When it Pains, it Storms

The WNBA draft was held on the evening of Wednesday, April 10 and, unsurprisingly, coverage of it was pretty meager.  To a degree, this is understandable: between the beginning of the MLB regular season and the start of both the NHL and NBA playoffs, the demand for the attention of sports fans is already quite loud.  (Also, soccer is being played? But I digress.)

The counterpoint, though, is so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be said: that, by and large, women athletes are held by many, if not most, to be inferior to their male counterparts, which translates into diminished viewership, and in turn, diminished coverage.  Anyone who’s ever watched a game of women playing a sport professionally know that this is dumb, so obviously and blindingly dumb that it can be difficult to conjure an argument against the point other than: that’s dumb. And yet, the argument persists; we can only set it on fire when we encounter it, and try not to be drowned by the silent commentary that its continued existence casts upon sports as a whole.

The underwhelming coverage is particularly galling in Seattle, though, for two reasons.  First, as a city that still bitterly (though fairly) mourns the loss of its NBA team, the WNBA Storm are Seattle’s only basketball team.  For those who love[d] the Sonics, watching and cheering for the Storm can be a truly delightful experience.  And this is particularly true because, second, the Storm are a very, very good team! Indeed, they won a greater proportion of their games (76.47%) than any other Seattle sports team (just barely ahead of the Seattle Seawolves, who took second place from the Seahawks in third) in 2018, including a thrilling Conference Finals victory over the Mercury, and a less thrilling but still great WNBA Finals victory over the Washington Mystics (who were mostly without star Delle Donne).  Since the Storm entered the WNBA in 2000, they’ve won three titles, making them the most successful professional sports franchise in Seattle.

So there’s good reason to be a Storm fan if you aren’t already (and if you aren’t, you’re doing it wrong).  Especially because, like everyone else, the Storm drafted new players on Wednesday night. Having won the Finals last year, the Storm picked in the last spot of each of three rounds, selecting Australian pro forward Ezi Magbegor with the 12th pick, Mississippi State forward Anriel Howard with the 24th pick, and South Dakota State guard Macy Miller with the 36th pick.

Eziyoda (“Ezi”) Magbegor

Already being compared to fellow Aussie Lauren Jackson – who was selected first by the Storm in 2001 and, with star Sue Bird, propelled them to their first Finals victory in 2004 – Magbegor is currently playing in the Australian WNBL, choosing to remain in Australia rather than playing for an NCAA team.  WNBA drafting requirements and processes are a bit too labyrinthine for this amateur writer, but I gather that by playing professionally in Australian, she is draft-eligible sooner than she would have been playing for an American NCAA team.

Starting the 2017-8 season with the UC Capitals, Magbegor was named Rookie of the Year, relying on that success to sign a three-year contract with the Melbourne Boomers.  The following year, she posted an impressive 8.71 PPG and 4.29 RPG, leading the Boomers in FG% (56), and second on that team in blocks per game. Magbegor was also named to the Australian FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup team, the Opals, where she was part of that squad’s silver medal finish, falling to the USA team in a game in which she garnered attention by the Storm front office.

With a strong interior attack, good length and athleticism, Magbegor looks to continue playing as a versatile interior position, in a role similar to Natasha Howard (F), whose game is more focused on defense (in spite of her 13.2 ppg), or as a back-up center, perhaps even to replace Crystal Langhorne, who will be entering her 12th season.  While the Storm don’t distinguish between power and small forwards, it would be a safe guess that they view Magbegor as the former rather than the latter. The Storm roster lists her as a center, though, suggesting they may also view her as a replacement for Paris and/or Russell, whose combined play at the position accounted for a total of about 15 mpg in 2018.

While Magbegor’s decision to remain in Australia until 2020 means that she won’t be making any appearances in the upcoming season, any disappointment should be curtailed by the facts that: 1) it’s a smart decision, and 2) it would be difficult for her to start in many, if not any, games, given the Storm’s preference for starting Stewart, Howard, and Alysha Clark at the forward position.

Anriel Howard

A forward on the Mississippi State squad, Howard led the Bulldogs to an appearance in the Elite Eight along with teammate Teaira McCowan (who was picked third overall), losing to an Oregon Ducks’ team led by probable probable first pick Sabrina Ionescu.  In her single year at Mississippi State, Howard averaged 16.4 PPG and 8.4 RPG, and finished with an impressive 33.7% three point shooting.

Howard’s game is an interesting one.  Playing on a team in which McCowan dominated on the inside, Anriel played a more balanced role, generating turnovers and points from outside just as often as inside.  She also sets a mean pick, and, in the highlights I was able to track down at least, excelled at driving inside and creating for teammates.

The question of where Howard fits on the present Storm is a little trickier.  The average level of experience for the Storm roster is just under 5 years; historically, in that span of time, the Storm have made three selections in the second round (2017, 2015, and 2014), and none of those players remain on the roster.  This remains true going back another 5 years as well, and probably beyond then. Indeed, looking at the list of current and former WNBA stars (Taurasi, Moore, Bird, Parker, Delle Donne, Griner, Stewart, Ogwumike, Diggins-Smith), every single player was drafted in the first round, and only two were not drafted with the first overall pick (Delle Donne was the second pick, and Diggins-Smith was the third).  Moreover, this is particularly true given that Howard was picked at the very end of the second round.

Perhaps what makes her future on the Storms most uncertain is how well set the Storm already are at the forward position, especially if Magbegor slots in there after 2019.  Expecting Howard to be a versatile backup is probably reasonable; if she can play well and remains on the team long-term, though, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to guess that she’ll take up increasingly more of Clark or Natasha Howard’s playing time.

It is being reported that Breanna Stewart suffered a devastating injury in the EuroLeague finals, which may affect how much, if at all, she can play in the 2019 season.  If the worst comes to pass, expect the Storm to potentially need Anriel Howard to start immediately, or at least play more than initially intended.

Macy Miller

A guard for the South Dakota State University Jackrabbits, Miller led her team to an historic run, including an 18-game win streak that ended when they (also) lost to Oregon, in the sweet sixteen.  In that game, Miller posted 21 points and 8 rebounds — it was her 15th game of 20+ points this season, and the 40th of her career; she finished with 2,355 points, a record for SDSU.

In school, Miller was a better inside player; her deep shooting wasn’t the most accurate, but she was much more successful from around the 10-20 foot mark.  She also has a good passing game, and was an important part of a defense that held Sabrina Ionescu to just 17 points.

Where Miller fits on Seattle’s squad is less certain.  Assuming that Sue Bird continues to play at least or around 25 mpg, the Storm are well set at guard between Bird, heir-apparent Jewell Loyd, and 2018 first-round pick Jordin Canada.  The continued improvement of both players has allowed the Storm to reduce Bird’s playing time and use more of a rotation at that position. However, the retirement of Noelle Quinn means that Miller could try to cement herself as the Storm’s fourth guard, which would assume about 10 mpg.  If she can maintain her mid-range accuracy, that and her other talents, as well as her size, should allow her to compete for playing time as a bigger guard in a situational role.