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30Q: Will Marvin Bagley Become an Efficient Scoring Star?

Marvin Bagley has the tools and the mindset to be a deadly offensive weapon, but efficiency at multiple levels will be the key that unlocks his true stardom.

Kimani Okearah

When the Sacramento Kings selected Marvin Bagley III in the 2018 draft with their highest draft pick in decades, it was a clear indication that the team had a concrete idea of how they wanted to utilize him. Fast-forward a season, and the most basic fundamental of that utilization is obvious; Bagley’s elite combination of athleticism, motor, and learning curve can help him thrive in Sacramento’s warp-speed offense. The role of bigs in the modern NBA is changing significantly, but Bagley has the tools to be a new-age big; he’s a promising multi-level scorer, a high-end rebounder, and a determined defender (while currently lacking the instincts to be an effective one).

But one of the biggest questions that I, and a bunch of professional/armchair scouts, had on Bagley pre-draft still remains; can Bagley become an efficient scoring star?

If you look at the surface-level numbers for Bagley, they’ll tell you he had a dang historic season for a teenager; he’s one of only 15 players in NBA history to have scored more than 900 points in a season where they were 19 years old on February 1. But given the current era of basketball and the pace the Kings played at last year, a stat like that has to be put in proper context, lest it overexcite the overly optimistic; yes, Marvin Bagley played on a fast team with a lot of possessions. Probably means he had a lot more opportunity with the Kings flying all around the court, yeah? Well, compared to those 14 other teenagers, Bagley’s 923 points came on the 2nd least minutes played (1,567), and the 2nd highest FG% (50.2%, behind only Dwight Howard).

The truth is, Bagley’s season was overly complicated, even for a rookie; he didn’t play enough, got stuck with a front-court mate in Willie Cauley-Stein who crunched the spacing, and was hit with momentum-halting injuries (twice) right when he was finding his stride. Dave Joerger’s iron-clad patient approach for rookies frustrated folks across the Kings landscape, but it didn’t keep Bagley from becoming a wrecking ball by the end of the year; in the last 4 weeks of the season, on a per 36-minute basis, Bagley averaged 24 points, 11.9 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.2 blocks per game while shooting 39% from deep. His 95th percentile athleticism became functional, holy-shit-did-you-just-see-that-play athleticism as he got used to the physicality of rival bigs in the NBA. They outweighed him with bulk, but Marvin has always known where to get his edge.

(Side note: the Kings greatest loss last season was this Nets game, but forget the blown 28-point lead; this game should have been remembered for Bagley’s offensive dominance, and this beautiful play between the Wet Bandits should have become a top highlight of the year. While Bagley’s instincts will always be score first, I’m optimistic that growing and competing with Harry Giles will help unlock Bagley’s passing instincts and willingness... because if Harry’s gonna make it look cool, Bagley’s sure to try and keep up with the dimes. Just another reason while Giles is the real star catalyst of this Kings squad.)

But while Bagley’s offensive growth was undeniable during his post-All Star tear, his efficiency as a primary scorer is still unknown. During that stretch, his effective field goal percentage dropped to 51.6%, which is 28th percentile for NBA bigs, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s a reasonable drop given his usage and age, but he’s not a rookie anymore.

The first step towards improving Bagley’s offensive efficiency is to drastically reduce his post-up plays; per Synergy Stats, Bagley had 225 post-ups last season, and shot just 43% on them, 26th percentile for the league. There will come a point where Bagley’s strength and post skills catch up to his athleticism and ambition, but while post-touches should be part of Bagley’s game, it shouldn’t be his main avenue as a scorer.

At the expense of these post-up plays, the Kings should increase three parts of Bagley’s usage; pick-and-roll, face-up isolation plays, and jump shots.

Joerger’s offense had Bagley run more than twice as many post-ups as he had pick-and-roll plays, which is insanity given how the Kings successfully used Cauley-Stein last year. That a player with Bagley’s combination of athleticism and scoring determination has only taken 121 pick-and-roll possessions across his last two seasons (at Duke and in Sacramento) is mind-boggling. Bagley wasn’t overly effective in the P&R last year—just 43rd percentile—but the Kings should run an infinite number of pick-and-rolls between Fox and Bagley this year. It’s the easiest way to optimize both players, and once the duo get their timings down, their combined explosiveness could break down even the smartest NBA defenses.

The second step is to play Bagley with as many shooters as possible, giving him clear avenues for face-up plays. Bagley’s handle is still a work in progress, but it was developed enough last season to show he could blow by a large number of centers and many power forwards. Deandre Ayton (and his Suns teammates) doesn’t have a ton in the way of defensive instincts, but that doesn’t make this play any less exciting.

(Side note: whoever told the Kings last season that they shouldn’t build Bagley’s offense around high-post/elbow creation plays has to feel a little silly right now).

Certainly, a higher-level defensive squad could do better against a Bagley iso than that play above; an off-ball defender in Devin Booker’s spot might care enough to try and disrupt Bagley with a double-team when he makes his move. But at the same time, replace Bagley’s teammates in that clip with the 2019-20 starters; are defenders leaving Hield (42% from deep), Harrison Barnes (40% as a King), or DeAaron Fox (37%) to double Bagley? Are they drifting away from Dewayne Dedmon (38%)? The Kings improved offensive gravity, generated by one of the better shooting starting lineup in the league, is going to give Bagley much more room to create. If Giles’ jumpshot and shooting usage catches up to potential, that’s just another spacer to help Bagley out... and we didn’t even mention Bogdan Bogdanovic or Nemanja Bjelica, arguably two of the best three shooters on the Kings roster.

I’ve long argued that Marvin would be most optimizied as a long-term center, at least offensively, but to do so, he needs to be surrounded by plenty of shooters to space the floor and give him room to operate and attack the glass. The Kings decided the best front court teammate at this point in Bagley’s career would be Dedmon—a full-time center, but one of the better shooters at the position who can significantly help with spacing issues that plagued the big man lineups last year. And unlike Bjelica (who should have played more with Bagley last year), Dedmon can also play the defensive 5 role that Bagley isn’t ready for just yet. Replacing Willie Cauley-Stein with Dedmon and more Giles was the best move of the Kings offseason, and gives Bagley the best opportunity to grow and hopefully become an efficent scorer.

And finally, Bagley has to become a real shooter in his own right. The good news is he made a big leap towards the end of the year last year; he shot 25.5% from deep before the All Star Break, but 39% afterwards. That mark is prime for regression, especially once NBA defenders start respecting his range, as a majority of Bagley’s three pointers were considered wide-open by the NBA’s tracking stats. But there’s a prime opportunity that can help improve Bagley’s efficiency from deep; only 21 of Bagley’s 96 attempts from deep were corner threes, per Cleaning the Glass (ignore the fact that he was 4 for 21 on those shots, possibly because defenders gave him less room than top-of-the-break threes). If Bagley can round into a career 35-36% shooter from deep, his own gravity, combined with that of his teammates, is going to give him a ton of offensive options when he catching the ball outside the three point line.

The Kings will need across-the-board improvements from their young players if they hope to break the 13 year playoff slump, but there’s no doubt that expectations are elevated for Bagley. With presumed starter minutes and a more optimized shooting lineup around him, Bagley is posed to take a massive leap this year, but to truly become the star the Kings envisioned last June, a big key will be how efficient he can be with a big jump in offensive touches.