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Drafting Marvin Bagley over Luka Dončić would be a mistake

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Luka Dončić’s skillset fits better with the direction the modern NBA is going.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Syracuse vs Duke Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

Based on all the reports coming out of the media lately (both nationally and locally), the Kings appear to be leaning towards taking Duke freshman Marvin Bagley III with the #2 pick. In many years, this wouldn’t even be a conversation and Bagley would be in consideration for the #1 overall pick. Here’s the complete list of Freshman since 1992-93 to average over 20 points and 11 rebounds a game:

  1. Kevin Durant (25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds, drafted #2 overall)
  2. Michael Beasley (26.2 points and 12.4 rebounds, drafted #2 overall)
  3. Deandre Ayton (20.1 points and 11.6 rebounds, projected to go #1 overall)
  4. Marvin Bagley III (21.0 points and 11.1 rebounds, projected to go #2 overall)

That’s very limited company, and Bagley does look like he’s going to be a solid pro. Even Michael Beasley was averaging nearly 20 points a game in his 3rd season, and Bagley seems to have a better motor and head on his shoulders. Compared to Ayton, Duke played even stiffer competition than Arizona (per kenpom.com, Duke had the 15th hardest schedule while Arizona was 68th). Bagley also set ACC and Duke freshman records for scoring and double-doubles.

But Bagley might not be the best bet given the NBA’s current direction. In today’s NBA, the most valuable big men are rim-runners, lob-catchers and rim protectors who can also play on the perimeter. The NBA is more guard oriented than ever, and the days of throwing it down low to your big man for a post-up opportunity are disappearing. Passing is also becoming more important than ever, as is outside shooting. While Bagley did shoot a respectable 39.7% on 58 attempts from three last season, that was on a shorter college line and his FT% of 62.7% seems to indicate that he’s still got a lot of room to improve on his shot.

Bagley’s weaknesses as a defender also cannot be overstated. While Duke played a lot of zone, he was an incredibly bad shotblocker, with a block rate of just 2.6%. That low of a rate in college is typically seen of guards and wings, not big men. Bagley’s also not a great passer, with an assist rate of just 8.8% compared to a turnover rate of 12.2%.

Luka Dončić on the other hand, doesn’t possess the elite athleticism that sets Bagley apart from the field. What he does possess are the skills that are most coveted in today’s NBA: playmaking, shooting and making winning plays. He’s got good size for a wing, and while he’s best with the ball in his hands, has thrived in situations with other ballhandlers, such as Goran Dragic or Sergio Llull. With Dončić, the Kings could build a team that is focused on sharing the ball, shooting and finding the open man. Dončić might not even end up being the better player than Bagley individually, but the NBA is a team game, and Dončić has already proven at 19 years old that he makes teams better and can win at a high level as one of the better players (if not the best) on said teams.

What Bagley provides for a team right now seems both less important and more replaceable than what Dončić provides. Just take a look at this year’s NBA playoffs. The final four teams, the Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics featured a lot of guards and wings as the primary scorers and facilitators while the big men fulfilled specific roles. Al Horford and Clint Capela anchored the defense for their teams, with Horford acting as a Stretch 5 and Capela feasting as a roll man with James Harden and Chris Paul taking turns at the wheel. The Warriors at times didn’t even play a traditional big man, and when they did, often opted to go with JaVale McGee as a sort of Capela-lite. Draymond Green played center for them at times, and it’s his defense, passing and ability to step out and hit a three that sets him apart. Kevin Love was probably the closest we had to a go-to scoring big, and in Cleveland’s offense he spent most of his time on the perimeter as a stretch 4 feeding off LeBron (and in their championship year, Kyrie Irving).

Even when you expand to look at all the NBA playoff teams, the only one that seemed to have a go-to scoring big that doesn’t play much defense was Minnesota in Karl-Anthony Towns, and Minnesota barely made the playoffs. That leap also wasn’t necessarily because of improvement in Towns himself either, but rather through the addition of Jimmy Butler, a two-way wing who led the team in scoring and was second in assists.

The Kings need talent no matter what, it’s true. This team hasn’t made the playoffs in 12 years and doesn’t look close to getting there regardless of who they take. Having the option to choose between Dončić and Bagley (and even Michael Porter Jr. to an extent) is a godsend that didn’t look like it was going to be possible just a month ago. But even still, the Kings have to get this right, and in my own humble opinion, the Kings need to embrace the modern NBA and snag the big, playmaking wing that can do a little bit of everything over the flashy big man who gets points and rebounds and not much else.