian Institute of Sport and she was signed by the University of Canberra Capitals in 2017 where she has combined playing in the WNBL with completing year 12 classes with excellent results. Ezi’s maturity and humility has ensured that she is highly respected by her peers and teachers.”4

Magbegor didn’t play a Round 11 game against Bendigo and scored less than five points in each of her next three games, however in two of these games she played less than 10 minutes court-time. In Canberra’s last game of the WNBL season Magbegor scored at least 10 points in a game for the sixth time in 2017/18, scoring 13 points – ranked equal second for Canberra in the club’s upset five point victory against the Perth Lynx at the National Convention Centre. In the victory Magbegor also had a team-high eight rebounds and shot the ball at 67% from the field – making six of her nine field goal attempts in 16 minutes court-time.

Canberra finished the season strongly, winning five of their last six games of the season to have a record of seven wins and 14 losses to finish sixth on the ladder, recording an identical win-loss record to the Jayco Rangers but finished above them due to winning their head to head season series 2-1. Canberra finished three games ahead of the last placed Bendigo Spirit and five games behind the fourth placed Melbourne Boomers.

During the 2017/18 WNBL season Magbegor played 20 of the University of Canberra Capitals 21 games for the season, averaging 6.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 0.4 assists, 1.2 blocks, 0.8 steals and 12 minutes and 48 seconds court-time per game. Magbegor ranked sixth at Canberra for total points, fifth for rebounds and steals and led the club for blocks with 23 – 11 more than Mistie Bass who ranked second. Magbegor ranked eighth in the WNBL for blocks per game with 1.15 and at 18 years of age was easily the youngest player to rank in the top 10 of the league in this category with the next youngest being 23 year old Jayco Rangers forward Carley Mijovic. WNBL Rookie of the Year Runner-up Rocci averaged 3.9 points, 1.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game.

One of the challenges Magbegor faced in the 2017/18 season was being able to adjust to starting games on the bench and make an impact in limited minutes when she was used to being a starter and playing a prominent role for her previous team’s. Magbegor proved to be very effective in her game-time this season and of all the players that averaged less than 15 minutes court-time during the 2017/18 WNBL season and played at least five games for the season Magbegor was the only one to average more than 5.0 points per game. At the University of Canberra Capitals 2017/18 season awards Magbegor won the Capital on the Rise Award.

In a video posted on the WNBL website to celebrate her receiving the Rookie of the Year Award Ezi commented on her debut WNBL season, “Towards the middle of the season, that is when I got a bit more comfortable and had a couple of good games, as the season went on I definitely got a lot more comfortable.” Ezi spoke about what she learnt playing in the WNBL, commenting “I have been used to playing a major role on a team, like starting in everything, that was a different experience for me, coming off the bench, when I come on playing those hard minutes and then coming back off.” On what she learnt from her University of Canberra Capitals teammates Ezi said “All the bigs, Lauren, Mistie, Hooper, playing against them at training was awesome, and especially Mistie, she would always have something to say to me, have something to help me improve my game. Nat as a captain was awesome, she was always constructive, but what she said really had an impact on everyone’s games, I think I can speak on behalf of all the girls when I say that.”

Early life

Eziyoda Magbegor was born on 13 August 1999 in Wellington, New Zealand. Magbegor’s parents Patience and Appolu are both Nigerian. When Ezi was six years old her family moved from Wellington to Craigieburn in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Ezi has two older siblings Elo and Ovie, and one younger sibling AJ.

Ezi started playing basketball when she was seven years old, joining her older siblings in playing for the Coburg Giants Basketball Club. In an interview with sbs.com.au in July 2016 Ezi spoke about playing at Coburg, her height and her junior basketball career, commenting “Coburg’s a really great club, family orientated. Everyone knows each other, it’s like your second family. I was always tall as a kid but when I started high school all of a sudden I got taller than everyone else. Up until top age under-12’s I wasn’t that good at basketball, I used to just run up and down the court and hope for the best! It wasn’t until under-14’s and under-16s where people saw something in me, up until then I’d just played for fun.”5

Ezi’s basketball progressed quickly and after representing Vic Metro at junior national championships and impressing Ezi accepted a scholarship at Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence in early 2015 which resulted in her moving away from her family to Canberra when she was just 15 years old.

SEABL career

Ezi played basketball for the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence in the SEABL in three seasons from 2015 to 2017. In Ezi’s first SEABL season BA CoE head coach Paul Gorris commented in May 2015 on her early season form “Magbegor has stood up to be an efficient player around the basket in changing shots and rebounding. She has a very bright future at only 15.”6 Magbegor played 14 games for the BA CoE in 2015, averaging 5.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.

During the 2016 and 2017 SEABL seasons Magbegor played a more prominent role for the BA CoE, In both seasons Magbegor played alongside several players that have been team-mates on Australian junior representative teams including Maddison Rocci, Kiera Rowe, Rebecca Pizzey, Jaz Shelley, Abby Cubillo and Samantha Simons. Another SEABL teammate at the BA CoE was Zitina Aokuso who is playing for the Townsville Fire during the 2017/18 WNBL season. Over the two seasons Magbegor played a total of 28 games for BA CoE, averaging 12.2 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. Magbegor was one of the most accurate shooters from the field in the SEABL for both the 2016 and 2017 seasons, having a field goal accuracy of 59.8% in 2016 and 57.4% in 2017. Of the players that made at least 10 field goals Magbegor ranked second in the SEABL for field goal accuracy in both seasons. During 2016 Ezi led the BA CoE for scoring and rebounding whilst in 2017 she ranked second for scoring behind Rocci and led the team for rebounding. In 2017 the BA CoE had a record of nine wins and five losses which equates to winning 64.3% of their games, ranked third in their conference, however they were ineligible to play finals.

In late November 2017 it was announced that Magbegor will be playing for the Diamond Valley Eagles in the SEABL competition in 2018. It will the Diamond Valley’s first season in the SEABL, a couple of Ezi’s Canberra Capitals team-mates will also be team-mates at Diamond Valley in Lauren Scherf and Abigail Wehrung.

Career representing Australian junior teams

At just 15 years of age Magbegor made her first appearance for Australia at a junior world championship, representing the Australian Gems at the 2015 under 19 world championships held in Russia during July. Ezi was the youngest member of the Gems team with several of her team-mates being three years older than her including Scherf, Alanna Smith and Kristy Wallace.  The Gems coached by Paul Goriss won their first five games of the tournament to progress to a semi-final where they were defeated by Russia 76-57. The Gems won the bronze medal game against Spain 69-62.

Magbegor played all seven games for Australia at the tournament but understandably given her age played limited game-time, averaging 3.6 points, 3.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocked shots and 8.7 minutes per game. Ezi ranked equal second at the Gems for blocked shots with Scherf, behind Smith.

The Australian Sapphires entered the 2016 under 17 World Championships held in Spain during June and July having never finished better than fifth at the tournament. Some impressive lead-up form including a three point loss to the USA in a warm-up game had the Australian camp confident that they could surpass the Sapphires previous best performance. Australia started the tournament in great fashion, winning all three of their group games against Mexico (98-38), the People’s Republic of China (66-41) and France (55-48). In the quarter final against Czech Republic Ezi scored a game-high 20 points, had eight rebounds – ranked second for the Sapphires, and blocked six shots to account for 60% of the blocks in the game by both teams combined. Magbegor made eight of her 11 field goals for an accuracy of 71% and also made four of her five free-throws in the Sapphires 83-53 victory.

In the semi-final Australia defeated the USA 73-60, Magbegor scored 10 points – ranked equal second for Australia, had a game-high 10 rebounds and an equal game-high four blocked shots. The Australian Sapphires outscored Italy in every quarter of the final to have a comfortable 62-38 victory to win the gold medal and be crowned world champions. In the final Ezi scored 13 points, had nine rebounds and a team-high three blocked shots.

Magbegor started all six games for the Australian Sapphires at the tournament, averaging 12.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game, shooting the ball at 55% from the field. Magbegor was named the tournament MVP and was one of three Australian Sapphires to be named in the All-Star five along with forward Jasmine Simmons and point guard Monique Conti who is Magbegor’s predecessor as WNBL Rookie of the Year, having won the award in 2016/17 playing for the Melbourne Boomers and is part of the Boomers team that has made the 2017/18 Grand Final against the Townsville Fire. Ezi had at least eight rebounds in five of her games at the tournament and scored more than 11 points in a game four times. Despite being so dominant Ezi played just over 50% court-time – averaging 21.5 minutes per game, factors in Ezi not playing more court-time were Australia easily winning a couple of games, the depth of the Australian team and wanting to spread the workload as well as Ezi being in foul trouble in a couple of games. Ezi led the Sapphires for scoring and blocked shots, ranked second for rebounding behind Simmons, fifth for steals and assists, and third for minutes played. Other members of the 2016 gold medal winning Australian Sapphires team were Jaz Shelley, Kiera Rowe, Rebecca Pizzey, Abby Cubillo, Samantha Simons, Cassidy McLean, Lara McSpadden, Lucy Cochrane and Miela Goodchild.

After the tournament head coach of the gold medal winning Australian Sapphires team at the under 17 World Championships Shannon Seebohm commented to basketball.net.au “I couldn’t be prouder of my team. When we got together for our camp to select the team, we talked about being the best defensive team in the world and really committing to that side of the ball and I could not have imagined it to go any better. It’s an unbelievable feeling. I can see a lot of our girls playing for the Opals one day.”7

When Magbegor was asked on radio station SEN’S the ‘WNBL Show’ “How amazing was that experience” (of winning gold with the Sapphires at the Under 17 World Championships in 2016)? Ezi responded “It was so amazing, going into the tournament we all gelled and had a really good team. We got along on and off the court, being able to get the end result that we wanted was amazing.”

Sapphires head coach Shannon Seebohm commented on Magbegor “The sky’s the limit with Ezi, it’s rare to see a player of her size and athleticism come along. Ezi’s skill level is still developing and if she continues to work hard on that, refine her game and really carve out a unique skill set for herself then anything is possible for her. I certainly hope we see her play for Australia at senior level, very soon I think, and from there anything is possible. She’s very unique. At the World Championships there wasn’t another Ezi Magbegor going around. I’ve been amazed by her level of maturity, which is a credit to her and her family. She’s got a smile that lights up the room, a lot of people have said that and she’s very charismatic. I don’t think you’d find anyone that didn’t like her, she’s a very special kid.”8

At the 2017 FIBA Under 19 World Cup in Italy during July Australia finished second in Group D, defeating Hungry by 24 points and Mexico by 75 points but lost to Japan by five points. The Sapphires defeated Latvia by five points in a Round of 16 game and were defeated by Russia 65-67 in a quarter final. In the classification games for fifth to eight place Australia defeated China 70-64 and lost to France 45-47 to finish the tournament in sixth place. Magbegor led the Australian Gems for scoring and blocked shots, ranked equal first for steals with Jaz Shelley, second for rebounds behind Anneli Maley and fourth for minutes played.

Epilogue

In her teens Ezi has taken giant strides with her basketball and it is certainly no longer a case of her running up and down the court and hoping for the best. Although Ezi had starred at junior level and in the SEABL it is a difficult task to make the transition to make an impact in the WNBL. It is difficult enough for players in their debut WNBL season to break into their club’s core rotation let alone to have the composure and skill-set to shoot the ball at 52% from the field, rank in the top 10 of the league for blocked shots be the only player in the league that played at least five games for the season averaged less than 15 minutes court-time during the 2017/18 WNBL season and more than 5.0 points per game.

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Whilst it has been a change for Ezi to play against opponents that are much bigger than her such as Liz Cambage and Jennifer Hamson throughout the 2017/18 WNBL season, this challenge has forced Ezi to think about ways she can counter her opponents strengths and use her own strengths to full effect, resulting in her further developing her game further. The opportunity to train alongside Australia’s premier players and be coached by Sandy Brondello at the Opals training camp 1 in February will be a great learning experience for Ezi and allow her to gauge herself against Australia’s best front-court players. One of Ezi’s major goals is to represent the Australian Opals and given her career trajectory, maturity and skill-set it seems to be only a matter of time until this goal is achieved.

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Ezi Magbegor is an extremely deserving winner of the WNBL’s 2017/18 Betty Watson Rookie of the Year Award, having excelled with her athleticism, composure, field goal accuracy, and ability to rebound, block shots and make an immediate impact when she is on the court.

By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

1 http://www.canberra.edu.au/about-uc/media/monitor/2017/july/uc-capitals-ezi-decision-for-magbegor

2 http://www.canberra.edu.au/about-uc/media/monitor/2017/july/uc-capitals-ezi-decision-for-magbegor

3 https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/zela/article/2016/07/19/making-it-look-ezi-ezi-magbegor-next-big-thing-womens-basketball-literally

4 http://basketball.net.au/magbegor-earns-university-of-canberra-vice-chancellors-award/

5 https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/zela/article/2016/07/19/making-it-look-ezi-ezi-magbegor-next-big-thing-womens-basketball-literally

6 basketball.net.au/centre-excellence-igniting-seabl-competition/

7 http://basketball.net.au/sapphires-win-historic-gold-medal-at-u17-world-champs/

8 https://www.sbs.com.au/topics/zela/article/2016/07/19/making-it-look-ezi-ezi-magbegor-next-big-thing-womens-basketball-literally

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