Maggie Lucas’s Road Back to Basketball Through Patience & Nutrition

From the time Maggie Lucas showcased her skills in the McDonald's High School All-American game, it was clear that she was going places. And when it came to her college selection, that destination ended up being Penn State. Maggie quickly became a fan favorite for the Lady Lions, making the Big Ten All-Freshman and All-Tournament teams in her freshman year. She went on to lead the team to two Sweet 16 berths and three successive conference championships, winning two Big Ten Player of the Year awards along the way.  

Her stellar play for Penn State made WNBA scouts take notice, and the Phoenix Mercury selected Maggie with the 21st pick of the 2014 draft, before trading her to the Indiana Fever. In her rookie season, Maggie averaged 10.3 minutes in 30 games, showing her smooth stroke from the charity stripe as she hit her first 19 free throws in the pros and notching a rookie scoring high of 17 points. She also featured in all five of the Fever’s playoff games. In the 2014-2015 season, Maggie played for Arras Pays d’Artois in France, finishing second in the league in scoring at 18.2 points per game and going a Steph Curry-like 80 of 86 at the free throw line. 

Rejoining the Fever after the French League season ended, Maggie helped the team reach the playoffs again. After returning from a torn ACL she sustained in May 2016 and injuring the same knee again in June 2017, Maggie was picked up by the Atlanta Dream in the 2017-2018 offseason, playing seven games for them before joining the Dallas Wings. At the end of the 2018 season, she then returned to France, scorching the nets for Landerneau Bretagne with 11.2 points per game. After putting up 36 points in an exhibition game against the Chinese national team this summer, Maggie is taking the next step in her basketball journey at Tianjin Guanlan. We got a few minutes with Maggie to get her take on playing overseas, the evolution of her training, and what’s next in her life and career. 

MO: Talk us through your move to China. 

ML: “It was initially tough to deal with when I didn’t get picked up by a WNBA team, but it turned out to be a blessing in the end. I had more time to go home and work on my game, and by the time I played for 3D Global Sports in a showcase against the Chinese national team, I felt like I had all my old explosiveness back. 

It took a while to get everything sorted out with my new team. Because of their regulations, my agent couldn’t talk to them directly, so we had to go through a third-party intermediary. The contract took about a month to get sorted out and there were a couple of points when I thought it wasn’t going to happen. But in the end, everything worked out and I’m excited to play again and show what I can do now that I’m fully healthy.”

MO: How has your off-court training changed since your knee injuries? 

ML: “I used to do a lot of squatting, but now it isn’t about going heavy. The focus is strength around movement. Instead of going heavy in a squat, I’ll hold it at the bottom for three seconds. My strength coach, Jim Ferris, has me do a lot of single-leg work and lateral movements to mimic what I need my body to do on the court. It’s about being quick and agile. I never go into the gym thinking, ‘I’m going to lift today.’ Rather it’s, ‘I’m going to move well today.’ The entire program is really strength built around movement.

I’ve always been a gym rat and so my tendency is to overdo it. But Jim is great at keeping me accountable and making sure I don’t push too hard. He tells me that I don’t come in to bang up my body – I train with a purpose.”

MO: With the uncertainty of your injuries and combining playing overseas with competing in the WNBA these past few years, how do you stay prepared without knowing what’s coming next? 

ML: “I’ve had quite a few experiences that have required me to drop everything and go. For example, I got picked up by the Dallas Wings for a playoff run, and had to report immediately. The past few offseasons, I’ve woken up knowing that a call could come at any time and I’d have to pack up and leave in one or two days. When that happens, you can’t be scrambling and worried if you’re fit enough or mentally ready. You just have to go. I’ve worked really hard to stay physically prepared and tried to get my mind right by setting the expectation that things could change at any moment. 

With China, I had a date planned to leave, but ended up having to wait two more weeks for my work visa to come through. As soon as it did, I was on a plane the next day. For me, it has been all about answering the question: ‘How do you want to live today in case your next big opportunity comes tomorrow?’”

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MO: How has your game progressed in the past couple of years? 

ML: “It’s evolved a lot. I’m able to score in many different ways right now – not just relying on shooting 3s. I’m getting to the basket again, and my rebounds and steals are up. I finally feel like my body is allowing me to be the full package as a player. I work so hard on every facet of my game that I hate being pigeonholed as a shooter. So it’s exciting to be able to do everything else on both sides of the ball.

My feel for the game is also better. Right after my injuries, things seemed to be happening so fast on the court. But now I can slow the game down and make my reads without feeling pressured or rushed. Basketball is fun again.”

MO: What has been the biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself through all the ups and downs? 

ML: “My trainer would laugh at this, but I’ve learned to be a lot more patient. I’m more comfortable taking things step by step and seeing what unfolds, rather than trying to force it. When I first got into the WNBA, I wanted everything to happen right away. What I’ve been through since has taught me that life usually doesn’t work like that. As well as the injuries, I’ve had some bad contracts and frustrating delays. Now I’m more content to wait for the right opportunity, not just the next one.

I also used the time away from basketball to take my nutrition and recovery to another level, and it has made me a better athlete. I did blood work to see if I was deficient in anything and experimented a lot with my diet. Now I’m pretty much gluten and dairy free. I’m also fueling better on the go. Because the exhibition game schedule was so hectic and we played three games in three days, I was stirring chocolate Momentous into my coffee every morning.”

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MO: How’s the communication side going with your teammates as the only American on the roster? 

ML: “It’s actually been a pleasant surprise. My coach is Serbian and he and our interpreter are the only two others who speak English. But all my teammates understand it when I use basic basketball terms during practice, which makes it easier. I might only say one or two words, but they get it. Really, this simplifies our communication and there’s less lost in translation. Other than that, it’s all about encouraging each other non-verbally. I’m more aware of my body language than ever before because of how I carry myself projects what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling.”

MO: Has the globetrotting path of players like Jimmer Fredette made playing overseas more legitimate?

ML: “Absolutely. Jimmer has been a huge inspiration for my desire to play in China. He could’ve been in the NBA all those years he’s been abroad, but being in China allowed him to fulfill the kind of role he wanted, rather than being stuck on the bench or being pegged as ‘just a shooter.’ It’s so easy to be limited as a one trick pony in both the NBA and WNBA, whereas when you play overseas, you can play your own game in a strong league against high level players.”

MO: What are your expectations for this season? 

ML: “I’m focusing on practice to practice and game to game. Things are going to start moving very quickly soon because we play a lot during a short season. That’s exciting. At this stage of my career, the more I play, the better. It’s easy to get too fixated on what’s ahead without being present. For me, I want to enjoy every bit of this experience. Being truly in the moment is the biggest thing this season. 

Although I haven’t been here for very long, I can already tell that China loves basketball. We just played three exhibitions in Mongolia and the gyms were packed. I’m getting to visit some amazing places that I never expected to see, and the sport is in a really good place in this country.”

MO: What are your goals beyond this year? 

ML: “I’d like to be back in the WNBA at some point. It’s the best league in the world. I’ve had a taste of it and want to prove to myself that I can do it again. Some people have gone right into a playoff team in Europe in the spring, and then signed for a WNBA team afterwards. There’s so little stability in women’s professional team sports and you’re living contract to contract, so it’s hard to know what the future holds. But I put in a lot of effort in the offseason and got to China raring to go. I’m just focusing on making the most of this opportunity.”

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