Bagley’s game boasts an undersized athleticism akin to that of Julius Randle’s. The right environment and savvy coach could unlock and develop Marvin’s game at the next level—if the Knicks have a chance to draft the Blue Devil.
Among the near-consensus “top 5” pool of 2018 NBA Draft prospects, Marvin Bagley III is easily the biggest question mark. Over the past seven months, since his Duke debut when he put up an impressive 25-point, 10-rebound game, Bagley’s stock has gone through more ups and downs than any of his peers. He’s the draft’s annual enigma, the high risk/high reward candidate hovering at the top of draft boards every summer à la Dennis Smith Jr. last year, Jaylen Brown the year before that, and (get better soon) Kristaps Porzingis the year before that.
Every one of those picks have worked out so far. In fact, those three guys have far and away exceeded the expectations laid out for them before entering the league. Smith has looked promising as a score-first point guard in Dallas. Brown has a revelation for Boston in the playoffs, and we all know what KP can do, although he obviously took a big setback with his ACL injury.
It’s easy to forget then that all three young, franchise cornerstones were huge gambles for the teams that picked them. Both Smith and Brown were very flawed college players that didn’t get a chance to show their stuff in the NCAA tournament (Smith’s NC State team didn’t make the tourney, Brown’s Cal Berkeley team was trounced in the first round). Nobody knew anything about Porzingis except that he was tall, European, and could shoot the lights out in an open gym with no one guarding him.
Bagley enters with a lot of the same enigmatic intrigue for this year’s draft class. He’s got a litany of enticing attributes but has a lot of issues heading into the next level too. Let’s unpack his strengths and weaknesses.
Everything alluring about Bagley is on display in this game against Florida State:
He’s a ferocious competitor with unworldly bounce and fluidity that doesn’t quite have the feel for the game to match. Still, Bagley’s explosiveness jumps off the screen when he’s in a good rhythm. He’s tailormade for a fast, up-and-down offensive system like the one the Houston Rockets play with. He runs the floor hard, and is a monster on the glass.
We’ll get to some professional comparisons for him later, but one guy he reminds me of is Terrence Jones, another athletic big who had his moments on the Rockets but faded out of the league after leaving Houston. Bagley projects to be unstoppable in transition, where Jones was also effective. He’s also flashed a workable jumper with decent mechanics that fans got to see during the NCAA tournament, but that’s a tool he’ll need to sharpen up considerably in the NBA.
There’s a lot Bagley needs to improve on to justify where he’ll go in the draft (somewhere between nos. 3 and 5 according to most mock drafts). His defensive I.Q. is his most pressing need. At Duke, Bagley oscillated between sheer apathy and misguided effort on that end. Although Bagley only averaged around two fouls per game in college, it wouldn’t be a surprise if his poor positioning and the enhanced speed and physicality of NBA big men gets him in foul trouble a lot his rookie year. Bagley offered close to zero rim protection in college, less than one block per game, which is weird for someone with his potential as a weak side shot-blocker.
Physically, Bagley plays like a bruiser big man—but isn’t built like one. It wasn’t a problem at Duke since most matchups he faced were either his size or smaller than him, but his skinny frame will work against him in the NBA. He’s not talented or skilled enough to compensate fully for his lack of NBA strength like Anthony Davis was at his age.
On offense, although Bagley had a very strong NCAA tournament, averaging around 20 points and eight rebounds, he’s still extremely raw on that end. He prefers facing up to posting up, but doesn’t have anything beyond basic one-dribble moves in a straight line to the basket. He’s a good cutter, and could work really well with an expert interior passing big man (hello, Marc Gasol), but that comes with the downside of clogging the paint. If his jump shot never extends towards the three-point arc, he’ll always cause serious spacing issues.
- Ceiling: a longer, taller Julius Randle.
A lot of people want to compare Bagley to Amar’e Stoudemire, due to his athleticism and potential in both the pick-and-roll and the pick-and-pop. But I see a lot more Julius Randle in him. Stoudemire was a natural born killer on offense. He had a feathery touch around the rim, one of the best spin-moves of all time, and a knack for putting the ball in the hoop. Bagley just doesn’t strike me as someone who will ever have that same polish. That being said, I’m a proud resident of Julius Randle Island. I think he’s a good, modern NBA big who has made strides off the dribble, as a playmaker, and has become a competent shooter and rim protector. Those are all areas where Bagley is projected to improve—and must—if he wants to be great in the pros. Randle’s biggest limitation, his height and short wingspan, are non-issues for Bagley, who stands around 6-foot-11 with a decent seven-foot wingspan.
- Floor: a more explosive Thomas Robinson.
Kansas fans will remember Thomas Robinson from the 2012 NCAA tournament, the year Anthony Davis and Kentucky ousted Robinson and the scrappy Jayhawks in the Finals to become NCAA champs. At the time, Robinson was considered a solid NBA prospect. He was undersized, around 6-foot-9, and didn’t have the best vertical explosiveness—but, like Bagley, he was very fluid and interminable on the glass.
Bagley is two years younger than Robinson was when the latter declared for the draft, and Bagley already does everything better. He’s a better finisher, a rangier rebounder, a better playmaker, and better shooter. That being said, Bagley reminds me a lot of Robinson in some unflattering ways. Robinson came into the league as a raw offensive player, someone touted with the same pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop versatility as Bagley, but never really developed on that end. Robinson’s lack of size neutered his motor and rebounding skills. His lack of explosiveness hurt his finishing ability. Bagley is definitely a better prospect than Robinson ever was, and infinitely more explosive, but if he can’t add some sophistication to his offense or get stronger, his weaknesses will outweigh his strengths just like Robinson’s did.
Fit with the Knicks?
Bagley won’t play for the New York Knicks, unless they trade up or somehow land a high pick (New York currently has an 8.7 percent chance of landing in the top 3 and a 12.9 percent chance of landing in the top 5, according to ESPN). He’ll probably be gone long before the Knicks get to pick. But there’s always a chance, and even if it’s just for fun, it’s worth breaking down his fit in a Knicks’ jersey.
- Fit with Fiz: The Knicks just hired David Fizdale, beloved among NBA inner circles, who I’d imagine would be great with someone with as strong of a will to win as Bagley. Fizdale is a feisty coach (see: “they not gon’ rook us” speech), and Bagley plays with a fiery intensity on the court. Fizdale also has a lot of experience with stretch bigs—he was assistant coach to the Atlanta Hawks, Miami Heat, and Memphis Grizzlies when they had Al Horford and Paul Millsap, Chris Bosh, and Marc Gasol, respectively. Those are all fundamentally different players than Bagley, but if Bagley shows any kind of ability to space the floor, Fizdale won’t hesitate to give him the green light to shoot.
- Fit with Porzingis: If Porzingis can come back healthy, and on top of that dispel the poor shot selection he started to develop last season, it’s hard to imagine any big man fitting poorly alongside him. Porzingis is tailor-made for today’s NBA. He’s a vicious rim protector, a seven-foot-plus sharpshooter, and is willing to accept the intense spotlight as a franchise player. He’d relieve a ton of pressure, both on and off the court for someone like Bagley to grow.
- Fit with Ntilikina: Theoretically sound. Despite getting stripped of all point-guard duties late in the season, Ntilikina has shown promise in the pick-and-roll, and Bagley projects to be a great rim runner. Ntilikina can cover a lot of mistakes on defense, which is a must for anyone playing with Bagley, and Bagley can suck in a lot of gravity towards the rim for Ntilikina on offense.
Again, it’s unlikely Bagley ends up in a New York, but you never know! On the off chance that he does, I hope we were able to offer you a little insight as to how he’d look in a Knicks’ uniform.