Marvin Bagley is the most important player of the young Sacramento Kings.
True, he may not be their most important prospect—that’s a debate between Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox, right now. He may not even be the best big prospect the roster, if Harry Giles’ is ready for his trial run as the Kings’ ace-in-the-hole. Heck, there’s a chance Bagley isn’t even the Kings most important player-whose-last-name-starts-with-the-letter B, when Bogdan Bogdanovic exists.
What makes Marvin Bagley the most important player on the young Kings is the fact that he’s a King and Luka Doncic is not. But wait, I’m not just reviving that debate again...it’s also the fact that he’s a King, and Jaren Jackson Jr. is not... or Mo Bamba, or Wendell Carter, or Trae Young. With their highest pick in a decade and a draft class full of potential stars, this was the biggest gamble to date for this front office... a front office that needs their gambles to start paying off in big ways, quickly.
But it isn’t just a gamble on the front offices’ part; Dave Joerger has another piece to seamlessly make fit into this puzzle of a roster. And I said in June that I thought “it’ll be more difficult to optimize a Bagley-lead team than the other names in the Kings conversation”... which makes Joerger’s optimization plan one of the most interesting story-lines of the season, and of Joerger’s tenure. Drafting Marvin Bagley should indicate that the Kings have a strong, concrete idea of how they want to utilize him in the modern NBA. What will that look like?
So, let’s dig a little deeper into this 30Q—a 30Q inception, if you will—for the first of the three questions that will define how successful Bagley’s rookie season will be.
How will the Kings Utilize Marvin Bagley Offensively?
First, the obvious; Bagley will be another massively fun weapon in transition on a team that is begging to run. The Kings were 9th in transition points-per-possession (PPP) last season (1.11, league leading Thunder were at 1.2), and 11th in transition play opportunities. His grab-and-go ability is blossoming (and a bit loose). Enthusiasm, tons of combined hours in the gym, and the right coaching can make this electric team a force to be reckoned with in the open court.
The less obvious utilization comes in the half-court. Bagley has potential to be a versatile, multi-level scorer in a few years; assuming real improvement in both his shooting and handling ability, he could threaten from deep, drive the ball on any overplays, and take advantage of his athleticism in the post. But that elevated versatility is likely a season or two away, as the transition to the NBA will not be an easy one for a guy who is (right now) more athletically gifted than polished. Figuring out how to utilize Bagley in the half-court will be more difficult than it will be for the pair of titans in Phoenix (Ayton, with that dominating size/strength combo) or Memphis (Jackson, with that floor spacing ability).
It would be a mistake for the Kings to bury Bagley headfirst into his instinct challenges; with his reliance on his left hand, forcing Bagley into too many creation situations in the corners/elbows will be an easier cover for NBA defenders who can smell that blood in the water. Here, in his inaugural Kings highlight, Bagley showcase both great fluidity and control to get a good shot, and then an inability to take the good shot when he has to switch the ball back to his left.
While it is vital that Bagley eventually be able to create from the high-post and beyond, it should not be the foundation of his NBA efficiency. His scoring equilibrium will take some extended practice time before it starts leaking into games. Pulling him away from the basket too frequently would likely be both under-utilizing Bagley, and hammering him into situations where his early-career limitations will be most exposed. [The side conclusion here; the Kings should let Harry Giles control the ball from the high-post/beyond, where he can utilize his more developed playmaking instincts and stronger understanding of the Kings offense.]
For the first arc of Bagley’s career, the Kings should focus offensively on what makes Bagley an elite NBA prospect—his functional athleticism, and his ability to burst across and above the court at a instance’s notice.
So—Dave Joerger should let Bagley move.
Let Bagley move around the low post. Let him run pin-down screens so he can spring the guards some space. Get him just enough space, and he’ll spring free from distracted defenders when they overplay those same guards, equaling easy lobs from Fox, Buddy, and Bogi. And let him battle in the paint, because Bagley learning to handle the small-ball five spot on offense so he can pound the offensive glass (13.8% offensive rebounding rate against top college competition nightly) is one of the damn reasons you’d draft him so high in the first place.
Let him run infinite pick-and-rolls with De’Aaron Fox. Run infinite pick-and-dives, where that moment of advantage on the slice to the rim will get longer and longer as your point guard/star big get that familiarity thing down. Run infinite pick-and-pops, because that jumper needs to be refined to gold so the Kings offensive gravity doesn’t blackhole.
And, equally important, let De’Aaron Fox run with a real pick-and-roll threat. According to NBA.com’s tracking stats, the Kings had 645 possessions last year (7.4% of their offense) where the roll-man attempted to score out of the pick-and-roll—the 9th most such plays by any NBA offense. The problem there was that the Kings were tied for LAST in points per possession (0.97 PPP) on such plays. Per Synergy stats, Kosta Koufos (!) was the best pick-and-roll big on the team last year (42nd percentile), and Koufos and Zach Randolph (18th!) had a combined 270 pick-and-roll plays last year. Giving a majority of those attempts to Bagley optimizes both Bagley’s AND Fox’s skillsets. With their combination of elite quickness and body control, the duo of Fox/Bagley could wreck havoc on the generated mismatches out of the P&R.
Marvin Bagley is the Kings next—and hopefully, best—opportunity to find a modern star big who can lead an efficient offense. But believing in that stardom means believing in patience for Bagley. Joerger should let Bagley take advantage of who he is now, and work to optimize him as that high-usage pick-and-roll big the offense sorely demands. I’m expecting Bagley to be showing solid skill improvement towards the end of the season, but the Kings plan for him is a less certain prediction. His rookie season won’t define his career, but it’ll go a long way towards directing it.