Why an elite talent such as Marvin Bagley III might not succeed at the next level

Additional Yahoo Sports prospect breakdown: Deandre Ayton

Marvin Bagley III has enjoyed an excellent freshman campaign for the Duke Blue Devils, surpassing much of the hype that made him one of the most coveted prep players in America. He is on the short list of potential No. 1 picks in June’s NBA draft, alongside fellow freshmen Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Michael Porter and Slovenia’s Luka Doncic.

At 6-foot-11 with lightning quick feet and a plus vertical, Bagley is an athletic specimen and offensive weapon. Through 24 games (he has missed four in a row due to a knee injury), the Duke Blue Devil has averaged 21.2 points and 11.4 rebounds (both ACC bests), while posting an incredible 31.5 Player Efficiency Rating. To put that number in perspective, consider that during their dominant freshmen seasons for Kentucky, bigs Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins posted 35.1 and 34.1 ratings, respectively. Better yet, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor had 31.4 and 30.7 ratings, respectively.

Duke’s Marvin Bagley III is the ACC’s leading scorer and rebounder, but still faces a litany of question marks regarding his NBA potential on both sides of the ball. (AP)
Duke’s Marvin Bagley III is the ACC’s leading scorer and rebounder, but still faces a litany of question marks regarding his NBA potential on both sides of the ball. (AP)

Still, there are legitimate question marks surrounding the talented Phoenix, Arizona, native.

In an era of positionless basketball in which bigs often invert the floor with their ability to shoot threes, Bagley is retrofitted. He simply does not do that — at least not yet.

“He can’t shoot,” one former Power Five college coach who recruited Bagley told Yahoo Sports. “He struggles outside of 12-15 feet. I want to say he’s Chris Bosh. But Bosh was a knockdown shooter. That’s a huge difference with them. … From what I’ve been told, he isn’t beloved by the Duke staff either. … Bagley’s recruitment was a mess. Like a circus.

“He went from being a possible No. 1 pick to someone who may not go in the top five. I like [Deandre] Ayton and Michael Porter more. Less red flags, even with Porter’s injury.”

Bagley has attempted just 48 3-pointers all season, while making 17 (35.4 percent). Perhaps equally concerning is his woeful 62 percent free-throw shooting. Bagley is far more effective operating in either the low or mid-post, where he uses his lethal first step and dexterity to get to his left hand and elevate above smaller defenders. He slashes at a high level, while running the floor and finishing everything around the basket. To that point, Bagley is a highly efficient and productive scorer inside the paint, converting over 70 percent of his non-post-up shots, per Synergy Sports.

Bagley’s lack of shooting range will be a factor for NBA teams during the pre-draft evaluation process. (AP)
Bagley’s lack of shooting range will be a factor for NBA teams during the pre-draft evaluation process. (AP)

Furthermore, Bagley displays a soft touch and sound footwork to dictate where we wants to go. The issue however, is his inability to spread the floor. And that poses a significant problem. When a big can’t spread the floor in today’s NBA game, it means he can’t pick-and-pop. And when that happens, it means highly complex defenses can cheat and shrink the court.

The other concern about Bagley — who is still just 18 years old — is his defense. On one hand, because Duke likes to switch guards and bigs, he is often tasked with defending the perimeter, where more often than not he moves his feet extremely well and denies straight-line drives. This versatility will serve him well at the next level, where we’ve seen guys like Anthony Davis, Draymond Green and even Tristan Thompson make a living off that.

“That’s another reason why I think he can become an All-Star player,” the former college coach told Yahoo. “He is really good laterally and at moving his feet.”

On the flip side, however, is this: Bagley is not a shot-blocker — at all. And, at a slight 235 pounds, he instantly becomes a liability guarding the low post because his lack of girth. Averaging a measly 1.1 blocks per game, while posting an inferior block rate that has hovered around three all year — a key statistic the measures “blockable” shots — Bagley will get victimized by stronger players, even ones that aren’t as tall or long.

Bagley is a terrific athlete, but at 6-foot-11 he averages just 1.1 blocks per game. (AP)
Bagley is a terrific athlete, but at 6-foot-11 he averages just 1.1 blocks per game. (AP)

“Who does he guard?” the former college coach asked. “If you’re talking about him being a four, that means he’s guarding Blake Griffin. There’s no way, I mean there’s just no way. Not with that frame as it is. … How many 6-foot-11 guys don’t protect the rim?”

To be sure, there are plenty of effective NBA bigs that don’t protect the rim — think Andre Drummond, Steven Adams, Kevin Love, Al Horford and Nikola Jokic — but all of those players possess an assortment of quality tools.

Without a consistent perimeter jump shot, Bagley could struggle offensively during the early stages of his career. The question that front offices have to decipher now is whether they believe he will ultimately become a consistent shooter and a versatile enough defender that his lack of rim protection won’t mitigate his other tools. Or does it even matter? Is Bagley simply so talented with such superior natural tools that he will morph into an effective player regardless?

One crucial plus for Bagley is his glass work. Rebounding typically transfers, and, without question, he is an excellent rebounder. Both his offensive and defensive rebounding percentage rank in the top 10 of the ACC, per Kenpom.com.

“Big-time rebounder,” the former college coach said.

“He is a great player,” one NBA assistant told Yahoo Sports.

But is he a great prospect?

Bagley is a great rebounder, collecting 11.4 boards per game in 33 minutes. (AP)
Bagley is a great rebounder, collecting 11.4 boards per game in 33 minutes. (AP)

Julius Randle faced many of the same issues leaving Kentucky and — three years later — has struggled to find a niche. Granted, Randle does not have the same physical tools and attributes as Bagley, and he has found success this season as a backup center for the Lakers. Both have short arms (Bagley’s wingspan is just 7 feet). “People think Marvin is this long prospect,” the former college coach said. “He actually has short arms, which I agree, will manifest itself more in the NBA.”

Also, while it seems counterintuitive, certain guys are simply better pros than collegians. Why? Because the game is far more spaced, more open and more mismatch-oriented. Take the Suns’ Devin Booker — the recent 3-point contest champion — as an example.

During his lone season in Lexington, nearly half of Booker’s shot attempts came from distance, with the bulk of those coming from catch-and-shoot threes, according to Synergy Sports. Three years into his NBA career, the former Kentucky star is a bonafide NBA star — creative and slithery off the bounce as a three-level scorer — as one of the league’s premier young players. (It’s worth noting that only 37 percent of Booker’s shot attempts this season come from deep.)

Donovan Mitchell from Louisville is another one. I watched first-hand as Mitchell struggled against Duke in last year’s ACC tournament. He wasn’t especially creative, nor was he able to get to his spots and elevate. The 21-year-old shooting guard is firmly entrenched in the Rookie of the Year conversation and easily one of the game’s most enticing young players, able to attack the paint and get to the line almost anytime he wants.

But does Bagley’s game lend itself more to the pros in the same capacity of the Mitchells and Bookers of the world? That, we will have to wait and see.

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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at Jordan.Schultz@Oath.com.

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