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Marvin Bagley is developing into a unique rim protector

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The rookie’s interior defense has been the biggest surprise of his young career.

Kimani Okearah

Regardless of where Marvin Bagley fell in anyone’s pre-draft ranking, a few seemingly indisputable facts were spouted regarding the talented big man. He was an athletic freak. He could score the ball unlike any freshman in recent history. He hoarded rebounds like a long-lost high school acquaintance accrues pyramid schemes. He possessed a devilish second jump.

He couldn’t play defense.

Every scouting report highlighted Bagley’s lack of rim protection and inability to make an impact as a defensive stopper. Coach K switched Duke into a 2-3 zone defense, either due to a lack of faith in his star freshman as a defender, the lack of perimeter defense from his guards, or a combination of the two. That decision resulted in Marvin hanging out on the wing and facing guards, and he recorded just 29 blocks in 32 games, while Wendell Carter was deemed the guardian of the paint. Our very own Bryant West pointed out that the future second overall pick recorded the lowest block rate of any lottery big taken since 2010.

The post-draft world swirled with the same assessment of Bagley. Fans hoped that Willie Cauley-Stein might finally conquer his fear of blocking shots, or that Harry Giles would emerge as a defensive stalwart, but neither of those wishes have been fulfilled. Instead, the 19-year old has started to show some of his own prowess for shot-blocking, the first of which was demonstrated in Summer League. He averaged one block per game, not awe-inspiring numbers for a foundational defensive player, but he displayed some encouraging instincts that weren’t evident in his single season at Duke:

Preseason was a continuation of Bagley’s surprising role as a shot-stuffer. The raw statistics were less than impressive once again, but a few plays here and there showed the possible emergence of a future shot-blocker:

Even though the developing big man was better than expected in both of those mini-leagues, a pair of doubts surfaced regarding his rim protection. The first worry was the quality of play during those sessions. Both are filled with non-NBA players, fringe invitees, and veterans aren’t exactly playing at full speed or with full effort. Discounting every observation throughout those few games isn’t accurate scouting, but lottery picks should always dominate less talented, inferior athletes. Plenty of busts have looked like stars in Summer League and preseason.

Another concern was the lack of ability to measure Marvin’s impact as a rim protector. His shot-blocking stats were an unexpected, but not exactly legendary, and plenty of NBA players have put up impressive block-per-game numbers without actually helping guard the rim. His placement in the defensive scheme was, at best, unknown.

Through 17 regular season games, Bagley’s emergence as the Kings best rim protector has dampened both of those doubts. He’s averaging 1.2 blocks per game, the best on the squad despite playing just 23 minutes each night, and also leads on a per-36 basis, recording 1.9 per game. Those aren’t empty numbers either, as Marvin is also affecting opponents’ accuracy near the bucket even when he doesn’t get his mitts on the ball:

Bagley is also leading the team in field goal differential within six feet of the rim. He’s reducing opposing players’ percentage by 10.5%, which is not only far better than anyone else donning a Sacramento uniform, but good enough for 22nd in the entire NBA. Marvin isn’t just blocking shots, but he’s using his speed and elite jumping ability to challenge opponents at the rim, especially as a help defender. In the following clip, Jamal Murray thinks he has an open layup to close out the quarter, but Bagley tracks him the entire way, waiting until the Nuggets guard has already jumped before taking off from a few feet away:

Later in the same game, Malik Beasley drives the baseline when confronted by Bagley’s size, likely believing he can use his speed to get around the big man, as well as use the rim to protect the ball as he moves for a reverse layup. Once again, Marvin is able to use his athleticism and quick hops to recover and block the shot:

While he’s continued to grow as a reactionary protector in his short career, Bagley’s most prevalent weakness as an interior defender is limiting traditional post scorers, likely the reason he’s been paired with Kosta Koufos for almost half of his time spent on the court since the veteran big man returned from injury. His lack of lower-body strength and tendency to rely too often on his jumping ability rather than sound defensive principles, often costs him against savvier offensive players. A quick pump-fake and spin move is almost guaranteed to get Marvin flying into the air, an easy and-one opportunity for post scorers:

Part of Marvin’s impact as a stopper comes from simple effort. He maintains the same high motor on both ends of the court, a powerful substitute that will keep him afloat until he develops a more nuanced defensive presence. Adding that level of effort to his freakish athleticism and additional time in the weight room should eventually result in an impressive defensive specimen. Just take a look at his highlights from last night’s win against the Thunder, as he came up with several key blocks in the fourth quarter to help the Kings seal the victory.

It’s far too early to classify Marvin Bagley as a good defender, but his unanticipated role as the Kings best rim protector has been the most pleasant surprise of the rookie’s young career.