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The Case for Wendell Carter Jr. Over Marvin Bagley III

Why the less-heralded Duke freshman big may be the one teams should want in the 2018 NBA draft

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There is no consensus draft board among NBA teams. In fact, most executives are seeking out opinions that deviate from the norm. Busts and steals are still an annual inevitability, so general managers are chasing anything that’ll give them an edge. They aren’t afraid to be different, either. Chat with a scout or front-office official and you’ll sometimes hear scorching-hot draft takes that would make Stephen A. Smith blush.

There are some general managers who are reluctant to even share their draft boards with others in the front office, because the GMs don’t want to influence their staffers’ opinions. They want pure, unfiltered analysis. But a consensus usually forms among media draft rankings. This year, that’s definitely been the case with the draft’s top big men, five of whom are expected to be selected in the top 10. Here’s the average ranking of the top five bigs using rankings from 15 different analysts online:

Average Analyst Ranking of Bigs in the 2018 NBA Draft

Player Average Ranking
Player Average Ranking
Deandre Ayton 2.1
Jaren Jackson Jr. 3.2
Marvin Bagley III 4.3
Mo Bamba 6.3
Wendell Carter 7.5

No surprise that Deandre Ayton is first, followed closely by Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. Mo Bamba trails behind. And Bagley’s teammate, Wendell Carter Jr., finishes last. Only myself, The Stepien, and Tankathon rank Carter ahead of Bagley.

That conventional wisdom about the two Duke teammates is fairly predictable. Carter was the seventh-best recruit of last year’s high school class, per RSCI, but Bagley was no. 1, and went on to win ACC Player of the Year as a freshman. Carter averaged 13.5 points and 9.1 rebounds and registered a 62.8 true shooting percentage; Bagley averaged 21 points and 11.1 rebounds and finished with a 64.3 true shooting percentage. Bagley logged seven 30-point, 10-rebound games, including this 32-point, 21-rebound outing against Florida State:

Carter also never scored more than 27 points. As The Ringer’s Mark Titus wrote last week, “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.”

There are execs who think Jackson, not Ayton, is the top big man. Others think it’s Bamba. Opinions vary, because that’s how the league works. At the NBA draft combine in Chicago in May, I asked some executives whether they had Carter ranked ahead of Bagley. Some did. Others felt it was a toss-up. Only one said it’d be silly to put Carter ahead of Bagley.

But publicly, Bagley is almost universally considered the better prospect than Carter. Here’s why I think Carter is the better long-term prospect:

A Clear Advantage on Defense

Carter’s defense gives him a strong foundation to build on. At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-4.5 wingspan and 251-pound frame, he has ideal physical measurements for a big man. He’s both beefy and long, yet also nimble and smart. Carter, who considered committing to Harvard before deciding on Duke, unsurprisingly knows when and where to be on the floor, and it shows in his understanding of angles and timing. He knows how to contest shots using his long arms, and how to do it without fouling. His pick-and-roll defensive technique needs to come a long way; he stands too upright, so speedy college guards blew by him. But when he moves laterally on the balls of his feet, he looks like a potential Al Horford–type defender.

Much like Horford, Carter is strong and big enough to handle the rigors of defending the post. Carter needs to get into a lower stance on the interior, but that’s a minor tweak, not an overhaul. In the age of positionless basketball, we so often focus on a big man’s ability to defend the perimeter, which is indeed critical. But they still need to excel at defending their counterparts. The Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Anthony Davis types could someday be the bigs who need to be beaten to advance to the NBA Finals. The Hamptons Five Warriors won’t last forever.

Bagley’s case is the opposite. He’s a bouncier athlete than Carter, but at only 234 pounds with a lean body, he gets pushed around inside. Bagley’s body resembles perimeter-oriented bigs like Marquese Chriss and Michael Beasley. Even college big men overpowered him. Embiid will bury him. It doesn’t help that he lacks length; his wingspan is only 7-foot-and-one-half-inch long, which prevents him from contesting shots around the rim at an elite level.

Bagley shows flashes of being a lockdown defender on the perimeter, but his technique is worse than Carter’s, and he’s usually a beat slow reacting to movement and rotations. Bagley would often be out of position when defending pick-and-rolls earlier in the season, which is one of the reasons Duke switched to a zone (the other was their porous perimeter guard defense). It’s like Bagley’s CPU lags, so I worry about his ability to think the game at the pro level, where it’s faster and players are more deceptive.

Bagley’s defense could resemble that of a skinny Julius Randle, who shared all of the same flaws after his freshman season at Kentucky. To this day, Randle’s upside flickers, but his lack of length hurts him inside, his technique falls apart on the perimeter, and there are too many mental lapses. But at least Randle is thick. Bagley’s body is so lean that even some larger wings overpowered him on perimeter drives. Bagley is an excellent rebounder; he has the court awareness to chase down balls that complements his bounciness. But it’s close to a wash with Carter, who boxes out, tracks down loose balls, and has the length to grab the ball at its apex. Other than rebounding and occasionally flying in for weakside blocks, is there really a trait for which Bagley can be relied on defensively?

Carter won’t ever be a dominant shot blocker like Rudy Gobert or an elite switchable defender like Draymond Green, but his tools pave a lane toward a Horfordesque level of defensive production. The lane is less clear for Bagley, who will probably never get longer, and his thin frame will prevent him from getting much bulkier. Whereas Carter reads the floor well, Bagley reads it slowly. In defending Bagley, Titus wrote about how the NBA is obsessed with potential. True. But Bagley is a defensive liability now. That’s why I’m so concerned.

Less Risk on Offense

Bagley undeniably has higher offensive upside than Carter. Bagley could fill a role like Amar’e Stoudemire did in his prime: an explosive rim runner who throws down lobs, picks-and-pops a little bit, and is a terror on the offensive boards. Duke rarely ran on-ball screens last season and their spacing was dismal, so we didn’t get to see Bagley rumble down the lane often. But cleaning the glass and finishing inside will be his bread and butter early in his career.

Carter can do a lot of the same things. He’s already a better screener than Bagley, and his wider frame will make it harder for guards to fight through his picks. He’s not as explosive inside, but he’s not ground-bound like Jahlil Okafor, who moves like his sneakers have wet glue on their outsoles. Carter can throw down the hammer or comfortably use both hands with touch inside, while Bagley is left-hand dominant. Bagley was excellent scoring inside at Duke, but a lot of his shots came from tough, awkward angles since he used his left hand. They went in against puny college defenders, but scoring will be harder against NBA defenders’ size and length.

Neither Bagley nor Carter currently possesses a wide array of post moves. Both of them utilize a jump hook. Bagley can do it only with his left hand. Carter can do it with both, and he features a few basic counters like a drop step. But Carter’s first step is slower in face-up situations than Bagley’s, so if Bagley becomes a reliable 3-point shooter, defenders will have a hard time staying in front of him on perimeter drives.

Both bigs need to prove they can shoot from NBA range; Bagley shot 39.7 percent from 3 last season, while Carter hit 41.3 percent of his 3s. But the sample sizes are small, and neither player shot well from 3 in high school (Carter shot 4-for-17 in two EYBL seasons, while Bagley was 16-for-94 over the same time frame). The college percentages are misleading, as they had their share of air balls when contested, and both shot 3s close to the line. I prefer Carter’s mechanics, and think he has better touch, as evidenced by a slightly better free throw percentage.

Carter is the best passing big who will go in the lottery. He’s no Nikola Jokic, or even Horford, but he’s very good at making advanced reads on the short roll or from the post. Duke inverted its offense at times by having Carter play from the high post to feed Bagley inside with accurate entry passes and some stylish dimes. Bagley is an average passer, though he’s far superior handling in the open floor. Bagley can rip down a rebound then go coast-to-coast. If Bagley becomes a good 3-point shooter, the NBA’s spacing will unleash his offensive potential. But we’ve all seen this movie before, with players at different positions—Julius Randle to Justise Winslow to Marcus Smart, and so on. Improving a jumper is no guarantee. The odds are higher that Bagley will be a high-level clean-up man inside who can occasionally do some cool stuff in the open floor.

An Easier Fit in a Playoff Lineup

NBA players must be able to affect both ends of the floor to thrive deep into the playoffs. Weaknesses will be exploited, so coaches need to find the lineups that can best minimize holes. This balancing act is where I give an edge to Carter.

Bagley isn’t big enough to lock down large bigs like Embiid, so in a playoff series against Embiid or someone like him, Bagley will need to share the floor with someone who can. If Bagley’s team has a post stopper on the floor, it means Bagley will need to effectively defend someone on the perimeter and make up for said post stopper on offense if he is limited on that end. That means there will be even more pressure on Bagley to reach his offensive upside.

The equation is a lot simpler for Carter, who projects as a more reliable defender and more of a plug-and-play offensive player. Bagley and Carter aren’t all that similar offensively. Bagley is the lob threat and interior finisher, who could become a focal point if something other than his offensive rebounding—like his jumper—develops into a supreme skill. Carter is more of a low-maintenance, complementary piece who actively affects winning with screening, passing, and spacing.

The Bagley-Carter combo is often compared to Horford and Joakim Noah, the former University of Florida teammates who went no. 3 and no. 9 overall, respectively, in the 2007 draft. Both have enjoyed long, fruitful careers. The same will probably someday be said for Bagley and Carter. Bagley will score athletic buckets inside. Carter will do the important little things.

But the Horford-Noah duo propelled the Gators to back-to-back national titles during their sophomore and junior seasons, whereas Duke was forced to switch to a zone and got bounced in the Elite Eight. Bagley and Carter both have a lot of work to do. Carter gets the edge on my board. In Thursday’s draft, Bagley will in all likelihood hear his name called before Carter. Check back in four years to find out whether that was the right call.