Bagley shot better from three. Ayton was a better rim protector. Both scored at will, overwhelmed opponents in the paint and on the glass and needed to be graded on a learning curve as passers and positional defenders, particularly against pick-and-rolls.
The difference in what they can be projected doing at the next level, however, is fairly significant, and it’s the reason why you are seeing all the hype for Ayton as a potential No. 1 pick and none of it for Bagley.
That’s because Bagley is the perfect example of a tweener in the modern NBA.
Offensively, he’s everything that you want from a small-ball five. He can dominate in the paint, he can space the floor and he is aggressive and productive on the glass. He was a walking double-double in college and it’s not hard to project him being the same in the NBA.
The problem is that he is not a five on the defensive end of the floor. He’s not a rim protector by any means, and his relatively short wingspan coupled with the fact that his skinny frame makes it easy to overpower him in the paint makes it hard to figure how he can defend that position at the next level.
As the saying goes, you are the position you can guard, so what should NBA teams do with a top four pick that plays the five but will have to guard fours?
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-0.5 (measured two years ago)
2017-18 STATS: 21.0 ppg, 11.1 rpg, 1.5 apg, 61.4/39.7/62.7
DRAFT RANGE: Top four
We can’t talk about Bagley without first talking about the level of athleticism that he has. He’s at the upper-echelon, even when weighted by NBA standards, and that is integral into the player that he is and what he can be at the NBA level. Bagley is an explosive leaper with a terrific second-jump, which is part of what makes him such an effective rebounder, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. Rebounding translates as well as any ability between levels, and it’s hard to imagine a world where Bagley isn’t able to get on the glass in the league.
Bagley is not just a rebounder, however. He’s a big-time scorer that was utterly dominant for long stretches of his freshman season, and the list of things that he’s able to do on that end of the floor is impressive and versatile. He’s at his best around the bucket — his PPP is 96th percentile nationally scoring at the rim — and while he was very left-hand dominant in the post while at Duke, some of that could simply be the result of opponents being unable to keep him from getting to his right shoulder.
More importantly, Bagley showed the ability to be able to stretch the floor. He shot 39.7 percent from three, and while that was a small sample size (58 attempts) and his free throw shooting was not great (62.7 percent) his stroke makes it possible to project him as a capable three-point shooter from the NBA strip. He can attack a closeout and his handle and mobility make him a threat to go coast-to-coast should he grab a defensive rebound. Throw in his ability in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop actions, and he covers all the bases for what is asked of small-ball fives on the offensive end of the floor. He’s developing enough as a passer that it he is projectable as functional in that area at the next level.
While most everyone agrees that Bagley is a fit offensively for the way the NBA is headed, the defensive side of the ball is a different story.
The crux of the issue for Bagley is that he simply is not built to defend fives at the next level.
He, quite frankly, is not a rim protector. The physical tools back that up. He’s 6-foot-11 but he has just a 7-foot-0.5 wingspan — for comparison’s sake, Ayton’s wingspan is 7-foot-5 — and he weighs at least 25 pounds less than the elite modern fives. He’s not built to block shots and he’s not built to bang.
The numbers back that up. His collegiate block rate, when compared to some other elite big men that have been drafted in recent years, is laughable. It doesn’t even compare with players like Frank Kaminsky and Jahlil Okafor, who have proven to be defensive liabilities in the NBA:
Okafor is a dinosaur, a relic of a past area whose skill-set simply does not fit in the modern NBA and is not all that comparable with that of Bagley. He’s probably not worth using in this discussion. Kaminsky is nowhere near the athlete that Bagley is, but he’s super-skilled offensively, which has allowed him to be an effective NBA rotation player.
Which leads me to my next point: Bagley can shoot but he hardly proved himself to be a great shooter. That 39.7 percent he shot looks great from the college line, but free throw shooting has been proven to be a better indicator of potential as an NBA three-point shooter and Bagley, even dating back to his high school days, has been a low-to-mid-60s free throw shooter. He might end up being a good three-point shooter, but that is anything-but a guarantee.
Athletically, Bagley has the tools to defend on the perimeter and in space. Duke was a disaster defending pick-and-rolls this past season. It’s the major reason they were forced to play zone exclusively. As one Duke staff member told NBC Sports, “we tried a lot of different things in man […] and none of it worked,” but that is something that has to be taken in context.
- There were a lot of bad individual defenders on Duke’s team, and they all were freshmen — Trevon Duval, Gary Trent Jr., Wendell Carter Jr., Bagley.
- Bagley himself only played three seasons of high school ball and was allowed to do whatever he wanted at every level. His AAU program was run by his father and he never participated in any USA Basketball events. Has he ever truly been coached defensively?
Bagley’s issue on that end of the floor isn’t because he can’t defender but because he doesn’t know how to be a good defender. Ball-screen coverages can be taught, particularly when a player can move the way Bagley moves. Defensive rotations can be taught. His instincts are never going to be great on that end, but there’s no reason that Bagley cannot at the least be an average defender at the NBA level …
… as a four.
In an era where fours in the NBA are just bigger wings — where P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza are squaring off with Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in one conference final while LeBron and is battling with Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown at the four, assuming that those defenses aren’t switching everything — is Bagley really skilled enough to play that role?
I’ll leave you with these facts and figures to chew on:
- Ben Simmons was the only player 6-foot-10 or taller in the NBA this past season to average at least 15 points without averaging more than 1.0 blocks or 1.0 made threes. Bagley averaged 0.9 blocks and 0.7 threes in college.
- Since 1996, there have been just five big men selected in the lottery that have averaged less than 1.0 steals and 1.0 blocks per 40 minutes: Lauri Markkanen, Trey Lyles, Domas Sabonis, Julius Randle and Derrick Williams.
Earlier on in the season, the comparison that I liked the most was John Collins, the Atlanta Hawks rookie that put together an impressive first season after a super-productive sophomore year at Wake Forest that was plagued by defensive issues. As the season went on, Domas Sabonis started to look like a better comparison as he grew into a contributor for the Pacers. I think Julius Randle and the role that he plays for the Lakers — something of a back-up five — makes a lot of sense now.
Bagley is a better prospect, and athlete, than all three of those players; we can use that as his floor. His ceiling? There’s an element of Amare Stoudamire in his game as well, and I don’t think it’s crazy to think that he could post numbers similar to what Stoudamire put up in his prime; his best season came in 2007 when he averaged 25.2 points, 9.1 boards and 2.1 blocks.
I think Bagley is going to end up being a very good NBA player. I think he’ll make some all-star teams, depending on which conference he ends up playing it. I think that he’ll post numbers that will make him a popular fantasy asset.
But I don’t think that he’s ever going to be the cornerstone of a franchise, not without quite a bit of help.
Let’s compare him to Deandre Ayton, because it’s easy and relevant and the two of them are dueling for a spot at the top of this year’s draft. Ayton has a defined skill-set and a defined position on both ends of the floor, one that should allow him to thrive in the modern world of the NBA where bigs are asked to protect the rim, switch onto guards, catch jobs and make threes. You take Ayton and figure the rest out because there are no requirements for who you need to put around him.
With Bagley, that’s not the case.
At the NBA level, for a team that he is featured on to win, he’s going to have to play alongside someone that can protect the rim and that can stretch the floor. If he falls to Memphis at No. 4, that might be a perfect situation for him. Marc Gasol is aging, but he’s still a guy that makes threes, can pass the ball and protects the rim. Bagley is freed up to do what he does best: Overpower people in the paint, use his athleticism to defend those smaller players on the perimeter and catch lobs at the rim. The same thing goes if he ends up on the same team as Kristaps Porzingis. Or Giannis. Or Draymond Green or DeMarcus Cousins or any of those other elite big men. Just about anyone can fit alongside players that can do what they do. That’s what makes them so good and so valuable.
Bagley will thrive if he finds a team with players that he fits alongside.
But he’s a piece to the puzzle, not the anchor you build around.
And there is a difference.