Post written by Robert Hamill, aka Hamilton. Follow him on Twitter.
One sure thing in a draft is that there is rarely a sure thing. Every player has upside and downside; strengths and weaknesses; NBA-ready skills and those that need work. There are so many ways to predict the future, but without a DeLorean equipped with a flux capacitor you’re still just making an educated guess. Picking at the top of a draft generally provides a narrow range of outcomes, but on the flip side it’s a bigger deal to the organization and the player when he doesn’t pan out. When the player is big the flop is even bigger. Why are basketball people still obsessed with size, even when they’re repeatedly burned? The answer is complicated and probably better suited for a psychologist because it’s really about human behavior. Having a small child gives me an interesting look at human behavior on a daily basis but I’m no expert on such matters. From a basketball standpoint the answer seems to be about convention and fear. It’s about an attitude that says big means tough and physical, and big means protect the paint. It’s about a fear of missing out on the next Big One.
This proposition creates a particular problem for NBA teams as they fawn over size and various physical traits that accompany it. We could re-visit the 1998 draft’s top choice of Michael Olowokandi as a most extreme example of how this can go wrong. And everyone is well aware of the famous Sam Bowie-over-Michael Jordan choice Portland made. Despite the way the game has evolved more recently, teams still fancy big men. Early 2016 selections included Dragan Bender (fourth overall) and Marquise Chriss (eighth). Jahlil Okafor went third in 2015 despite red flags that were obvious, even to amateur evaluators like me (getting owned by Frank Kaminsky doesn’t project well for guarding NBA players). Yet he still went third to a competent Philly front office in the midst of The Process. The jury is still out on Chriss and Bender, but the early returns are not promising.
Let’s not forget the 2013 draft which included Cody Zeller at four, and Alex Len at five. Thomas Robinson went fifth in 2012 (one slot ahead of Damian Lillard) and Meyers Leonard was selected eleventh. (Sure, eleven is a bit outside the range we’re dealing with here, but a chance to drag Meyers will likely be met with delight by Fendo). Aside from Portland, and Charlotte in 15-16, none of these teams has made a playoff appearance with any of these players on their rosters. There’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg thing with bad franchises getting picks wrong and continuing to run bad teams out onto the floor. To borrow from D’Angelo Barksdale “The Kings stay the Kings.” Either way, several teams to whiff on big guys in recent drafts are in the top of the lottery again suffering from organizational instability.
One especially noteworthy example of the infatuation with big men is Portland’s choice of Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007. Oden had been on the radars of league execs and hoop nerds for years because he looked and played like a grown man at age 16. By the time the draft rolled around it wasn’t a secret he had the knees of a much older man. Portland’s decision to select Oden continues to look worse as KD ascends the NBA’s pantheon while Oden has been out of the league for years. It would be one thing if Oden had been by far the best player in the draft, but that wasn’t the case. KD destroyed college basketball playing similarly in some ways to the way he plays today. A major concern with him was his upper body strength. Think about that. A wing player as skilled as KD is discounted over how many times he can bench press 185 pounds while the guy with the knees of a 30-year-old tops so many draft boards. Oden ending up amongst the stiffs listed above might be a bit unfair because his early demise was injury-induced. At the same time, the decision Portland made, armed with all the information they had illustrates how deep NBA teams’ love affair with big men is and how blinding that love can be.
That’s the context I’m thinking about with top of this draft. It’s full of good, (mostly) modern big men, each also possessing significant cause for concern. That undying love of bigs likely means a couple of them won’t achieve their ceiling or even middle ground. The two players we’re considering here represent different versions of the big man prospect and could easily come up short of their draft slot.
Mohamed Bamba brings the highest of ceilings in a truly unique physical package. He’s the type of player who sparks the “what if” conversations which lead to a player being selected early, despite obvious risk. Marvin Bagley, though not polished in the typical sense of the word, may already be showing us who he is. That’s likely a good thing, and a bad thing.
Bamba is a unicorn of sorts. He has a 7’10” wingspan, which is the longest ever measured at the combine, and an absurd standing reach. He runs well for his height and moves laterally quite well too. For a guy his size he can get down into a defensive stance when he wants to. That’s a lot of rim protection and possible switchability. As the Ringer’s NBA draft coverage points out, he’s a “theoretical shooter.” Indeed, he only attempted 1.7 3s per game at Texas, making 27.5% of them. Mike Schmitz of Draft Express attended Texas practices and says Bamba was frequently the best shooter on the team. That’s nice, but practices aren’t games and Texas wasn’t populated with great shooters. (Only two players shot over 35% from three for the season.) The mechanics of the shot aren’t particularly good either. He stays relatively set and brings it to an acute angle toward his head. The release itself is eventually pretty high, but his elbows tend to be pointed in odd directions. A pro jump shot is generally tighter and smoother. The shot needs considerable work before it will be reliable in the NBA.
On both ends of the floor he keeps a solid base for his frame but I can’t help but wonder if his high center of gravity will be a problem. He’s not that strong and I can see him getting pushed out of position by smaller guys a lot. He also looks pretty chill on defense which could be an issue when combined with his lack of strength. We’ve seen players bodies morph as they mature physically and get with pro trainers and dieticians. It’s not often the skinny ones who bulk up, but rather the heavier ones who trim down. How much bulk can he add? How much stronger can he get? Does he have the mass to guard the likes of KAT, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, or Hassan Whiteside when they want to take him to the block? Whiteside can be a real dog but if you don’t bring it he, like any other starting level NBA player, will beat your ass.
But how do you pass on a player with the upside he possesses? If he can really guard all five positions he’s in elite territory defensively. If he can develop into a 35-40% shooter from 3 he’s an elite stretch big man. He’s regarded as smart and inquisitive so there’s reason to believe he will be coachable and put in the work. That matters. He may be a truly end up being a uniquely modern player. We won’t know until we know. I wouldn’t feel comfortable picking him before DeAndre Ayton or Luka Doncic but anywhere after that is worth the risk.
Marvin Bagley put up gaudy scoring and rebounding numbers during his freshman year at Duke. This wasn’t just any freshman year because Bagley should have still been a senior in high school. That’s right. A guy getting 21 and 10 in the ACC shouldn’t have even been there yet. Bagley does it by running harder and jumping higher than most. He operates mostly inside the three-point-line – in similar spots to a younger Kevin Garnett. His effort and offensive skills profile reminds me of KG too. There’s some Toronto Chris Bosh there as well because he’s ultimately too low key a personality to be like KG.
It would appear the rest of his game hasn’t caught up with his scoring and rebounding. He couldn’t muster one block or one steal per game. Each of the other bigs at the top end of this draft bettered his 1.7 combined blocks and steals per game. During the final six games of the season, two ACC tourney and four NCAA tourney, he got two steals and blocked one shot. In six championship-level-competition games, the guy averaged .33 steals and .17 blocks. Not great. It should be concerning that an explosive 4/5 with a great second jump isn’t reading the game defensively. That’s a plausible answer considering how hard he runs and how well he rebounds. It’s not about effort, but something else. If you move as well as Bagley you ought to be getting your hands on some passes and shots. This is also where the comparisons to young KG and Toronto Chris Bosh fall apart.
Duke played zone pretty much all season. There were no fewer than four NBA players on the roster, including two lottery-projected bigs to protect the paint and rim. Yet their best option was to play zone? That’s an indictment on Bagley to some extent. How much he grows and develops defensively depends somewhat on where he ends up. There seems to be coalescence around Bagley to Sacramento at two. It seems legitimate that the Kings like him, but would they like him as much if Jackson Jr and Doncic hadn’t refused to undergo complete pre-draft evaluations? What does Bagley in Sacramento look like? He’ll score, and get rebounds. He wants those numbers just like he wants to be picked as high as possible regardless of the organization. Dave Joerger can coach defense but Duke playing zone and the lack of steals and rebounds really concerns me. The Kings’ roster isn’t good and it won’t get better in the 2019 draft since they don’t own their own pick. With Vivek and Vlade calling the shots it may never be. If Bagley is going there, he’s going to stuff the box score with points and rebounds. It’s going to be a hollow and unfulfilling 20 and 10.
Like so many draft classmates, the bigs at the top of this draft will be forever linked to each other. They each possess unique gifts and common weaknesses; each offering something a little different from the rest. We’ll spend much of next year looking at rookie rankings and watching for signs improvement. We’ll inevitably rank and list them (we’re already doing it) as we look back at this draft. In the First Take sports culture so many people exist in, if one turns out to be a Hall of Fame player, then the rest have to be trash. It’s unfair that a player’s fate is tied to so many things he cannot control. Being big and picked early can be another one of those things.