What's next for Marvin Bagley III?

Marvin Bagley III has already shown his incredible offensive talent during an impressive rookie season, but his defensive growth will determine his ultimate NBA destiny.

The Sacramento Kings swung for the fences with the second overall pick in the 2018 draft, selecting Duke star and preposterous athlete Marvin Bagley III. Bagley earned ACC Player of the Year honors after averaging 21.0 points and 11.5 rebounds during his lone college season. He showed immense talent as a post scorer and mauled the glass on both ends of the floor, in no small part due to his incredibly quick second jump. Still, there were concerns about his defense and his long-term role heading into the NBA.

In his first season in the Association, Bagley is already starting to realize the tremendous upside that he showed in college. He is averaging 14.7 points, 7.3 rebounds (including 2.5 offensive rebounds), and one block per game in 24.9 minutes through his first 55 games. His three-point shooting has not been at the 40% mark as it was in college, but Bagley has canned 31% of his triples this year and will look to build on that in the years to come.

With the season winding down, the main question for Bagley could be whether or not he can find his way into a starting spot before the end of the year. That seems unlikely, since Dave Joerger has started the rookie big man just twice so far all season.

The more important questions to ask about Bagley will not be answered this year. Despite his impressive rookie campaign and his team's expectation-shattering season overall, the focus for the franchise and for Bagley himself will be on the future. Can Bagley figure it out on the defensive end? Will his shot develop to the point where he can start in the frontcourt with fellow transcendent Duke big man Harry Giles III? Can the two play together even if neither of them can effectively space the floor? We won't get definitive answers to those questions for many years, but we can start to dig into how those questions might be answered by looking at what Bagley has shown this season.

Offense: Future Focal Point?

When the Kings began to give hints that the team would run a fastbreak-heavy offense this season, Bagley seemed like an ideal fit. He entered the league as one of its best athletes--a 6'11" big man who ran the floor in transition better than most guards, and with a scary vertical leap to match. Bagley's ability to take rebounds coast-to-coast and ram home dunks as the trailer in transition made his fit in an up-tempo offense obvious.

Bagley has certainly been effective in the transition game this year, but strangely enough that has not been his biggest selling point on offense. He grades out as above-average on the break, ranking in the 53rd percentile, but has actually been better offensively in the half court, where he ranks in the 72nd percentile. His post scoring isn't really driving that success either; Bagley uses more possessions in the post than for any other play type (just over 25% of his possessions are post-ups), but he has been quite inefficient from there, ranking in just the 24th percentile on those plays (all numbers per Synergy Sports).

His struggles from the post are more due to size than anything else. He currently has a solid left-handed hook shot and an excellent spin move and he's already adept at setting quick screens and ducking in to establish good post position. Some extra time in the weight room and extra practice with his right hand will make him a problem on the low block in pretty short order. Still, Bagley's been better in the half court than in transition despite his poor showing from the post. So where does that success come from?

A deeper look into his Synergy numbers is very encouraging for Kings fans. Bagley is above-average at every play type except for post-ups and spot-ups (minimum 10 possessions). The real reason for Bagley's halfcourt success is also the most obvious: he is already a force to be reckoned with on the offensive glass. Bagley is averaging an absurd 1.34 points per possession on putbacks, which ranks in the 92nd percentile league-wide. His first jump gets him above most of the NBA, and his lightning-fast second jump gets him back up on the glass faster than almost anyone in the league:

The questions now shift into what's next for Bagley. The main areas of focus for him this summer offensively should be in the weight room and behind the three-point line. After all, the only two areas where Bagley has been below-average on offense have been post-ups and spot-ups. Added strength will help boost his post efficiency. Improved three-point marksmanship will ease the spacing woes of a Bagley-Giles frontcourt, and would also help with Bagley's poor spot-up numbers. Still, the offensive end of the floor was never going to be the determining factor for Bagley's future.

Defense: The Elephant in the room

Every discussion of a rookie big man's defensive play should begin with a massive caveat. With a few notable exceptions, NBA rookies are terrible on defense. The increased speed of the game and the importance of understanding one's role in the defensive scheme make it all but impossible for first-year players to make a non-negative impact on their team's defense. That struggle is even more noticeable in young big men, who are rarely if ever prepared for the rigors of pick-and-roll defense. As a skinny big man who just turned 20 years old this month, Bagley was always going to struggle on the defensive end of the floor.

Now that all of the caveats have been thrown out there, let's not sugarcoat this. Marvin Bagley III has been atrocious on the defensive end of the floor this season. The effort is clearly there, as it always is with Bagley, but the understanding and the body control are...not. He frequently gets lost in pick-and-roll coverage and compounds those mistakes by switching too late; he'll recover to his original assignment just in time for a quick back-cut and score by the guy he left behind. In single coverage, he'll often get baited into biting on the first fake he sees as his man takes advantage by drawing the foul or blowing by him. He gets lost on defense disturbingly often even for a rookie big man:

The numbers are somehow worse than the eye test. Bagley ranks 97th out of 98 qualified power forwards in Defensive Real Plus-Minus; the only player behind him is Hawks rookie big man Omari Spellman. Bagley ranks in the 26th percentile defensively per Synergy Sports; his pick-and-roll defense has been slightly below-average (in the 44th percentile), but he has been roasted in isolation (allowing a troubling 1.07 points per possession which leaves him in the 19th percentile).

There aren't all that many positives to point to, but Bagley has at least looked better on the defensive end over the course of the season. The main reasons for optimism about Bagley's defense are the main reasons for optimism about his upside in general: he's a freakish athlete whose motor is always turned up to 11, and effort is a huge part of defensive success. All signs indicate that Bagley will put in the time and energy required to improve on the defensive end of the floor; the question is just how much better he can get.

Future Outlook: Franchise cornerstone or future Hall of Famer?

If Bagley can stay healthy, he's already proven that he can be a franchise cornerstone for the Kings. He's already shown his incredible talents at the offensive end of the floor. His weak points there are pretty well known, and he's already started to grow this season. Most rookies have much better numbers towards the end of the season than they did at the beginning, but Bagley's splits are pretty stark. He averaged 13.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game on 51/30/65 splits through the first two months of the season, but is averaging 17.9 points and 8.6 rebounds per game on 51/37/74 shooting splits in February and March even after Thursday's rough outing against the New Orleans Pelicans.

The ultimate determinant of Bagley's future is his defense. If he stays on his current trajectory offensively and doesn't grow much on defense, he will still probably make a couple of All-Star teams and might even sniff an All-NBA berth. If Bagley can become average or better on the defensive end, however, teams won't be able to scheme him off the floor by aggressively attacking him one-on-one in high-leverage late game situations. His defensive play could be the tipping point for Bagley between being an elite player for his era and being an elite player in the history of the NBA.

Marvin Bagley III has already outpaced expectations this season, and the rest of his Kings teammates have as well. If Bagley can continue to outpace expectations, especially on defense, Vlade Divac's comments about a young superteam will turn from meme fodder to prophecy.

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