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Scouting the Olympics for Future WNBA Hidden Gems and Stars

Jackie Powell@@classicjpowContributor IJuly 28, 2021

Australia's Ezi Magbegor (R) runs with the ball past Belgium's Emma Meesseman in the women's preliminary round group C basketball match between Australia and Belgium during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama on July 27, 2021. (Photo by Aris MESSINIS / AFP) (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)
ARIS MESSINIS/Getty Images

When former Seattle Storm head coach and current USA Basketball assistant Dan Hughes was on the clock during the 2019 WNBA draft in April, one name flashed into his head. Seven months before, after winning a championship with the Storm and then a gold medal in the 2018 World Cup in Spain, he watched a performance from a teenager who played in the second half of the gold-medal game for the Australian Opals. 

She scored six points on 3-of-3 shooting from the field and hauled down four defensive rebounds in 10 minutes of play in the Opals' 73-56 loss to Team USA. He thought 19-year-old Eziyoda "Ezi" Magbegor had held her own against the most dominant frontcourt in the world. In the following draft, Hughes selected her at the end of the first round, and she made her WNBA debut last season in the Wubble.

Breanna Stewart remembered what she saw when she played against Magbegor for the first time. Her raw talent was obvious. She not only had the ability at 6'4" to take defenses off the dribble, but also possessed the shooting ability to stretch them out. Stewart told reporters last week that she thought to herself, "She's this young and she has a whole lot that she can really grow into."

Now Magbegor is 21, and Hughes reflected on her professional basketball career and how her game landed in front of WNBA talent evaluators. "If you can perform on this kind of stage, there's a pretty good chance you are going to be good on the WNBA stage," he said in a USAB presser on Saturday. 

Stewart added: "At these Olympics, World Cups and qualifiers, there's more eyes on these younger athletes and people are seeing who's having success, who is a potential prospect and hopefully getting them involved in the WNBA as well."

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The same opportunity that Magbegor leveraged in Spain is up for grabs in Tokyo at the 2021 Olympics. WNBA-caliber talent is everywhere, and front offices should have ample opportunities to assess some late-round draft picks, players who have deferred WNBA opportunities to develop overseas and those who have upheld national team commitments instead of those in the U.S. Even some highly touted NCAA prospects will be able to put their talents on display on another huge stage before considering playing pro. 

     

NCAA Players to Watch 

In the field, there are five undergraduate collegiate Olympians, including three with Canada, one with Nigeria and another playing for Serbia. Last season's Big East Sixth Woman of the Year, Aliyah Edwards (Canada) of UConn, and UCLA transfer Angela Dugalic (Serbia) are some of the youngest coming out of the NCAA, both 19 years old and making their Olympic debuts in Tokyo. On Monday, Dugalic did not play and Edwards saw the floor for 16 seconds. 

Also, recent Duke transfer and 6'1" wing Elizabeth Balogun got 1:54 of playing time for Nigeria. While the trio, who are all under 21 years old, played less than two minutes in their first games of Olympic competition in the group phase, UConn head coach Geno Auriemma explained that regardless of the minutes played, every moment is valuable. 

"It changes players, the Olympic experience," he said. "It allows you to see all your faults. It allows you to find out that, yeah, you are pretty good. 'I can do certain things. No, I'm not as good as I thought I was.'"

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From Ikeja Police Barracks to Tokyo The amazing story of Elizabeth Balogun https://t.co/toe9sikMhL

For two other Canadian players, Arizona guard Shaina Pellington and 6'4" South Carolina forward Laeticia Amihere, their Olympic experience will aid their quests to turn pro. Pellington, who is 22 and is a rising senior, has made it clear that getting drafted into the WNBA is part of the plan. "That's always been the goal," she told NBA TV Canada.

Coming off the bench for Canada, Pellington scored two points on two free throws, registered a steal and grabbed a rebound in 13-plus minutes. Meanwhile, Amihere played 17 minutes off the bench in Canada's 72-68 loss to Serbia on Monday, scoring two points on 1-of-4 shooting from the field and grabbing three offensive boards. 

"There's no doubt that Laeticia will be in the WNBA," Gamecocks and Team USA head coach Dawn Staley said. "I have no doubt about that. What she's doing now is increasing her stock. You make an Olympic team, you make the Canadian Olympic team, that's a notch in her belt."

     

Recently Drafted Prospects to Watch

Eric Gay/Associated Press/Associated Press

Three 2021 WNBA draftees who are making their Olympic debuts didn't sign with the teams that drafted them. French guard Marine Fauthoux, drafted 29th overall by the New York Liberty; the Las Vegas Aces' 12th overall pick, French center Iliana Rupert; and Spain's Raquel Carrera, drafted 15th overall by the Dream's Nicki Collen before she left for Baylor, all have a golden opportunity in Tokyo. 

While the European trio deferred their WNBA seasons to compete in EuroBasket, the Olympics present something the European championships cannot: more exposure against more WNBA talent, namely Team USA and the Australian Opals.

The Liberty, the Aces and the Dream all have roster questions to answer in the future. For New York, could Fauthoux be a quicker backup point guard, something the team doesn't employ on its current roster? She already has chemistry with French national team and Lyon Asvel Feminin guard Marine Johannes, whom the Liberty maintain the rights for. 

How long do the Aces have with Liz Cambage and Kiah Stokes? How well does Rupert potentially fit with how both A'ja Wilson and JiSuPark play? And for the Dream: Carrera, a 6'3" power forward, can move in the paint like 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meeseman and has range from beyond the arc, according to former head coach Collen. The Dream recently signed Candice Dupree to help their frontcourt depth, but Carrera ought to be on the mind of the Dream front office, which still doesn't officially have a general manager.

The Chicago Sky's general manager and head coach, James Wade, has an opportunity to scout 6'1" Spanish wing Maria Conde, whose contract has been suspended since the team drafted her in 2019 so she could continue to develop overseas. As a long and lanky three-way scorer, how could the 24-year-old fit into the Sky's plan for the future? 

    

WNBA Returnees to Watch

In the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Hughes—then the head coach of the San Antonio Stars—remembered seeing a different side to a 21-year-old Astou Ndour-Fall. With the Spanish national team, he saw the center develop a sense of confidence, one she lacked when playing in the W for the first half of the season. 

"She came back into that WNBA season a much better player, a much more effective player," he said. In the second half of the 2016 season, Hughes never played Ndour-Fall fewer than 19 minutes. Before the Olympic break, she accumulated 14 games where she played single-digit minutes.

Does this same trajectory happen for JiSu Park of South Korea, who put up an impressive performance of 17 points and 10 rebounds in South Korea's 73-69 loss to Spain? Aces teammate Chelsea Gray explained that the uptick in confidence for players like Park comes from feeling more "at home" with FIBA's rules compared to the learning curve that international players face when they enter the WNBA. 

Aces power forward Wilson emphasized how important Park's newfound confidence could be when Las Vegas chases a championship later this year. The Aces are going to need Park. "When we get back to the WNBA stage and we are playing for our market and our teams, I think this is pretty helpful for us to kind of see what we are working with," she said. 

The Aces aren't going to be the only WNBA team to take a look at what they are working with. 

Before they traded her to the Los Angeles Sparks, the Sky put first-time Olympian Gabby Williams on the suspended list for the season because of her commitments with the French national team. Will Derek Fisher be able to get a good look at how she could play for the Sparks once she returns to the W in 2022? Does the Dream's ambiguous front office begin thinking about how they can get value for (or actually use) Spanish point guard Maite Cazorla, who hasn't played WNBA minutes since 2019? Unless the Dream officially part ways with Chennedy Carter, do they have room for Cazorla in a crowded backcourt? 

Impressive Olympic showings can help answer those questions for WNBA front offices including the Liberty, who will have three players on their radar during these Olympic Games. 

General manager Jonathan Kolb tried to keep Johannes as long as he could on their roster for the 2021 season. But a finicky salary cap and her myriad of international commitments kept her off the Liberty for a second straight season. 

Similarly to how they might view currently unsigned Fathoux, New York should be thinking about how the French combo guard would benefit the system it's been running. 

Does Johannes provide more depth on the offensive end with the ability to create for others and not just herself? Yes. Could she run the second unit better than Jazmine Jones? Possibly. But Jones has more defensive prowess. 

Athletic power forward and rebounding machine Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe, who has taken two straight years off WNBA training camp with the Liberty to focus on the Tokyo Olympics, is someone who New York ought to watch. 

And then there's Han Xu, the 6'9" Chinese center who the Liberty drafted in 2019. In China's Phase 1 game against Puerto Rico, Han had an 11-point, 14-rebound double-double. The now-21-year-old hasn't been on this big of a stage since she played at Barclays Center in 2019. If Han can gain some confidence and have a memorable Olympic showing, how will the Liberty view her for 2022? Is she ready to make her return to Brooklyn? 

Now back to Magbegor, the 2020 WNBA champion who is leading a Cambage-less Australian Opals team. Seattle Storm teammate Jewell Loyd flashed a toothy smile when she was asked about Magbegor and her growth. "Sometimes I forget how young she is," Loyd said after Team USA's practice Monday. 

In Magbegor's first game in the field against Belgium, she scored 20 points and grabbed eight boards. She was the second-leading scorer behind 28-year-old Emma Meesseman, who put up 32 in Belgium's 85-70 win against the Opals.

While Loyd is hyped to see her teammate grow on the largest world stage, she hopes that she "saves it more for Seattle" rather than in the Olympics. Magbegor, who plays under 13 minutes a game for Noelle Quinn's Seattle Storm, has the chance to take another jump in this Olympics, a stage greater than the 2018 World Cup.

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