NBA, Sacramento Kings

Marvin Bagley’s development will be crucial for the young and speedy Kings

Marvin Bagley is developing as he grows into a bigger role for the young Sacramento Kings.

Marvin Bagley III, first and foremost, is a highlight factory. In one Monday game against San Antonio, he caught a transition lob from Yogi Ferrell with his back to the hoop and rotated completely around in midair to slam the basketball, submitting his version of Michael Jordan’s famous switch-hand layup to the basketball athleticism archives. I’m still not sure I’ve completely grasped the impossibility of Bagley’s alley-oop.

This happened in a game in which Bagley scored 24 points and 12 rebounds in 31 minutes as Sacramento blitzed the Spurs, 127-112. As the Kings run fast and win some games, Bagley is gradually earning the trust of coach Dave Joerger. He’s playing 26.5 minutes per game and averaging 14.8 points since returning fully from injury on Jan. 10.

In another universe, Bagley could be in Rookie of the Year contention. Luka Doncic’s ascension and Joerger’s early unwillingness to hand Bagley big minutes will likely remove him from serious contention, even as he dunks and blocks shots like the stretchy, 6-foot-11 fiend that he is.

You can stick the “still figuring it out” labels all over Bagley because he is a rookie and is indeed still figuring it out. But he’s farther along than other top picks from his class and has carved out a legitimate role on a playoff-contending(!) team. He is picking up the nuances of being a professional defender but he’s not a huge liability. Bagley is scoring, passing and doing enough promising things all over the court that Sacramento fans can safely foresee success, at least as much as disillusioned Kangz fans can at this point.

The Kings, scrapping with the Los Angeles teams for a Western Conference playoff spot, are the perfect team for the raw talents of Bagley, who plays like he carries a trail of fire behind him. He does everything quickly, with active feet and body parts that seem to fly in every direction every time he squirms to another spot on the floor. Sacramento is second in the league in pace, and Bagley seems thrilled to sprint alongside speedy De’Aaron Fox and honorary Splash Brother Buddy Hield.

Bagley’s velocity could be interpreted as out of control, but it often ends up as just the opposite — it becomes a way for him to stay one step ahead of defenders, with burst and acceleration (both straight ahead and vertically) that rivals anyone else in the NBA. There is a calmness to this high-octane style.

He is improving as an interior passer, with the ability to dive into the paint and slip cleverly-timed passes to other bigs and cutters. On a Kings team that often sticks another big like Willie Cauley-Stein alongside him, this is a crucial skill; the paint often gets crowded and forces rim-runners and post-up guys to accommodate each other. It’s not an ideal scenario, but Bagley is adjusting.

The fact remains, though, that he should grow more willing to pass out of post-ups. Of his 5.1 post-ups per game (a top-20 figure), he passes out just 22.5 percent of the time, the fifth-lowest among qualified players in the league. Right there with him is fellow rookie big Jaren Jackson Jr., who passes out of just 21 percent of post-ups; this is something that will come with increased on-court comfort.

Bagley is also coughing it up on 10.5 percent of those post-ups, behind only Tristan Thompson among qualified players. He is scoring reasonably well out of them, though (3.0 points per game), with some funky finishing.

Bagley’s points come from clever lefty floaters and hook-shots. Seventy percent of his field goals have come from inside 10 feet this season as he develops a jumper and only occasionally launches from deep (his 24 percent mark from 3 should improve, at least marginally). Bagley has a way of casually catapulting lefty floaters into the basket with touch amid a flurry of movement:

He seems like he should be moving too fast to put that kind of softness on a shot. Bagley seems like he’s moving too fast to do a lot of things; usually, he has it mostly under control.

It’s tough to defend a player who is this willing to use his athleticism in such a defining way. Bagley’s wingspan is Durant-esque and his vertical leap is unstoppable — when he’s under the basket, he will out-scrap and out-jump you for every loose ball. He trampolines over opposing centers and deftly palms the ball like it’s nothing.

This length, naturally, comes in handy on defense. Bagley is still learning the intricacies of NBA coverage, but he defends well on switches and blankets his man across the halfcourt. He should bulk up some to fight with lumbering centers under the hoop, and become more willing to body big guys.

Sometimes, Bagley moves too fast for his own good. He’s so anxious to get to his spot (and maybe will see it before anyone else sees it) that he forgets to be patient.

Sacramento will want Bagley to grow into more of a rim-runner, with a willingness to take the ball into the lane at speed. He does that plenty already, but it usually results in post moves and his own version of a floater. With more pick-and-rolls and cuts to the hoop, Bagley will have more chances to diversify his shots and pry open defenses for interior passes. This kind of half-court offense is the next step for the lightning-quick Kings kids.

Next: Alternative All-Star Weekend

Playoffs could be on the horizon. Sacramento jettisoned Iman Shumpert, Justin Jackson and Zach Randolph at the trade deadline for Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, adding win-now pieces. The Clippers’ Tobias Harris trade opens further opportunities, and Sacramento can hope the Lakers’ chemistry combusts amid a passing deadline with swirling Anthony Davis rumors.

Bagley’s development is crucial to the Kings’ present and future, especially the latter, which appears increasingly promising. We know one thing: It’ll be fun to watch.

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