It’s no secret that the theme of the NBA draft is potential. That becomes the league’s central talking point each year around mid-June, and it’s the reason that college basketball is in the midst of the one-and-done era in the first place. NBA general managers get so seduced by the idea of what prospects might become, rather than what they already are, that they just can’t stop themselves from targeting younger and younger players. I swear that, had then-commissioner David Stern not intervened in 2005 and mandated that all NBA draft entrants be at least 19 and a year removed from high school by the end of the calendar year of their respective draft, we would have seen the first fetus lottery pick by now. There seems to be overwhelming opposition to the one-and-done rule from fans at all levels of basketball, but it should be noted that the rule has done exactly what it was designed to do. Anthony Bennett notwithstanding, there have been fewer Kwame Browns, Eddy Currys, and Jonathan Benders in the past 11 drafts than in the decade of drafts that preceded them.
Still, the one-and-done rule has done nothing to prevent NBA general managers (and the draft industry at large) from salivating over the promise of potential. Just look at the last month of debates surrounding who should be this year’s no. 1 overall pick, almost all of which have been constructed as a two-man race between Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic. Don’t get me wrong, Ayton and Doncic both have plenty of game. Ayton was a first-team All-American who single-handedly saved the Pac-12 from irrelevance last season, while Doncic might be the most accomplished 19-year-old basketball player to ever live. But the reason both keep popping up at the top of mock drafts (and did so even before Ayton said, “I know I’m going no. 1,” and everyone adjusted their mock drafts accordingly) is because of their potential. I know this because the scouting reports included in those same mocks say as much. More importantly, I know this because if potential were removed from the equation and this year’s prospects were judged solely based on how good they are right now, the idea of Marvin Bagley III going no. 1 overall would be a consensus opinion instead of a seemingly ridiculous notion.
Before I continue, I should make something clear: I am not suggesting that Bagley should be the top pick in the draft on June 21. Potential absolutely should matter when making draft picks, and while I haven’t seen enough of Doncic to feel comfortable analyzing his game, I’ve seen enough of Ayton to know the gap between his NBA readiness and Bagley’s is nothing compared with the difference in their long-term potential. Despite that, I think there’s something to be said for Bagley being the most NBA-ready player in college basketball throughout the 2017-18 campaign. I know how enticing it is to fantasize over what Ayton’s physique or Doncic’s intellect might become, but as someone who closely followed Bagley all season, I find it hard to not be equally enticed by what he already is.
At Duke, Bagley looked like a man among boys, dominating college basketball in a way that—other than Anthony Davis in 2011-12—no big man has in the past decade. He’s an athletic marvel with a ton of energy who ran the floor, lived above the rim, grabbed seemingly every available rebound, made plays off the dribble from the high post, and occasionally stepped out to hit 3s. Ayton was dominant in his own right and posted similar stats (Bagley averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds per game; Ayton averaged 20.1 points and 11.6 boards), but he played against far inferior Pac-12 competition and never looked as comfortable and fluid as Bagley did.
When it comes to the draft process, so much goes into forecasting the future and rolling the dice on the unknown that the simplest idea somehow feels radical: What if players were taken in the order of how good they are at the time of the draft? What if the top pick in every NBA draft were just the guy who completely owned college basketball the previous season? There’s no formula to calculate such a thing, of course, but there doesn’t need to be. There are only a handful of players in any given year who emerge as bona fide college superstars, and of those, only one or two also have the prerequisite physical traits to gain top billing as NBA prospects. In other words, it’s not difficult to construct a Venn diagram where the overlapping section excludes both college stars who lacked the attributes to become prized NBA targets (like Tyler Hansbrough, Jimmer Fredette, and Shabazz Napier) and highly touted prospects who weren’t exactly household names in college (like Jaylen Brown, Derrick Favors, and Tristan Thompson).
Looking back on the one-and-done era, here is the list of guys who, like Bagley, I think best fit the middle of that college star and can’t-miss NBA prospect Venn diagram leading into their respective drafts. The players who actually went no. 1 overall each year are listed in the far-right column.
NBA Draft Breakdown, 2007-17
|Most Dominant College Player With Obvious Pro Potential
|No. 1 Overall Pick
|Most Dominant College Player With Obvious Pro Potential
|No. 1 Overall Pick
You could argue that Jahlil Okafor or Frank Kaminsky should replace Towns in 2015, but that’s only because Towns played basically half of every 2014-15 Kentucky game, thanks to head coach John Calipari’s unwillingness to get out of his own way. Still, even after swapping Okafor or Kaminsky into that slot, I’d say the list of names on the left has collectively had more successful NBA careers than the list of names on the right. And while there is a multitude of factors behind that—Oden and Rose were made of glass; Bennett was a dumb pick even at the time; Fultz is dealing with whatever the hell he has going on—the greater point remains: Drafting the athletic guy who destroyed college basketball will, at worst, give a team Michael Beasley. That may not seem like a ringing endorsement given Beasley’s career trajectory, but if the absolute worst-case scenario is a player who averages 23.4 minutes, 12.7 points, and 4.8 boards per game over 10 years in the league, that’s a good spot to be in.
And I guess that’s my point: Bagley is a much lower risk than he’s being made out to be. Like any prospect, there are questions about how his game will translate to the next level. But every conversation about these concerns inevitably seeps into overthinking territory. While it’s true that both Bagley and Beasley are left-handed interior players who don’t have obvious NBA positions, they are not one and the same. Bagley is a couple inches taller than Beasley, he’s more athletic and explosive than Beasley, he posted his monster college numbers against much better competition than Beasley, and he seems driven in a way that Beasley never has been. That last bit is the most important and also the reason the two most pressing concerns about Bagley—his defense and lack of a reliable jump shot—don’t worry me much. For starters, Bagley already has a fluid shooting stroke and went 23-of-58 from beyond the arc for Duke last season, which is more than enough for me to think that he’ll develop into a decent outside shooter, especially if his work ethic is half as strong as it seems to be. (This seems like a good time to mention that Al Horford shot 43 percent from 3 for the Celtics this season after going a combined 21-of-65 from deep in his first eight years in the league and 0-of-4 from 3 during his three-year college career at Florida.)
And while Bagley’s defensive problems are a more substantial question mark—he’s a gifted athlete who is listed at almost 7 feet tall and played 33.8 minutes per game … yet averaged less than one block and one steal in college—I could suggest that they present something of a chicken-and-egg situation. Was Bagley’s subpar defensive impact a result of his playing the wing in a 2-3 zone for most of the season? Or did Bagley play in a 2-3 zone all year because his ball-screen defense was so bad that it left the Blue Devils with no choice but to rely on that approach? Also, it’s worth mentioning that Bagley was 18 and supposed to be a senior in high school during his lone year at Duke. That doesn’t dismiss all of his flaws, of course, but considering that most freshman big men are terrible defensively and don’t come close to matching Bagley’s offensive production, you’ll have to forgive me for not thinking his defensive woes are all that damning.
One last point: I don’t understand how it’s a bad thing that Bagley is considered a tweener as he’s set to enter a league that has gravitated toward positionless basketball and switch-everything defenses. I mean, isn’t Bagley a perfect big man for modern NBA offenses? Haven’t behemoths who set up shop on the low block gone extinct precisely because the modern game calls for bigs who are supremely agile, athletic, versatile, and skilled? Maybe I’m missing something, but every aspect of Bagley’s game seems tailor-made for pace-and-space basketball, especially if he becomes a 3-point threat. Just think about how devastating he will be as a small-ball center setting screens if he can develop into even a 35 percent 3-point shooter. Isn’t an athletic freak who can pick-and-pop to knock down 3s, put the ball on the deck, and roll to the rim and drop the hammer exactly what NBA teams want from a modern big man? So how in the hell does it make any sense for Ayton to be a no-brainer prospect while Bagley raises red flags?
Here’s my plea to NBA GMs and mock drafters everywhere: Stop overthinking this. Just because Bagley is left-handed and lacks a natural position doesn’t mean he’ll be Beasley 2.0. Just because he’s a freshman big man from Duke who was awful defensively in college doesn’t mean he’ll become the next Okafor. I’m not saying that Bagley will definitely turn into a perennial All-Star who‘ll win a couple of MVPs and enjoy an 18-year career. I’m just saying that outcome seems far more likely than Bagley turning into a project who can’t find a role on an NBA roster because he can’t knock down outside shots or guard anybody.
The most likely scenario is that Bagley will put in the work and become a 20-and-10 machine once his already-solid skill level catches up with his overwhelming physical tools. The most likely scenario is that he’ll establish himself as a high-energy guy who’ll bust his ass from rim to rim, thrive in open space, try to dunk everything, and absolutely wreck defenses that have no answer for his rare combination of size, athleticism, and skill.
In other words, the most likely scenario is that upon reaching the NBA, Bagley will continue being what he already is.