Bigs, Bagley, and evaulative habit


This week I re-ranked the top 25 players in college basketball on the occasion of Marvin Bagley III reclassifying and joining this year’s freshman class. I put Bagley at No. 1 because he’s been termed the best player to come out of high school since Anthony Davis. If Duke’s star does indeed have a Davis-level impact for the Blue Devils this season, I’ll come off looking like a genius in a vast hegemonic horde of parroting savants.

Whether that particular scenario pans out or not, I do wonder whether this Bagley moment itself may not function as a handy summation, one that can be called The (Evaluative) Trouble with Freshmen. On the one hand, the get-off-my-yard gene in all of us says that, at the very top of the rankings, freshmen are pretty much always overrated.

Markelle Fultz turned out to be as good as advertised, his team missed the tournament entirely, and his coach was fired. Ben Simmons turned out to be as good as advertised, his team missed the tournament entirely, and his coach was (eventually) fired.

Even Jahlil Okafor, who, whatever else you may think of him, was a first-team All-American as a freshman and was the leading scorer on a team that won a national title, is now being pointed at as some kind of museum exhibit for obsolete basketball artifacts and cautionary draft tales. Freshmen are always overrated.

On the other hand, there is Davis, who turned out to be as good as advertised, whose college team won a national title, and who today is a four-time NBA All-Star and indeed the reigning All-Star Game MVP. The trouble with freshmen is that, even though the ones at the very top of the rankings will indeed be selected at the very top of the draft one year later (the occasional Cliff Alexander notwithstanding), we can’t know in advance whether these nascent top-three picks will have a college impact more akin to BenMark FultzSimmons or more like that of the hallowed Davis himself.

I’ve touched these particular caveat-emptor bases before, and, well, I touched them again this week….

There’s little to zero doubt regarding Bagley’s long- or even near-term potential. The better question is what his impact will be over his next three-dozen or so basketball games.

Duly noted, John Gasaway, and thanks for the warning.

Now, what about a different outcome entirely? I suppose it’s not too terribly difficult to whip up a vision of the future where Bagley is indeed “all that” this year only to find that what worked in Durham won’t necessarily translate seamlessly at the next level.

One possibility for Bagley’s near future is that he lives up to the hype not because he’s another Anthony Davis but instead because he’s kind of sort of another (college) DeMarcus Cousins. Picture if you will a possession-gobbling and foul-drawing force of nature in the paint who leads his team in %Shots while also vacuuming up the offensive glass.

I say “kind of sort of.” Though he’s yet to crack the 30 percent Mendoza line from beyond the arc either in high school or in the EYBL, Bagley will likely try to shoot threes. (Cousins didn’t, going 1-for-6 from out there for the entirety of his freshman season.) Additionally, Bagley may not block as many shots (boo!) but almost certainly will not commit as many fouls (yay!) as Boogie did in 2010.

If Kawhi Leonard has taught me anything, it’s to think long and hard before doubting the three-point potential of a hitherto unsuccessful three-point shooter. Bagley could indeed hit enough threes this season to carry his weight from out there, and, even if he doesn’t, his offensive rebounding prowess could still be dispositive on offense for a Duke team that suffered from a (relative yet unmistakable) shot-volume deficiency in 2017.

That being said, the NBA-specific question Bagley raises in my mind is whether the way we’ve always done it before still works when it comes to evaluating bigs. I’m thumbnailing shamelessly, of course, but “tallest guy with best skill” (or best upside or most quote-unquote athleticism, or what have you) summarizes at least a fair portion of the words you’ll read or video you’ll see on most elite prospects.

Does that evaluative framing still carry as much forecasting water as it used to for bigs now that the skill of making twos is no longer regarded as being as valuable as it once was? For instance, the additional things we knew about Davis even in college — that he had latent capacity on offense, that he was a 71 percent shooter at the line, and, of course, that he was a low-low-foul rim protector par excellence — turned out to be rough precursors of success for an All-Star who even now is just a 29 percent career three-point shooter.

Naturally I’ll continue to use “tallest guy with best skill” as an evaluative frame, just as I have for all of my basketball-watching existence, because its labor-to-output ratio is outstanding. However, I’m also administering a subsequent quiz made up of basketball-specific questions even for very tall guys who are amazing athletes:

Do you make threes, or at least present opponents with the potential that you may? If not, what else do you do besides making twos?

On this quiz, answers must be quantifiable, e.g., block percentage or, especially for bigs, mere minutes played. Leave fluidity, silkiness, and even time-honored explosiveness at the door.

Now, Mr. Bagley, you have 30-some games. You may begin.

Everyman and everywoman a basketball scout. I need hardly add that explosiveness is, rightly, more important in the final analysis than specific and quantifiable skills. My quiz is merely an attempt to bring something new to the table. That being said, the NBA is a business (so too is college basketball, despite protestations and any given program’s just-enough-for-a-“deficit” profligate spending to the contrary), and the next weapon to be added in the scouting arsenal could very well — and correctly — be some form of market research. The process of selecting which basketball player to draft may turn out to share similarities with an A&R executive deciding which recording artist to sign.