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Prospect Status Update: Does Marvin Bagley III Have a Position in the “Positionless” NBA?

The Duke freshman could be a special talent at the next level, but the strengths and weaknesses he’s shown under Coach K have established a unique wrinkle to the age-old “tweener” conundrum

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Marvin Bagley III doesn’t fit neatly into any one category when projecting him to the NBA. The Duke freshman is averaging 21.3 points and 11.3 rebounds a game this season on 61.1 percent shooting, but his game has fallen out of fashion at the next level. No one in the NBA plays quite like him. At 6-foot-11 and 234 pounds, he is a supersized forward who does most of his damage in the paint, and he hasn’t shown the ability to spread the floor like a power forward or protect the rim like a center. Positionless basketball applies more to perimeter players than big men. Wings now dominate the 2, 3, and 4 positions, which has only magnified the difference between the 4 and the 5, making it harder for big men stuck between the two. To be worthy of a top-three pick, Bagley has to break free of the increasingly narrow job descriptions guys his size have been stuck with in today’s game.

The spread pick-and-roll has taken over the NBA. Just about every team in the league plays the same way. There aren’t many clashes of styles anymore. Even teams like the Grizzlies and the Pacers that were successful going against the grain are now playing like everyone else. They put guards in ball screens with 3-point shooters around them, and take as many 3s and shots at the rim as they can. There’s no place for a traditional power forward who scores in the post. Those players either have to move out to the 3-point line and space the floor, or move to center and become a defensive anchor. NBA offenses don’t want anyone in the spots on the court where Bagley operates best. The pendulum has shifted completely from the 1990s, when every team was looking for big men who could post up. Can a player like Bagley push it back the other way?

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Boston College Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Duke plays Twin Towers basketball, a style few teams in the NBA use anymore. Bagley plays next to either Wendell Carter Jr. or Marques Bolden at center, both of whom were McDonald’s All Americans. All three can score with their back to the basket, which puts opposing defenses in an almost impossible position. Most NCAA teams don’t have one 7-footer with NBA-caliber athleticism, much less two or three. When Duke played Texas, Bagley was rarely guarded by Mohamed Bamba, another freshman center projected to go in the lottery. Bamba was stuck on either Carter or Bolden, allowing Bagley to terrorize the Texas power forwards. If one of the two Duke big men doesn’t score, the other is in position to clean up the miss. The Blue Devils lead the country in offensive rebounding percentage at 43 percent.

Duke’s size means Bagley is guarded by smaller defenders, and there’s nothing they can do to stop him. He’s not strictly an interior player. He doesn’t need to get deep post position to score. He’s just as effective in the mid-post, where he can face up and take one or two dribbles to get to the rim. Playing off of him and daring him to shoot doesn’t really work because he’s so quick that he can eat up space in one step and then elevate over the top of the defender. The only thing that really slows him down is his teammates. All five of Duke’s starters are NBA prospects who can create their own shot, and they all average at least eight field goal attempts and 12 points per game. There are stretches of games when they forget to get Bagley the ball.

Bagley is practically unguardable in the NCAA, but his position doesn’t really exist anymore at the next level. No NBA player has the role Bagley does at Duke. He is a high-usage big man who averages 0.9 blocks and 0.7 made 3s a game. Ben Simmons is the only 6-foot-10-or-taller player in the NBA this season who averages more than 15 points per game and fewer than one block and one made 3. Simmons, like Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, can handle the ball and make plays out of the pick-and-roll. Bagley is a good ball handler and passer for a guy his size, but he’s never going to be confused with a full-time point guard. Fitting him into an NBA offense wouldn’t be easy.

One key reason is Bagley’s jumper, which appears to be a work in progress. It doesn’t look broken, but it’s not something he can rely on at this point. He is 8-for-24 from 3 this season (33.3 percent), and defenses are happy to concede that shot. Much like Simmons, Bagley sticks to his strengths and rarely takes midrange jumpers even when he’s open. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he has taken only seven all season. The biggest red flag about how his shooting will translate to the next level is at the free throw line, where he’s only 44-for-72 (61.1 percent). Free throw shooting is the purest indicator of a player’s shooting stroke, and statistical analysis has shown that it’s a more reliable predictor of NBA 3-point shooting ability than a player’s 3-point percentage in college.

The solution is not as simple as Bagley polishing his shot. Domantas Sabonis was a dominant college big man who struggled as a stretch 4 in the NBA. He went from shooting only 14 3s at Gonzaga to going 51-for-159 (32.1 percent) from the much deeper NBA 3-point line as a rookie in Oklahoma City. However, playing him so far away from the basket took away from what made him special in the first place. Sabonis has found a new lease on life as a backup 5 in Indiana, where he can focus on rebounding and scoring inside, the strengths of his game in college. It has been the same story for Julius Randle in Los Angeles, who averaged 0.8 blocks and 0.1 made 3s a game at Kentucky. The Lakers were never able to make it work with Randle as their starting 4, and he is having the best season of his NBA career as a backup 5.

The one area that could separate Bagley from Randle and Sabonis is overall athleticism. Bagley is sleeker and more agile than those two, who both weigh more than 250 pounds. That extra weight comes with a trade-off: It’s easier for them to bang in the paint, but it’s harder for them to slide their feet on the perimeter. When Duke is playing man defense, the Blue Devils switch almost every screen involving the 1-4 positions because of how confident they are in Bagley’s perimeter defense. He got burned by the Boston College guards in Duke’s loss last Saturday, but he has shown the ability to lock up smaller players. Look at how easily he swallows up Florida guard Chris Chiozza on the drive:

Bagley, whom ESPN has ranked at no. 3 on its Big Board, is a better prospect than Randle, who was taken at no. 7 in 2014, and Sabonis, who was taken at no. 11 in 2016. However, there are many front-office people who are just as skeptical about his ability to play power forward in the NBA. I talked to one Eastern Conference executive who was blunt in his assessment. “Bagley is a 5 in today’s NBA,” he told me. “Trying to make him a 4 will be an exercise in failure.”

The issue with playing Bagley at the 5 is on defense, particularly in the paint. Duke has played a lot of 2-3 zone to limit the defensive responsibility of Bagley and its other young big men. His athleticism has not translated to many blocked shots, and it has hurt the Blue Devils, who have the no. 183 rated defense in the country. Bagley has a block rate of only 2.9 percent, which would be the lowest of any freshman center drafted in the lottery in the past seven years. He is rarely in the right position to make a play, and he doesn’t have the length to make up for it. He has only a 7-foot wingspan, which would give him one of the shortest reaches of any starting center in the NBA. Interior defense is one of the hardest things to learn to do at the next level, and Bagley doesn’t have the instincts for it, much less the physical tools.

One solution would be for a team to pair Bagley with someone who can protect the rim and stretch the floor. That is not what has happened at Duke. Carter and Bolden double down on his strengths instead of balancing his weaknesses. Unicorn big men who can shoot 3s and block shots are becoming more common, and Bagley could thrive next to someone like Kristaps Porzingis. However, so could a 6-foot-8 point forward like Luka Doncic, a 6-foot-10 wing like Michael Porter Jr., or a dominant shot-blocker like Bamba. Most of the other options at the top of this year’s draft offer more lineup versatility than Bagley. The choice depends on the type of team you want to build.

A two-post offense with Bagley at the 4 would be an interesting counter to the spread pick-and-roll. A 6-foot-11 player with his skill and athleticism should be able to score over the smaller wing players who have migrated to the power forward position in recent years. Some NBA talent evaluators think Bagley has a broader skill set than he has shown at Duke. It’s so easy for him to score inside that there’s no reason for him to do anything else. Karl-Anthony Towns spent most of his time in the low post at Kentucky and took only eight 3s all season before expanding his game once he got to the NBA. Bagley’s ceiling is something we have never quite seen before. He could become a big man who averages 20 and 10, scores all over the floor, and is an elite perimeter defender (rather than a rim protector). He could attack mismatches on offense without creating any on defense.

The most interesting destination for Bagley in the lottery would probably be Memphis, assuming it doesn’t blow its team up. Marc Gasol would be a perfect frontcourt partner. He can anchor the defense, relieving pressure on Bagley on that side of the ball, and step out and knock down 3s, creating room for Bagley to operate inside. The Grizzlies have been successful running a high-low offense before, and Mike Conley Jr. could control tempo and create easy shots for his big men in the half court. Bagley would give the franchise a needed shot in the arm. He would make them more athletic and add elite young talent to their roster, while also helping them return to their previous offensive identity.

There’s still no guarantee it would work, though. All of the best teams in the NBA play similarly for a reason. The math is pretty simple: It’s hard to beat 3s with 2s. Teams with pick-and-roll-based offenses have consistently beaten teams with post-heavy offenses in the playoffs over the past few years. A team that commits to Bagley might be committing to a style of play that isn’t efficient enough to work in the postseason. For as dominant as he is at Duke, there are a lot of unknowns with projecting him to the next level that might not be made any clearer playing under Coach K. The things Bagley does best just aren’t done anymore in the NBA. He either has to become so good at them that he forces the league to adjust to him, or he has to change the way he plays. In either case, it’s a big gamble to take with a top-three pick.