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Starting Marvin Bagley is both necessary and complicated

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It’s time to unleash the rookie big man.

Kimani Okearah

On Tuesday night, the Sacramento Kings decided to rest a trio of regular starters, De’Aaron Fox, Iman Shumpert, and Nemanja Bjelica, opening the door for Marvin Bagley III to start his first career game. And Bagley produced. The second overall pick led the Kings in scoring with 22 points, grabbed a team-high 11 boards, and also managed to fill the stat sheet with an assist, a steal, and two blocks, while 50% shooting from the floor. He looked every bit of the versatile scorer who draft scouts fell in love with in his time as a Blue Devil.

That performance also falls right in line with his numbers when given ample opportunity on the floor. In the five games in which Bagley has played 30+ minutes, the first year big man has averaged 19.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 0.8 steals, and 2 blocks. For comparison’s sake, Deandre Ayton puts up 18 points, 11 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block when playing 30+ minutes, albeit at a much larger sample size in 30 games compared to just 5 for Bagley. Marvin’s per-36 minutes line, by no means a perfect projection of what a player is doing versus what a player could potentially do, also speak to an NBA ready player: 19.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, and 1.4 blocks – eerily similar to his actual box scores of 30+ minutes.

His continued growth, along with the stagnation of several veterans on the roster, has transformed the whispers surrounding his status as a bench contributor into full-on, raucous conversations. The other top-5 picks have started a combined 185 out of 188 games to begin their careers; Marvin Bagley has started once, and that was only due Nemanja Bjelica’s scheduled rest. The Kings are approaching the juncture of converting their lottery selection from a slowly-learning bench big into a key member of a winning team. The question remains: who should Dave Joerger bench and at what cost?

Swap Bjelica for Bagley

Removing Nemanja Bjelica from the starting lineup feels like an easy solution due to the big man’s recent struggles on the offensive end of the court. The veteran forward started the season unsustainably hot, averaging 11 points per game on 55% shooting from the field and 49% from deep over the first 24 games, but has since crashed to normalcy. He’s scoring 9 points per game on just 42% from the floor, while hitting only 34% of his long-balls during the second half of the 48-game season thus far. Over the last 9 contests, his numbers have dropped even more precipitously. Bjelica is averaging 3.9 points on 32% overall shooting and 17% from deep. His sweet shooting stroke has completely abandoned him.

That lack of production has resulted in the slow demise of Bjelica’s place in the rotation, even though he’s preserved his place in the starting lineup. Nemanja has seen his time on the floor drop for five consecutive games and hasn’t reached the 30 minute mark since January 5th. Bjelica has also been benched to start the third quarter in each of the last two games. Marvin Bagley’s return from injury, and subsequent stellar play, has only further eroded Bjelica’s playing time:

*Red line denotes average playing time

All of those factors theoretically suggest a seamless transition from Bjelica to Bagley, but that potential change in lineup also creates significant difficulties for other members of the roster. The most obvious disparity between the two players is their shooting prowess from beyond the arc. The veteran big man is a career 38% shooter from deep, including 41% this season and 42% last year. His percentages, while down as of late, will almost assuredly recover over the next three months. Marvin Bagley, while he may one day become an average three-point shooter, is hitting only one shot from deep every three games and knocks down just 29% of his attempts. Removing Bjelica without replacing his marksmanship in some other way leaves De’Aaron Fox with just a single reliable sniper to spread the floor: Buddy Hield. Defenses will be much more comfortable packing the paint against the drives of Fox if only one perimeter threat exists.

Pairing Bagley with the starters may also further stagnate the half-court offense. Marvin is drawn to isolation buckets like a Maloof to cash considerations, recording an assist percentage of just 5.5%, easily the lowest on the team and in just the 10th percentile league-wide. There’s no doubt that Marvin can put the ball in the hoop, but he does so at his own pace and within his own basketball universe. He has received the ball on the block 163 times this year, but has passed just 36 times, resulting in a disappointingly low 9 assists. When the ball gets in Marvin’s hands, the ball stays in Marvin’s hands.

That habitual shoot-first default is the complete antithesis of Nemanja Bjelica, who has shown a tendency to pass up good shots far too often. The fourth-year forward sits at an assist percentage of 11.7% (28th percentile) and has maintained a willingness to move the ball even through his shooting struggles (11.8% over his last 24 games). Dave Joerger wouldn’t just be sacrificing his spacing if he inserted Marvin Bagley into the starting lineup, he would be forfeiting critical ball movement as well.

Aside from the obvious benefits of swapping a scoring machine in place of a struggling shooter, there are some small sample sized lineup projections that speak to the effectiveness of a Fox/Hield/Shumpert, Bagley/Cauley-Stein lineup:

Lineup Differences

Lineup Total Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Lineup Total Minutes Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Net Rating
Starters + Bjelica 439 107.1 106.8 0.3
Starters + Bagley 72 121.8 99.3 22.4

That group has only played 72 minutes together on the season, meaning no conclusions can be cemented from the study, but it’s a positive indicator that a front court of Cauley-Stein and Bagley may be more potent that the current rotation.

Moving Bjelica in the second unit may also serve to shake the veteran out of his slump and would provide even more shooting pop to a bench filled with snipers. Bringing in the backups would introduce sharpshooter (Bogdanovic = 37%), after sharpshooter (Ferrell = 38%), after sharpshooter (Jackson = 37%), after sharpshooter (Bjelica = 41%) into the lineup. Very few teams could keep up with that many three-point threats rotating into the game off of the bench.

Swap Cauley-Stein for Bagley

Prior to Nemanja Bjelica’s struggles, moving Willie Cauley-Stein to the bench (or more likely to another team) was a common solution for Bagley’s lack of minutes. The two players occupy the same position at center, and Cauley-Stein’s status as a restricted free agent this summer may very well spell the end of his time in a Kings uniform. However, there are significant differences between the contributions of Willie and Marvin.

The fourth-year center is most commonly deployed as vertical threat in the screen-and-roll alongside De’Aaron Fox’s devastating charges at the rim: a key component of the Kings’ downhill attack. Willie has screen-assisted (meaning his pick results in a teammate’s bucket) 195 times this season, the 6th most of any NBA Player. Marvin Bagley has accomplished that task just 24 times, ranking 64th out of 68 qualified centers, poor enough for just the 4th percentile. Those numbers don’t necessarily indicate that Marvin can’t set dynamic screens; it just signals that the coaching staff has yet to believe in his ability to do so. Similar to the concept of removing Bjelica’s shooting, eliminating Cauley-Stein as a pick-and-roll threat may stifle De’Aaron Fox’s effectiveness as the initiator on offense.

Willie is also a much more willing passer than Marvin. As stated previously, the rookie center has recorded an assist percentage of 5.5% on the season. Cauley-Stein resides at 13.1%, ranking 11th out of 30 qualified centers. He’s demonstrated the ability to operate in the high-post as a facilitator, or to find cutters as he’s facing the basket. Defenses will be much more liable to throw multiple defenders at Bagley in the post as he’s shown a reluctance to move the ball once he gets his mitts on it.

Marvin was also projected as an elite rebounder coming out of Duke, and while his offensive rebounding has been impressive, he has yet to conquer the defensive boards in the NBA. Bagley snags 19% of available defensive rebounds, a lower percentage than Kosta Koufos (27%), Willie Cauley-Stein (23.7%), or even Harry Giles (20%), and right in line with Nemanja Bjelica (18.8%). When he’s on the court with Cauley-Stein that number plummets to just 12.6%, on par with Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Pairing that learning curve with Willie’s inconsistent production on the glass has typically resulted in less than desirable results. Of the three possible lineups, Cauley-Stein and Bagley have the worst overall rebounding percentage:

Rebounding Success

Player Combination Total Minutes OREB% DREB% REB%
Player Combination Total Minutes OREB% DREB% REB%
Bagley + Bjelica 101 32.40% 68.90% 50.70%
Bjelica + Cauley-Stein 848 25.60% 72.90% 48.70%
Bagley + Cauley-Stein 270 30.60% 65.50% 48.40%

Moving Cauley-Stein to the bench also creates a potentially ugly situation off of the court. Willie is putting up career-high numbers, has been better than Nemanja Bjelica, has started 84 of his last 92 games, and is looking to get paid as a starting caliber center this summer. Combining those factors with a player who has never feared to share his brutally honest opinions with the media could forge an untenable situation.

The most significant advantage in moving on from Willie Cauley-Stein as the starting five of the Kings is the purposeful development of Marvin Bagley in his most natural position: center. The coaching staff must prioritize the development of Bagley over the happiness of a restricted free agent or even a possible playoff berth. Transitioning Cauley-Stein into the role of a sub, or trading him to another organization in need of a big man, would allow the second-most important member of the core to expand his skill set in his future role.

There are many questions surrounding a potential change within the front court rotation. Should Dave Joerger sacrifice the shooting of Bjelica for Bagley’s scoring aptitude, or should he bench Willie Cauley-Stein and hope that his first year center is ready to fulfill the role of rim-runner in the pick-and-roll? How will either veteran react to a rookie playing over them? What consequences will prioritizing Marvin’s minutes have on the playoff standings?

The questions are many, but the answer is singular: start Marvin Bagley. The second overall pick’s contributions have been too impressive, and his growth is far too important, to continue bringing him off of the bench. It’s time to allow Marvin Bagley to operate as the dominant big man of the future that he’s become for the Sacramento Kings.