Marvin Bagley III’s candidacy as the potential top pick in June’s NBA draft remains up for debate, but one thing is certain: Among lotter-bound big men, he will not have to compete for exposure this week. As Duke coasted to a pair of NCAA tournament wins last weekend to advance to a Midwest Region semifinal against Syracuse on Friday in Omaha, Bagley became the last elite prospect standing.
Arizona 7-footer Deandre Ayton, considered the favorite to be the No. 1 pick, bowed out when the Wildcats were stunned by Buffalo in the first round. By the time the second round wrapped up Sunday, Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Texas’s Mohamed Bamba, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. and Alabama’s Collin Sexton — all of whom are projected as lottery picks — were gone from the stage.
That those players will not be a part of deep postseason runs doesn’t necessarily hurt their draft stock, but Bagley serves to benefit by extending his college career a little longer. He has yet to formally announce his plans for after this season, but after averaging 22 points and eight rebounds in wins over Iona and Rhode Island, he bought himself more time on college basketball’s brightest stage to prove why he should viewed as be the top player in the draft.
“I think it will help him. The further you go in the NCAA tournament, the more opportunities people get to see you,” said ESPN draft analyst Jonathan Givony, who pegged Ayton as the top pick and Bagley as No. 3 in his most recent mock draft.
“If you play well, it definitely can’t hurt you. NBA teams definitely, they like guys who are proven and who can contribute to winning.”
The next most coveted draft prospect left in the field might be Bagley’s freshman teammate, Wendell Carter, but Bagley remains the headliner.
While Ayton’s performance against Buffalo raised red flags, specifically regarding his defensive effort, the 6-foot-11, 243-pound Bagley has burnished his stock so far in March as a positionless big man who can score with his back to the basket and also run the floor and produce devastating finishes. He has also displayed growing maturity and restraint despite serving as the centerpiece of Duke’s offense; he didn’t take a shot over the first 11 minutes in the second-round rout of Rhode Island but dominated the game with 22 points on 8-for-10 shooting, which included a memorable spin move in the lane that put his team up by 17 points.
“Everybody was on, so I wasn’t really focused on getting my shot. You know, everybody was on, clicking on all cylinders, and was scoring in different positions,” Bagley said. “And as long as it says two points with Duke, going forward, that’s all that matters. That’s all that I was worried about.”
Said Duke guard Grayson Allen: “He runs the court so well, and that’s — it really opens up a lot for us in transition, whether he gets the ball or not. Because someone has to get down there and guard him, and that’s why we get threes.”
And that’s what makes Bagley such an enticing prospect for NBA teams — he doesn’t fit into any traditional category as a prospect and has shown deep versatility. There are plenty of questions, namely about his jump shot and his defense. He took heat from ESPN analyst Dan Dakich during Duke’s loss to Virginia Tech in late February, when Dakich said: “Bagley is all about Bagley,” and later added, “He doesn’t play defense.”
Duke moved to playing exclusively zone defense in February, which has been an adjustment for Bagley, who missed four games that month with a knee injury. “There’s obviously things we could get better at in it,” he said before last week’s first-round win over Iona, when Duke shifted between three different zone defense looks.
His offensive production has not dropped off since his return. In five games in March, he is averaging 23.4 points on 66.2 percent field goal shooting, as well as 12.2 rebounds. Bagley’s postseason numbers bode well for his readiness to contribute right away at the next level; that’s not necessarily the case for the potential lottery bigs who exited the tournament early.
“NBA teams need to look at that as, these guys aren’t probably going to help me win that many games either. These guys aren’t ready to impact winning at the college level, so it definitely speaks to their readiness to help NBA teams do the same thing. I think teams know that,” Givony said. “There really aren’t that many guys from last year’s draft who are really playing big roles on playoff teams. So I think that’s a trend that we’ve seen a lot over the last two years.”
Bagley aims to be different, and whether he lands in Phoenix or Atlanta or Memphis in the draft, he first has an opportunity to do what so many of college basketball’s young stars don’t — to leave his mark on the NCAA tournament.
“You grow up watching it in school, everybody has their phones, iPads, computers, whatever they have, watching this tournament,” Bagley said. “Being able to finally be here and be a part of it is a great thing, a great feeling. I’m just trying to soak it all in.”
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