A week ago, I wrote that Marvin Bagley is the most important player of the young Sacramento Kings. While I said pre-draft that it would be more difficult to optimize a Bagley-lead team than the other names in the Kings conversation, taking Bagley 2nd overall should indicate that the Kings have a concrete idea of how they want to utilize him. I covered his offensive utilization in my first piece. Now, we’re on to the second of the three questions that will define how successful Bagley’s rookie season will be.
Bagley’s well-discussed weaknesses on defense are technical and not motivational. It’s fair to be pessimistic about his NBA transition given the lack of defensive awareness he showed at Duke. But it’s also fair to be optimistic about his defensive potential, given Bagley’s confidence and limitless turbo meter. His length and sheer bulk may be less than ideal for a big defender, but his elite functional athleticism and fire could give Marvin edge on a whole range of defensive assignments.
The NBA knows Bagley isn’t an instinctual defender yet, as Golden State, Miami, and Phoenix all went AT him in Summer League. He’s few career arcs away from having the muscle-memory instincts he needs to be—at worst—an average NBA defender. Surely the Kings know this, and know they need to be patient with Bagley defensively. The question then is: how far away is the 19-year-old from being an acceptable defender, and will the Kings (AND the Kings fandom) be patient enough, give his draft price?
One key for Bagley’s development is he doesn’t have to be A focal point of the Kings’ defense. True, he’ll always be just one movement away from guarding anyone from Steph Curry to Joel Embiid—but he has teammates who are more ready for that range challenge than he is. Willie Cauley-Stein has never been the anchor an efficient defense demanded, and it isn’t likely that Harry Giles will be that in his own rookie season... but they’re both more rangy and aware defenders than Bagley is, at this point. In Summer League, Giles was on the top-matchups—Jordan Bell, Bam Adebayo, Deandre Ayton—a majority of the time that Bagley and Giles shared the floor. Bagley doesn’t have to take the prime big opponent.
That said, Bagley shouldn’t be boxed in on his development. The Kings shouldn’t singularly have him defending stretch bigs (the focus, it seemed, in Summer League). He should get chances to play stronger advisories, as he needs to be able to handle the small-ball five to become an optimized defender. What he really needs is to be allowed to develop as an equal opportunity big defender—both inside the paint, and out.
[Side note: Of course, there are certainly bulk downsides to trying to play THREE small-ball fives together for heavy minutes (FOUR, if Skal Labissiere demands minutes)...which is the only argument Dave Joerger will need justify playing Kosta Koufos. On the Dunc’d On Podcast, James Ham discussed the idea of the other bigs, Koufos included, getting time next to Bagley to help cover him early in his career. Very much worth a listen.]
I said in my pre-draft profile that Bagley “is going to have to prove he can find a defensive role.” But it will be hard to optimize Bagley’s physical tools—from his great athleticism to his sub-optimal wingspan—if he’s made to be a full-time rim-protector OR a full-time space defender big. The best thing the Kings can do: give Bagley all the time he needs to get used to the NBA speed, and unlock his team defense instincts.
Now that Summer League has come and past, I think the real question is “when can he make that defensive impact?” Despite all the pessimism surrounding his overall performances in Summer League, it was really good to see Bagley MOVING to protect the rim. His 3.3% block rate and 1.0 block per 40 average at Duke was a clear and well-discussed weakness. He worked at it in Summer League, averaging 2.2 blocks per 36 minutes. He slid over and bodied up to guys more often than he did with the Blue Devils.
Competition level aside, that was the best indication yet that Kings fans should trust Marvin Bagley’s work ethic. I think he’s got the fire and the drive to become a solid NBA defender... but what that development arc looks like is up to the Kings and Bagley. As long as Bagley is showing improvements come late-March/early-April, I think he’ll be on the right track. His rookie season won’t define his career, but it’ll go a long way towards directing it.