Before the 2019-20 season began, Hoop Vision’s Jordan Sperber tweeted a supercut of first-year head coaches all mentioning buzzwords like tempo, pace and running. The video, which was tweeted with a tongue-in-cheek caption “Sources confirm 2019-20 will be the fastest season in the history of basketball,” confirmed everything most viewers already know: Nowadays, few people like watching slow, plodding basketball. Everyone likes to see players play quickly.
This season, few teams have sped up like Shantay Legans’ Eastern Washington Eagles, which ranked 163rd in adjusted tempo last year but now rank fifth at 75.9 possessions per game, according to KenPom. Right now the Eagles rank second in the nation with 85.9 PPG thanks to Jacob Davison (17.6 PPG), Kim Aiken Jr. (16.4 PPG) and Mason Peatling (15.4 PPG) all averaging over 15.0 PPG.
Yet the guy who makes it all come together is Ellis Magnuson, a true freshman who had one D1 basketball offer and preferred walk-on offers from D1 football programs this time last year. Among freshmen, Magnuson’s 5.9 APG ranks second to Arizona’s Nico Mannion, who will likely be a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.
According to the senior Peatling, whose 54 points against Multnomah earlier this season set a school record, the Eagles probably wouldn’t be 9-5 with three double-digit scorers without Magnuson.
“He’s been able to get me, Kim [Aiken] and Jacob [Davison] good looks,” Peatling said to The Easterner Sports Editor Drew Lawson earlier this year. “We have multiple guys scoring in double figures. You don’t have that if you don’t have a pass-first point guard. You can see it in the play of other players.”
From a statistical standpoint, Magnuson is one of the best freshman passers in the country. The Boise, Idaho native averages 5.9 points, 5.9 assists and only 2.1 turnovers per game, yet three games into Big Sky play, he has improved those figures to 6.7 points, 7.3 assists and only 1.7 turnovers per game. It goes without saying Magnuson has started in all 14 games.
In a vacuum, these stats would be solid for a typical freshman point guard running a half-court offense at an average pace. Except Eastern Washington scores over 37.7% of its points in transition, according to Hoop-Math.
This is what a true freshman running the nation’s fifth-fastest offense looks like:
Magnuson has quite the repertoire. He’s thrown Hail Mary passes in the first half. Sometimes he’ll barrel down the lane and yank a one-handed, no-look pass to an open shooter. Other times, his subtle touch passes lead to thunderous dunks. But his go-to is a low bounce pass that barely glides over the court — almost as if he’s skipping stones on a pond — yet more often than not, ends up exactly where it needs to be.
The most impressive part about Magnuson’s game is that he makes minimal mistakes while playing quickly. Unlike most players tasked with running the point at the collegiate level for the first time, he rarely looks out of control. Magnuson’s passing stats are good by themselves; the degree of difficulty in which he chooses to earn these stats is icing on the cake.
For those who watched Magnuson lead Borah High School to an Idaho 5A boys basketball title last year, these game-breaking passes are nothing new. While scoring hasn’t been Magnuson’s calling card — he only averaged 9.4 PPG as a senior in high school — his ability to get everyone involved earned him the 5A Southern Idaho Conference Player of the Year distinction from Idaho Press prep sports reporter Brandon Walton:
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better distributor of the basketball than Magnuson. Whether it was behind the back, across the body or a no-look pass, the 6-foot-1 point guard found a way to get everyone involved.
Magnuson isn’t just a daring transition passer. When EWU runs its half-court offense, Magnuson’s impossibly low bounce-passes either find Peatling on the low block, or one of either Davison, Aiken Jr. or Casson Rouse on back-cuts. In pick-and-roll sets, Magnuson sometimes brings his man as close to the basket as he can before seaming a shovel pass to the roller at the last second, causing traffic jams in the restricted area that usually lead to and-one opportunities:
So far, if there’s one major knock on his game, then it’s his shooting. Aside from making 81.8% of his free-throws (albeit on a 22-shot sample size), Magnuson’s jumper has been inconsistent. He shoots 35.8% from the field and has only made six threes, four of which can be found in the following GIF, alongside several fadeaway floaters and twisting layups in Magnuson’s arsenal:
But those offseason improvements will have to wait.
For now, Eastern Washington is 9-5 (2-1 in conference) and is projected to finish second in the Big Sky with a 13-7 record, per KenPom. A top-half finish is expected, given the Eagles were third in the Big Sky preseason poll, but with the talent on this year’s roster, the Eagles can achieve even more. The Eagles haven’t won either a Big Sky regular-season or tournament title since they were outright champs in 2015 under current Seattle head coach Jim Hayford.
As for Magnuson, he could go from being a high school senior with only preferred walk-on football offers, to a freshman starting in a postseason game — all in the span of a year and change. Not bad for basketball player from Idaho with one D1 offer.