Bagley had an efficient and productive scoring game while playing 34 minutes in Duke’s upset loss at St. John’s: 19 points on 10 shots (2-for-4 on 3-pointers, 5-for-8 free throws). He also had seven rebounds, two assists and a steal.
But Bagley committed a team-high six turnovers. Foul trouble, including two charge calls on moves to the basket, limited Bagley’s minutes in the second half. And Bagley missed a free throw with the Blue Devils down three points with 20 seconds left.
“It just wasn’t there,” Bagley said. “It was just one of those days. I don’t know what to say about it.”
St. John’s played a lot of zone sets in which one defender fronted Bagley in the post and another cheated from the weak side to prevent lobs and deep paint touches. That’s a strategy he won’t encounter in the NBA.
“Teams try a lot of stuff,” Bagley said. “They try different stuff every day. You’ve just got to be ready for it and (know) how to adjust to it and keep getting better.”
Even with the Red Storm crowding Bagley’s space, he showed that he’s a smooth, agile and explosive athlete with soft touch around the basket. He’s an instinctive scorer with polished moves and easily elevates over defenders to get off an effective hook shot.
There is no question about Bagley’s offensive talent and production. But there is uncertainty about how his style translates to the modern NBA and his defensive potential as a center.
When it comes to the Hawks, there is a question of how Bagley would fit alongside John Collins, their first-round pick in the 2017 draft.
If the Hawks draft Bagley to play alongside Collins, they would have one of the most athletic front courts in the NBA. Bagley, like Collins, has a superlative ability to quickly spring off the floor and reach a high elevation. Both are very efficient scorers around the basket at their respective levels.
A Bagley-Collins pairing likely would be tough to keep away from the offensive glass. Bagley's offensive rebounding percentage (14.0) ranks fourth in he ACC, according to Kenpom.com. Collins ranked second in ACC offensive rebounding percentage as a sophomore at Wake Forest and ranks sixth as an NBA rookie.
But with Bagley and Collins, the Hawks also would have two “tweener” bigs with relatively short wingspans. Like Collins, Bagley is predisposed to attack the rim rather than draw help defenders and pass. And at this point in their careers, neither Bagley nor Collins has proven he can score frequently or efficiently outside of the paint.
It’s obvious why playing two bigs with limited shooting range can be a problem in the NBA. Floor spacing is all the rage and “stretch” bigs are an essential component to that strategy. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer’s best “pace and space” offensive team (2014-15) had Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Mike Muscala as floor-spacing bigs. This season he’s tried to make Dewayne Dedmon one, too.
Bagley has been outstanding scoring around the basket at Duke with a 74.7 field-goal percentage on non-post ups, according to Synergy Sports. But just 48 of Bagley’s 314 field-goal attempts this season (15.3 percent) have been 3-pointers (35.4 percent conversion rate). His poor free-throw percentage (62.1 percent) also could be a warning sign because free-throw percentage tends to correlate with NBA 3-point shooting potential.
In addition to Bagley’s lack of shooting range, there’s some question as to how he will operate in the pick-and-roll. Via Synergy Sports, the bulk of the offensive possessions Bagley has used in college have come via post-ups (23.9 percent), put backs (13.1) and in transition (13.1). That doesn’t mean Bagley can’t be a rim runner — Collins had a similar offensive profile in college and he’s been a good roll man as a rookie (59th percentile in points per possession, according to Synergy). But Bagley will have to adjust to the NBA, where screen-rolls are the norm.
Defensively, Bagley is a very good rebounder (eighth-best defensive rebounding percentage in the ACC) but his relative lack of length could be an issue. The most recent measurements I could find were from the 2014 U.S. junior national team camp: 6-foot-9.5 inches tall without shoes and a 7-foot wingspan. Bagley may have grown since then but it’s likely his standing reach is well short of most NBA centers.
The importance of wingspan for an NBA big man may not as obvious as shooting ability but it seems to matter a lot. Writing at Cleaning the Glass, Ben Falk (formerly an analytics manager with the Blazers and a Sixers basketball VP) looked at players at the combine over the past 16 years who measured at least 6-foot-9 barefoot. His findings:
“If we look at the 200+ players who measured at least 6-feet 9-inches barefoot at the Draft Combine in the last 16 years, there are 12 players who made the All-Star team at least once. If we sort this group by the ratio of their wingspan to their height, we find something startling.
Of the 50 players with the longest wingspans relative to their height we find 8 of those All-Stars: Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Brook Lopez. (Plus six more players who have started the majority of their career games played: Hassan Whiteside, Rudy Gobert, Nene, Brendan Haywood, Myles Turner, and Nikola Vucevic.)
Of the 50 players with the shortest wingspans relative to their height we find one All-Star (Chris Kaman) and three other players who started the majority of their career games (Mason Plumlee, Cody Zeller, and Troy Murphy).”
Falk notes that Bagley’s measured height as a 15-year old was greater than those of Davis, Howard, Nene, and Larry Sanders at their respective draft combines. It was the same as Cousins and a shade less than Turner, Jordan and Drummond. However, the measured wingspan for all of those players was at least 7-foot-4, compared to Bagley’s 7-foot measurement in 2014.
Collins also has a short wingspan for his height. At the 2017 Draft Combine, he measured 6-8.25 inches tall barefoot with a 6-11.25 wingspan. Collins has been a very good shot blocker as a rookie but his relatively short reach is noticeable at times when he tries to defend straight-up at the rim.
I saw the same with Bagley against St. John’s: Bagley didn’t record a blocked shot while Carter Jr., who is much longer and showed better anticipation, had four. Bagley's block percentage (3.08) ranks just 24th in the Atlantic Coast Conference, according to Kenpom. By comparison, Collins had a 6.55 block percentage as a sophomore at Wake Forest, fourth-best in the ACC.
The team that drafts Bagley will get a polished scorer in the paint with impressive athleticism and off-the-charts college production. Those attributes make Bagley an outstanding prospect. But Bagley's relatively short reach means he could struggle to protect the rim as an NBA center. Bagley may be best suited to play power forward but a team that slots him there would be gambling that he can develop a 3-point shot.
If Bagley can't do that, he ideally would paired with a center who can defend the basket and shoot 3-pointers. There aren't many of those kind of centers in the NBA; Collins doesn't fit that bill so far and it's possible he never will. That may be a big reason why Bagley isn't a good fit for the Hawks as part of their core of young players.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.