Busting for Bagley: the Next Great NBA Big Fella?

At The Barn, we’ve been diligently writing about the consensus lottery picks in the 2018 NBA draft — especially since a few of us are Grizz fans, hoping and praying to our respective divine beings that the Grizz front office doesn’t miss on this year’s likely Top 3 pick and ruin the next 5 years.

Marvin Bagley, III is a name constantly on the mock draft boards, and it’s no surprise.  The freakishly athletic 6-11 big fella has been a highly touted star since he was in 9th grade.  From the tender age of 12, he’s always been destined to be a lottery pick, but does he have what it takes to be the transcendent big man/franchise cornerstone that some believe?  Maybe he will, maybe he won’t — if there’s one thing I know, it’s that this whole deal is one giant crapshoot.  Who pans out and who doesn’t perplexes me year after year, but I digress…

Photo: HoopSeen

Bagley’s 247 profile gives us a concise yet accurate blurb about his admittedly rare combination of skills:

Bagley is an exquisite talent. He has the physique of a young prospect and naturally will need to become much stronger, but in other areas he plays far beyond his years. He’s extremely well-coordinated, fluid, quick, explosive and reasonably polished. A southpaw, he knocks down long jump shots, buries hooks on post-ups and handles well enough to attack off the dribble in either direction.

How many players warrant the adjective “exquisite” on recruiting sites?  I have no idea but have to assume very few.  But, if I’m being honest, they ain’t wrong: Bagley is *Italian chef finger kiss*.

A Star is Born

Like most great athletes, Bagley comes from the sort of genetic stock that begets athletic destiny: his mom the daughter of Pogo Joe Caldwell — one of the country’s best high school basketball players in 1960 — and his dad, Marvin Bagley, Sr., a wide receiver playing football professionally in the Arena Football League for the Arizona Rattlers.

Photo: The Cash Roc

Caldwell was the second overall pick in the 1964 NBA draft.  Pogo Joe was a two-time All-Star in the NBA, and after the best year of his career in 1970, when he averaged 21.1 points for the Atlanta Hawks, he skedaddled over to the ABA for more mulah.  Bagley Sr., on the other hand, never quite made the big leagues, but had a star-studded college career with Arizona State.  When asked about his son’s rarified skillset, Bagley Sr. aptly summarized:

We don’t want to put a label on him.  A label equals a limit. We just ask him to play. You have to be able to do it all, especially at this young age.

I hate to see when guys are considered guards or forwards, and then you have big guys, especially when they’re young growing up, just because a guy is the biggest on the floor, you tell them not to dribble the ball. I hate to see that. That’s one thing I always tried to not do with Marvin.

All this to say, if you put the right ingredients in your grub, it’s going to taste delicious.  Bad metaphor?  Maybe, but you get the idea.

In his last season for Sierra Canyon, he averaged 24.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game.  The next big question was whether he could replicate his success at the next level.  After being paid off by Nike choosing to play for Coach K and Duke — who are somehow devouring John Calipari at his own blue-chip game — Bagley saddled off to Durham for the requisite one-year until he could make actual money.  Hope he really enjoyed Intro to Theater 101!

Life as a Blue Devil

As a fairly skinny player with a “slight” build, folks wondered whether Bagley could hang with the other big fellas in the Atlantic Coast Conference.  The proof, as they say, is in the pudding:

Year Team GP GS MPG FG% 3P% FT% RPG APG SPG BPG PPG
2017–18 Duke 33 32 33.8 .614 .397 .627 11.1 1.5 .8 .9 21.0

TFW you average 21-11…

Photo: Duke Athletics

*Extremely Chris Tucker and Ice Cube voice* Dayummmmmmmm.  Bagley delivered not only statistically but efficiently as well. Bagley hit 36.0% on 50 3pt attempts and has a free throw percentage of 62.1% (suggesting a non-broken shot).  The young man clinched both the ACC’s award for Rookie of the Year AND ACC Player Of The Year.  His meager block average is the one red flag amongst these stats (more on that later).

The biggest knock is that his Duke team lost a drag-out overtime battle to Kansas in the Elite Eight.  Still, the Elite Eight is far enough in the tournament where there’s no accompanying embarrassment, and I don’t subscribe to the idea that one single-elimination tournament should define a player’s NBA trajectory.  After all, college is the last hurdle before making millions — I can imagine these dudes adopting a “sooner the better” mentality.

Photo: USA Today

More:  Is Deandre Ayton the Best Big in the Loaded Draft Class of 2018?

More:  Is Luka “Wonder Boy” Doncic the Grizzlies’ Savior in the Draft Lottery?

Is He a ‘Tweener?

A tweener in basketball is a term, sometimes used negatively, for a player who is able to play two positions, but is not ideally suited to play either position exclusively, so he/she is said to be in between.  Classic example: Charles Barkley, one of the NBA’s greatest rebounding power forwards at a stocky 6-6.  In my book, there are two kinds of tweeners:

Good tweeners have the strengths of multiple positions. Draymond, for example, can guard centers/protect the rim and play on the perimeter on offense.

Bad tweeners have the weaknesses of multiple positions.  Bagley can’t protect the rim like a center, but probably has to play a center role on offense. So does he absolutely need to be paired with someone who can stretch the floor and protect the rim?

At best, Bagley is the new era 5. He grabs boards with ferocity and runs the floor like a graceful antelope.  He has all the tools to be an elite defender, and he’s not a scrub from three.  On the flip-side, if you’re playing him at center, Bagley’s unremarkable average of 1.1 blocks per game lags significantly behind the dominant big men in the class like Mo Bamba (4.1) or Jaren Jackson Jr. (3.3 in only 22 minutes per game).  As a result, there’s some understandable concern whether Bagley can play the “5” in the NBA and provide that necessary rim protection.

The most commonly referenced problem is that Bagley doesn’t really play defense, which suggests one of two things: (1) he doesn’t grasp defensive schemes beyond the 2-3 zone and man played in high school; or (2) he just doesn’t really care to try.  The second option is particularly worrisome to me — with Bagley’s athletic gifts, I want a guy that loves the game such that he continues to develop himself and tries on both ends of the floor.  I’ve seen too many talented dudes come through the lottery, put forth lackadaisical effort, and flame out the team rotation and league in 5-6 years.

You hear all the same things from the evaluation pundits: “high motor,” “runs the floor,” “has the athletic ability to be an elite defender,” “quick second jump.”  Similarly, I have the opportunity to win a bajillion dollars at the casino this weekend.  At what point can we stop projecting and embrace reality?  All this to say: is Bagley like Kevin Garnett with his ferocity and ability to do it all?  Or is he more like Clint Capela with much better offensive ability?

Bagley’s Game As Told Cinematically Through GIFs:

Command a double/triple team off a transition pass and find that open man, my dude…

Bagley-Transition-Pass3.gif
Via ACCSports

There’s a lot of badmouthing Bagley’s defense, BUT…

Via FrankieVision

Work the PnR with his guards and make the right decision on the roll…

Bagley-PNR-Pass-Carter

Or be Greek Freak-like with Go-Go Gadget arms…

Via ACCSports

Stop Talking about Jahlil Okafor, You Jabronies…

Comparing Bagley to Jahlil Okafor is a terrific way to make yourself sound like you don’t watch basketball.  Outside of “they’re both big men who went to Duke and put up good PPG numbers,” there are literally no similarities.  Because Bagley is a better athlete, his rebounding, ability to move his feet, and all associated criteria are vastly superior to Okafor.  Okafor-Bagley comps are the most lazy “every big who isn’t good on defense is the same” analysis I’ve seen.

Tie This Up with a Bow aka Would I Pick Him?

Bagley’s scoring potential is unmistakable.  He may not be lights out from the line, but at least he’s drawing contact, commanding double teams, and getting there. In fact, his 6.8 FT attempts PG outclass all his lottery peers, an important quality for an NBA superstar.  I expect that his shooting will improve to some degree — making him a serviceable stretch big.

Yes, stretching the floor is important in the modern NBA.  We talk a lot about 3-and-D guys, but those dudes tend to be the 3rd, 4th, or 5th options on the team. Bagley, on the other hand, projects to be a high-level scorer who can create offense on his own either with his skills or offensive rebounding (4.0 offensive boards per game).  If teams have to overcompensate for Bagley who’s posting up or rolling to the rim, it opens up a kick-out to a knock-down shooter.

At best, I envision a Chris Bosh comp for Bagley on offense, although Bosh was farther along as a shooter at this stage in his career, but Bagley is young and raw for his draft class.  At worst?  Kenneth Faried.  High motor, good rebounder, but never really put the whole package together.

All told, I’m honestly a little concerned with picking Bagley.  If I’m going to end up with him, I’d much rather my hand be forced.  If I have the 3rd pick and Doncic/Ayton are already off the board, I probably make the selection.  Or do I pick Michael Porter, Jr.?  Damn, the draft is stressful.  I can sum up Bagley like this: I would be unsurprised if we look up in 3 years and Bagley is already on an all-star team.  I would be similarly unsurprised if he’s a total bust in 3 years.  And that, my friends, is the very definition of high risk/high reward.  But is that how you want to spend your Top 3 pick?  I’ll let you decide…

Photo: BasketSession

[Banner image via Steve Dykes / Getty Images Sport / Getty]

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