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Eastern Washington University Basketball

Magnitude of Eastern Washington guard Ellis Magnuson reaches beyond stat sheet

North Dakota State’s Damari Wheeler-Thomas guards EWU’s Ellis Magnuson during a Jan. 6 nonconference game in Cheney.  (Courtesy of EWU Athletics)
By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

In a sense, Ellis Magnuson’s role in the Eastern Washington men’s basketball program hasn’t changed at all during his five seasons with the Eagles.

Nor have his actions and routines been all that different, teammates said.

Magnuson is still known for being the first on the court before practice, for being dedicated to film study and for being a tenacious defender at all times.

Those traits were on full display his freshman season in 2019-20, when Magnuson started all 31 games for a team that finished with a 23-8 overall record. And it’s been on display this season, as Magnuson has started 22 of 23 games for the first-place Eagles (15-8, 9-1 Big Sky).

But during those three middle seasons – when Magnuson’s minutes first declined, then took a slight uptick and finally hit a career nadir – his contributions to the program may not have been so obvious.

“Whether you’re playing or not, you go through highs and lows,” Magnuson said following Eastern’s last home victory, 85-70 over Northern Arizona on Jan. 27. “Of course, not playing, it’s not fun. I’ve been through times where I’m sad not to play, and you want to be on the floor.”

Yet in those times Magnuson was still playing a crucial role for the Eagles, even if those outside the program didn’t see it or feel it.

“For Ellis, he was doing that last year in practice,” EWU junior Ethan Price said. “I know he wasn’t playing (as much) in games, but to play against a point guard like Ellis (in practice), that’s what helped us win last year. It’s nice this year to see him get on the court and do it against other teams.”

During none of his five seasons has Magnuson been called on to score many points for the Eagles (his career average is 2.9 per game), as his contributions lie in other categories of the stat sheet, as well as in other places that are not so readily measured.

But on Saturday, when Eastern hosts the Idaho Vandals (9-14, 3-7), Magnuson will step onto the court to play his 139th game with the Eagles, and by doing so he will surpass Bogdan Bliznyuk atop the program’s list for games played.

“I’m happy that I stuck with it,” Magnuson said. “Not a lot of players stick with a program that long. I’m happy I did it. I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Through his time, too, Magnuson said he learned something that he’s made sure to tell some of the team’s younger players.

“Someone always has a role, whether you’re playing or not,” he said. “You can bring value to a team, and that’s what’s great about a team: You need everyone. It’s not just the five guys playing on the floor.”

‘Incredible’ on defense

Magnuson’s career at Eastern began with him playing the fifth-most minutes (24.7 per game) on a team that relied on a trio of players – Jacob Davison, Mason Peatling and Kim Aiken Jr. – to do the bulk of the scoring. Those three averaged a combined 48 points a game, and Magnuson’s job was to get them the ball. He led the team with 129 assists and chipped in a career-high 5.8 points per game, making 35.2% of his shots.

The next season, shortened to 24 games to accommodate COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Magnuson played in all but two games and started 13 times. But his on-court role diminished some as the Eagles spread out their scoring more among six players who averaged at least nine points per game.

That team won the Big Sky Tournament and nearly upset Kansas in the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

When Shantay Legans left his head coaching position to take over the program at the University of Portland, Magnuson was one of a handful of players – which did not include any of those top six scorers – to stick around.

With David Riley promoted from associate to head coach, Magnuson didn’t make any starts the next season, but he was the team’s sixth man, playing 16.9 minutes per game – slightly more than he did the previous year, and the Eagles finished 11-9 in Big Sky play.

Then came last year, when Magnuson averaged just 6.4 minutes per game but embodied what the regular-season Big Sky champion Eagles needed in practice. Late last season, Riley said Magnuson was “the difference maker for us as a program and this team.”

But this year, Magnuson has emerged not just as a more significant in-game contributor for the Eagles but as one of the best point guards in the Big Sky – and in some statistical categories, the nation.

“What he’s done for our defense has been incredible,” Riley said after the Jan. 27 victory. “(On offense) he knows when to get guys the ball, and he’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached. He can affect a game in so many different ways without scoring, and when we have a team that can score like we have, he’s perfect.”

Through 23 games, Magnuson is third on the team in minutes per game (25.6), has 94 assists (more than double any of his teammates) and is tied for the team lead with 22 steals.

He also has just 47 fouls in 588, the second-lowest rate among Eastern’s rotation players behind only junior Cedric Coward (43 in 677), despite playing on-ball defense against opposing point guards.

“I’m just trying to pressure the ball,” Magnuson said. “A lot of times it starts with me, when the guy’s bringing the ball up, the point guard. It gets my teammates going. … I think in turn the crowd gets into it, too. It gets everyone fired up.”

He has spearheaded an Eastern defense that leads the Big Sky in opponent field-goal percentage (42%) and ranks second against 3s (32.3%).

On the offensive side, Magnuson rarely shoots: He is 18 for 49 from the field, taking less than a quarter of the attempts that team leader Coward has (he has made 116 of 213 shots).

But Magnuson’s assist-to-turnover ratio of 3.17 ranks second in the Big Sky and 14th nationally, and it is a significant improvement over his ratio of 1.84 as a freshman.

“When I was a freshman, the game was moving so fast,” Magnuson said. “I know so much more now. The game’s really slowed down so much for me.”

Because of the 22 games Magnuson played during the COVID season, his mark – whatever it ends up being – will be difficult to beat. He also ranks fifth on the program’s steals list with 368. That’s well behind Ed Waters, who had 763 from 1974 to 1977.

But Ronn McMahon’s second-place mark of 431 (from 1988 to 1990) is within reach, especially if the Eagles can win the Big Sky Tournament. Passing Deon Williams (408) and Bliznyuk (415) is even more realistic.

As he continues to stack games, and as the Eagles continue to accumulate victories, Magnuson said he continues to do what he has throughout his time at Eastern: better himself and better the team.

“I’ve learned something new every single year,” he said. “Even the years when I wasn’t playing and I was on scout team, that helped me learn other teams’ offenses. There are certain things you can take from every year, whether you’re playing a little or playing a lot.”