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Marvin Bagley III proving he can play in modern era

Zach Harper



Feb 8, 2018; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Marvin Bagley III (35) grabs a rebound in the second half. The Tar Heels defeated the Blue Devils at Dean E. Smith Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Marvin Bagley III looks the part of an NBA superstar in the making. The Duke big man won’t turn 19 until March Madness begins, but his physical attributes look far beyond his age. He stands roughly 6-foot-11. Back in late 2014, Bagley — at the age of 15 — stood 6-foot-9.5 and had a 7-foot wingspan. We won’t know his official wingspan measurement until the NBA Draft Combine, but his arms eliminate so much space on a basketball court. Couple his measurements with an explosive athleticism that leaves defenders far from reaching the heights he can, and executives have the makings of an intriguing prospect.

Usually, this kind of big man at such a young age may look extremely raw on a basketball court. There is nothing usual about Bagley. He possesses great hands and has an innate comfort with the basketball. It allows him to catch passes at all angles and catapult himself to finish at the rim. He doesn’t display any awkwardness with the way he moves. While it would be inaccurate to say he moves like a guard at his size, the reality is he moves like a 10-year veteran completely grown into his frame.

At the same time, Bagley’s game resembles a star big man from a decade or more ago. He occasionally shoots jumpers and hits 3-pointers. Mostly, he stars in the post and around the basket. His numbers across the board impress. The freshman giant leads the second-best scoring team in the nation in points per game. Bagley leads a gaggle of freshmen and Grayson Allen as the top option on offense. Duke runs the offense through him and uses him as a safety valve quite often. The results are nightly 20-10 games as his efficiency vaults most standards:

Marvin Bagley III Per Game Table
2017-18 Duke 24 32.8 13.6 .596 2.0 .354 6.8 .620 4.0 7.4 11.4 1.7 1.0 1.1 2.4 1.8 21.2
Career Duke 24 32.8 13.6 .596 2.0 .354 6.8 .620 4.0 7.4 11.4 1.7 1.0 1.1 2.4 1.8 21.2
Provided by CBB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 2/20/2018.
Marvin Bagley III Advanced Table
2017-18 31.5 .628 .622 .147 .498 468 14.3 22.7 18.8 9.5 1.7 3.2 12.5 27.5 3.4 1.5 4.9 .251
Career 31.5 .628 .622 .147 .498 468 14.3 22.7 18.8 9.5 1.7 3.2 12.5 27.5 3.4 1.5 4.9 .251
Provided by CBB at Sports Reference: View Original Table
Generated 2/20/2018.


However, big men like Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and even Mohamed Bamba all project as more modern big men. Their shooting ability/potential from the outside pushes them into the forefront of “look what this big guy can do!” Bagley doesn’t seem to receive that same assumption of outside shooting, despite having some modest 3-point numbers on the season. League scouts and executives share mild concerns that he is more of a “dinosaur” from a skill set standpoint and not fully reaching the impact of today’s modern big man.

Dig a bit deeper on his game, and it looks like he should have just as much praise coming his way as his giant peers. Bagley’s positional concerns draw from a lack of bulk on his body and the confusion of him playing next to Wendell Carter Jr. so often. NBA people would feel more comfortable with the confidence that Bagley can play the 5 regularly at the NBA level.

Even if he can’t, Bagley shouldn’t lose ground to other big men right now. Let’s take a look at what he does well and what he struggles with, plus two things to keep an eye on.

STRENGTH: He scores with his athleticism

Watch a Duke game in the next month or so (assuming he returns from a minor knee injury) and marvel at the ease with which Bagley scores. Bagley always seems comfortable with the ball in his hands, showing a symbiotic relationship between him and the rock at all times. His pogo-stick legs allow him to consistently jump, re-jump and jump again for offensive rebounds and scoring opportunities inside. Find him moving toward the basket and there isn’t much the defense can do. Bagley excels at both pick-and-roll scoring and as a dump-off option on dribble penetration.

Bagley contorts his body around a lot of contact to concentrate on the shot. Some of that may come from not wanting trips to the free-throw line (62 percent). Some of that also comes from his incredible scoring touch at all angles. Bagley shows a lot of patience as a roll man. When the path is clear, teammates can toss a lob to the heavens and watch him go get it. Throw a little congestion into his path and he’ll stalk the right moment to explode to the rim. His hands are always ready for a pass, so initiators can play around with timing to ensure he can go straight up to the hoop for a dunk:

Bagley puts in 147.4 points per 100 possessions on cutting/dump-off situations, outpacing Bamba (147.2) and Ayton (143), per Synergy Sports. It looks like an easy enough way to score. Duke’s guard/wing play has enough creation into the middle of the floor, which makes the jobs of Bagley and Carter much easier. However, not all big men prove as reliable as they do with these dump-off and cutting options. Something I’d like to see more of is using Bagley in the pick-and-roll.

On average, Duke uses him as a scorer in the pick-and-roll about once a game. That makes it a tiny sample size, but he scores 147.8 points per 100 possessions. He occasionally pops for the 3-point option, too. His timing at the NBA level and his athleticism make him a monster option there.

Bagley also cleans up pretty easily on the offensive boards. 17.3 percent of his scoring possessions come from putbacks. He draws a foul 21.3 percent of the time in these situations:

Teams struggle so much to keep him from out-jumping them for easy baskets around the rim.

WEAKNESS: His jump shot doesn’t produce a ton

The concerns about Bagley as a modern big man are interesting and not completely unfounded. At the same time, they could seem a little overblown. We don’t have a John Collins at Wake Forest situation in which he almost never shot jumpers. Bagley shoots jumpers — typically about two per game, according to Synergy Sports. The results from these jump-shot numbers are a very mixed bag. At times, he shows pretty solid form and an ability to knock it down. Other times, his accuracy proves too erratic to truly trust.

Synergy clocks Bagley at 32.1 percent on 53 jump shots so far this season. He has an effective field goal percentage of 45.3 on them. He has made just one out of seven attempts shooting off the dribble. His guarded catch-and-shoot numbers — 8 of 18 (44.4 percent FG, 63.9 percent eFG) — look good. They also don’t make sense with his unguarded numbers (4 of 14, 28.6 percent FG, 42.9 percent eFG). However, it’s such a small sample size at this point that we can’t glean too much from it. Two makes or misses the other way paint a completely different story.

Most of his jump-shot success comes behind the college 3-point line, which is encouraging. Inside that line, Synergy has Bagley at 3 of 15 from the field. He doesn’t do much with those short jumpers. He also rarely looks for his jumper out of the post. Bagley attacks the basket on the low and mid-blocks quite often. We’ll get into his 3-point shooting in a couple of sections.

STRENGTH: He scores in the post

The reason for concerns about Bagley as a dinosaur mostly come from the fact that his biggest chunk of scoring happens in the post. Post scoring has received a stigma for some analysts, assuming it has died off. In reality, guys like Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis still use post play effectively and often. Bagley will be afforded that opportunity at the NBA level if he’s allowed to do it. People just want him to show more versatility on the offensive end of the floor than Jahlil Okafor — a much different Duke big-man prospect of recent years.

Bagley ranks 44th out of 131 NCAA Division I players with at least 100 post-up possessions this season. He scores 95.5 points per 100 possessions in the post. We can’t just blindly extrapolate that to the NBA numbers, but that efficiency would put him 10th in the NBA (minimum 100 possessions). He would be sandwiched between Kristaps Porzingis and Dirk Nowitzki this season. Bagley has a few impressive ways of scoring, almost always getting to that high, left-handed half hook turning over his right shoulder. He feels comfortable on that running hook across the lane. Bagley finds the footwork to free himself up with a step-through.

Bagley also does a great job of positioning himself into a quick advantage in the high-low game with Wendell Carter Jr quite often. That has a lot of use at the NBA level when a smaller defender switches onto him:

Bagley needs a bit more strength (as do most pre-20 big men) to consistently do this at the NBA level, but all of the tools and comfort are there.

WEAKNESS: Not much of a playmaker for others

One concern with Bagley as a scoring option is how sticky the ball is to him. He has dished out just 40 assists in 24 games so far this season. He shows a willingness to throw the ball back out to the perimeter when he doesn’t have the advantage he wants in the post. But it’s not in a playmaking way for his teammates. It almost always comes with a repost to set up another scoring situation. At the NBA level, versatility and modern big-men playmaking demand he finds a way to create for others. It doesn’t mean he has to learn how to run a pick-and-roll as the initiator. He just can’t become a black hole with the ball.

Players like the aforementioned Okafor and Hassan Whiteside struggle to truly breathe life into an offense because they don’t move the ball. Bagley can’t sink into being a one-way option like that. Even simple plays like dribble handoff sets that create easy screen assists for him have to become a regular part of his attack. He possesses a good enough handle and elite athleticism to turn the defense on its head if it plays too hard on the player looking for the handoff.

When he commands double-teams in the post, he has to hit open shooters and find cutters leading to easy baskets. He attempts to do it now, but the comfort just doesn’t look totally present. Again, this is the second-best offense in the country. It’s not like he’s struggling to find scoring options on his team.

SOMETHING TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Protecting the rim

In regard to his future position, Bagley looks much more like a traditional 4 than a modern 5. Setting his NBA position in stone at this point wouldn’t make much sense. His game and body will continue to develop for the NBA landscape. We just don’t have a great idea of where it will go over the next couple years.

Either way, Bagley will need to show he can defend both inside and outside. Defending outside should come relatively naturally to him. He challenges shots well on the perimeter and his pick-and-roll defense has the potential to stand out.

Bagley needs to consistently drop down into the paint, either as a primary defender or in help, to protect the rim. I like a lot of what I see in that respect right now. His block numbers won’t look anything like JJJ or Bamba. He possesses modest rim protection stats of 1.3 blocks per 40 minutes and a 3.2 percent block rate. Carter does most of the rim protection for this Duke team.

However, Bagley doesn’t appear worried to mix it up at the rim. His long arms can make up for improper positioning when heading up for a blocked shot, especially on dunks. His slow reactions to certain plays get sped up from that wingspan covering so much airspace:

Bagley shows a little bit of that JJJ trait in which he times the block so well coming out of the hand of his opponent. Instead of waiting for it to get into the air to seek the block, he attacks the shot at the point of release quite often. If that keeps him on the ground and not biting for pump fakes, it’s less likely he’ll find a lot of foul trouble trying to protect his team’s interior at the NBA level. We just need to see a lot more of it.

SOMETHING TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Bagley shooting 3-pointers

So how likely is it that Bagley will find a 3-point shot at the NBA level? We have seen him shoot more 3-pointers with greater success since the season started. Early on against a very easy opening schedule, Bagley didn’t really show much from 3-point range. His volume remained pretty low and he didn’t hit in those small chances. He took just 1.5 3-pointers per game and shot 22.2 percent in his first six games of the season.

We haven’t seen a huge explosion in the next 18 games. He didn’t all of a sudden become Ryan Anderson. Bagley’s last 18 games have him taking 2.2 per night and making 38.5 percent of those attempts. His jumper form looks good. The main issue I have with it is how long it takes him to move that shooting motion through to the release point. He has a slow jump-shot form even if it looks balanced. That won’t cut it at the NBA level and he’ll need to speed it up. He also doesn’t venture deep beyond the college line at all. His 3-pointers happen right behind that shorter line, which is worth just two points at the NBA level. Projecting him as definitely having NBA range is tough to do because of that:

As you can see, there’s something to work with there. NBA teams won’t have to do much to speed up that motion, as long as he feels comfortable shooting from that extended distance. It becomes very important in pick-and-pop situations. That causes the defense to hound him on the perimeter, which opens up the floor for him to be an athlete moving toward the rim. Everything strings together and he becomes a superstar in a loaded draft class.

His playing type definitely qualifies as more modern than dinosaur. We’re just not sure if that dinosaur will end up ruling the planet. Separating himself from the other big men in this class will be hard to do.

Ranking the big men in this draft after taking a closer look at all of them, my order would go:

1. Jaren Jackson Jr. — profile

2. Marvin Bagley III

3. Deandre Ayton — profile

4. Mohamed Bamba — profile

However, that is subject to change 100 times over the next couple months; team fit will certainly factor in when we know the draft order.

Zach Harper is a basketball obsessive with a penchant for outside shooting and high volume scorers. He believes in living life 3-point line to 3-point line. Zach has worked for ESPN, Bleacher Report, and CBS Sports since 2010. He's as interested in exploring the minutiae of the game of basketball as he is in finding the humor in it. Basketball in previous eras was fun, but it's much better now. Embrace change.