Sacramento Kings

Optimizing Marvin Bagley is critical to the Kings’ ceiling

Marvin Bagley wasn’t always put in the best positions to succeed last year. For the Kings to unlock his and their potential, they must better utilize him.

Quite often, optimization is what distinguishes draft picks who live up to the billing from those who fall short of expectations. Some teams view first-, second- and third-year players as balls of clay with limitless possibilities. They experiment with different types of usage in an attempt to explore the depths of one’s skill-set while ignoring obvious indications of strengths and weaknesses. Or, other times, they pigeonhole them into ill-fitting roles where opportunities to accentuate their gifts are sparse. For stretches of last season, this was the case with Marvin Bagley III.

The Sacramento Kings big man produced an encouraging first year, averaging 14.9 points (56.2 percent true shooting), 7.6 rebounds and 1.0 blocks in 25.3 minutes a night while earning All-Rookie First Team honors. This, despite being fed 225 post-ups (26th percentile, 0.804 points per possession). Despite having to constantly tailor his approach to both ends of the floor, contingent on his various front-court teammates. Despite Sacramento wholly overindulging on his minutes at power forward, which meant Bagley had to chase sweet-shooting 4s around screens — an unreasonable ask for the 6-foot-11 rookie.

Fighting through a pin-down to stay attached with Danilo Gallinari isn’t ideal, yet it’s far less egregious than having to track Mikal Bridges along the baseline on that first clip. Shortly after the 2018 NBA Draft, Kings general manager Vlade Divac said Bagley could play small forward. It was an overly optimistic belief and while he hardly logged minutes there as a rookie, these defensive responsibilities treat him as such.

He was 105th among 108 power forwards in Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (minus-1.5),  partly because of assignments that required wing-like mobility. Bagley’s own deficiencies largely contributed to the ranking but Sacramento clearly didn’t put him in a supplementary role.

One of the vital questions surrounding his development is which position he’s best suited for long-term. He spent 89 percent of his minutes at power forward last season, which magnified his perimeter struggles and lack of off-ball awareness. Moments of rim-protecting upside were clouded by plays in which he failed to execute simple help rotations.

Slotting him primarily at power forward likely broadens the situations in which he must make complex off-ball reads or stay glued to shifty marksmen. With a (relatively short) 7-foot-1 wingspan and the aforementioned struggles in help, his viability as a center is tenuous as well. But there’s enough evidence to advocate for its exploration.

As a big in drop coverage or the primary defensive anchor, Bagley’s exhibited some proficiency (1.4 blocks per 36 minutes). His quick leaping ability enables him to swiftly transition from horizontal movement to vertical movement. Sequences like the ones below reveal how exactly he held offensive players 3.1 percent below their average at the rim last season, 82nd among 286 qualified candidates (minimum 100 shots defended).

Bagley only played 10 percent of his minutes at the 5 and while he posted a minus-12.4 net rating, the sample is incredibly small (roughly 150 minutes). Sacramento should expand the frequency to potentially uncover the 20-year-old’s optimal position. By simplifying his obligations and keeping him involved in plays — he seems particularly capable when the action unfolds in his direct line of sight — the Kings can station Bagley in the proper spots to maximize his defensive value.

Some of his positional distribution must be matchup-dependent. Hulking, offensive-minded centers will score with ease on him. Low-usage, poor-shooting 4s are the perfect time to run him at power forward. Even so, more than 10 percent of his minutes need to come at center. Something closer to a 50-50 split is practical.

The defensive fit is only secondary, though. The true upside exists in his offensive potential as a center. Sacramento’s insistence on archaic post touches runs counter to its confidence in Bagley’s athletic fluidity that could allow him to moonlight at small forward. His high center of gravity gives defenders the opportunity to easily push him away from the block and his left-hand dominance meant he was predictable down low. Watch how Richaun Holmes just sits on Bagley’s left side and prompts a highly contested jumper.

To replace those ugly possessions, the Kings should deploy his bouncy and coordinated athleticism in face-up scoring contexts. He ranked in the 53rd percentile in isolation — a likely bellwether of this talent.

Bagley’s far more challenging to stop in this scenario, weaponized by ball-handling chops, a dynamic first step and the means to quickly cover ground, both horizontally and vertically. Last season, he shot 42 percent from mid-range (67th percentile among bigs), which lent itself to tight defensive coverage in that region. As a result, many power forwards struggled to contain his athletic traits in space. Imagine the difficulty most centers will have.

If the shooting range eventually shifts out to the 3-point line (31.3 percent as a rookie), Bagley’s face-up game and scoring diversity is further unlocked. Opponents will have to account for the long ball, opening up driving lanes and more possibilities for him to impose his athletic advantages over compromised defenders. He could flare out for 3s in pick-and-pops, pull his man with him and fuel De’Aaron Fox‘s colorful dashes to the basket.

Such a shooting development is within reach. Bagley cashed 41.2 percent on 2-point jumpers in college (per hoop-math) and 42 percent from mid-range as a rookie. I wouldn’t bet on him being much more than serviceable (35.5-36.5 percent) but that’s more likely than stagnating as below-average. The baseline as a jump-shooter is too encouraging to suggest otherwise.

Of his 927 offensive possessions last season, just 94 came via isolation. Face-up scoring has to compose more than 10 percent of his usage; it’s long been the most intriguing allure of his scoring repertoire. Sure, some face-ups were probably classified as post-ups. Regardless, increasing Bagley’s opportunities to leverage his versatile athleticism against overmatched defenders enhances his offensive utility.

Sacramento isn’t entirely to blame for all of the roadblocks he faced last year — its transition game (second in frequency) even promoted his grab-and-go, end-to-end plunges. Growth as a decision-maker is critical for Bagley to become the interior offensive hub the franchise desires.

Tunnel vision in the post (98 turnovers to 62 assists) invites daring double-teams knowing he’ll continue to call his own number. His shot selection is rather ghastly at times, peppered with early clock or off-balance jumpers. Both trends negatively influence his efficiency and help explain why an athlete of his size and caliber had a true shooting percentage just slightly above NBA average. Confidence outweighs ability at this point as a scorer.

The more often Bagley’s twitchy, springy athleticism is tied to his offensive usage, the better. He only received 93 possessions as a roll man (45th percentile, 1.043 PPP) in his rookie year. It’s not elite efficiency but 1.043 PPP is markedly higher than his post-up (.804) or isolation (.862) numbers. Considering he only totaled 24 pick-and-roll possessions at Duke, it’s a fairly novel wrinkle. More repetitions would provide him chances to grasp the intricacies of such an action.

Bagley’s assist-to-turnover ratio is quite damning. Many plays are uninspiring and troubling. He routinely misses straightforward kick-outs in favor of his own shot. Periodically, however, he flaunts an interior passing gene to ignite optimism.

He’s not snapping any advanced passes and is generally still a self-centered offensive player (for better and for worse). When windows unfold in front of him, physical gifts take over and some facilitating aptitude manifests. It’s yet another piece of evidence in support of building his offensive usage around face-ups. Attempt to simplify his reads and hope that he correctly balances scoring and play-making.

Last year, Bagley’s most popular frontcourt partner was Willie Cauley-Stein, whose presence cramped the floor in their 477 minutes together. Without Cauley-Stein on the court, his effective field goal percentage jumped from 49.0 to 54.0.

By signing Dewayne Dedmon — a career 37 percent 3-shooter — Sacramento sought to remedy Bagley’s incongruous fit with its starting center. Whenever those two occupy the 4 and 5, he’ll enjoy the necessary space to operate offensively. Unlike Cauley-Stein, Dedmon’s scoring palate isn’t founded upon rim-running and dunks.

It’d also be wise to grant Bagley more minutes next to Nemanja Bjelica (38.1 percent from deep), whose shooting gravity outweighs Dedmon’s and affords him even greater real estate inside the arc. In 249 minutes together last season, they had a plus-1.9 net rating and Bagley’s effective field goal percentage was 4.8 points higher (56.6 to 51.8). Among the five power forwards or centers he played alongside for at least 200 minutes, none bred a positive net rating other than Bjelica. Pairing him with a shooting big man is essential to his offensive ceiling.

Next: Dante Exum is key to the Utah Jazz’s title hopes

Sacramento needs Bagley to ascend to stardom. Aside from he and Fox, nobody else projects as an indispensable franchise pillar. Delivering on those two is imperative. Fox is well on his way; Bagley, less so. The Kings hold the keys to ensuring he meets or surpasses expectations. A clear blueprint exists, one derived from his rookie year tape. It’s almost exclusively about his optimization and the route they take to achieve that.

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