Well-traveled big man Marvin Bagley III right at home as one of the nation's top players
NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Marvin Bagley III has a grown man's frame and a grown man's game, but there are moments when the little boy in him comes out. Such was the case last Wednesday night, when Bagley sat in a hotel lobby and talked about the game he was to play the next morning against his former high school teammate, DeAndre Ayton, at the Nike EYBL Peach Jam, one of the premier events on the summer recruiting circuit. "DeAndre, that's like my brother," Bagley said, breaking into a cherubic smile. "I know people have been talking about the matchup. [It] should be a good game."
Ayton is a 7' 0" 220-pound native of the Bahamas who is widely considered to be the top player in the class of 2017. Bagley, 17, stands 6' 11", 226 pounds and is the consensus No. 1 junior. Their matchup at the Riverview Park Activities Center was supposed to be one of the week's main events, but it turned out to be one-sided as Ayton outplayed Bagley while leading his squad, California Supreme, to a 74–60 win over Bagley's Phoenix Phamily. Bagley's team went 2–3 on the week and finished in a tie for 14th out of 22 teams, but that did nothing to tarnish his reputation. In a broader sense, the Peach Jam was a welcome opportunity for Bagley to be evaluated solely as a player, a change from the controversy of the last year as he transferred high schools twice and was deemed ineligible by the California Interscholastic Federation to play as a sophomore.
It is tempting to describe Bagley as a futuristic big man, but he is more of an avatar of the present-day game, where the tallest players think of themselves as do-everything perimeter specialists as opposed to inside bangers. It is astonishing to watch someone so big and so young showcase so many skills. "At this point, he doesn't have a peer in his class. No one is threatening him for the No. 1 spot," says Evan Daniels, the Director of Basketball Recruiting for Scout.com. "Even at his size, he's athletic, he's mobile, he's versatile, he can score the ball in a variety of ways. He hasn't shown any rust from not playing last season. If anything, he's gotten better."
Much of the credit for Bagley's development goes to his father, Marvin Jr., a 41-year-old former football player at North Carolina A&T who briefly played in the Arena Football League. When Marvin III was introduced to the game at a young age, his coaches encouraged him to play in the post, but his dad wasn't having it. "We played on a lot of teams that were more interested in trophies than development," Marvin Jr. says. Asked which players he studied, Marvin III did not name traditional centers like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaquille O'Neal. Rather, he cited guys like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Kevin Durant. "I don't want a label or a position to be put on me," Marvin III says. "I'm comfortable bringing the ball up the court and making the right basketball play."
Basketball-wise, that philosophy has proven to be a slam dunk, but Marvin Jr. has made other decisions for his son that were frequently questioned by the recruiting mavens and college coaches who attended the Peach Jam. Foremost was his decision to withdraw Marvin III from Corona del Sol High in Tempe, Ariz., after his freshman year. Not only did Marvin III have a stellar year in the classroom, pulling down a 4.0 GPA, but he also led his team to its fourth consecutive state championship. Bagley was one of several Division I prospects on the team, but by the end of the season he was the one who was named the state's player of the year by The Arizona Republic. Scout.com tabbed him the eighth-best player in the country regardless of class.
And yet, a few weeks before the start of his sophomore season, Marvin Jr. withdrew his son and enrolled him and his younger brother, Marcus, at Hillcrest Prep, which is not a school at all but rather a year-round basketball club that had been around for all of one year. Like many of the so-called "pop-up schools" that have appeared on the national landscape, Hillcrest Prep was patterned after Findlay Prep in Las Vegas, a model whereby players are trained, housed, fed and offered the chance to play a national schedule while accumulating academic credits at area schools. Hillcrest Prep could not offer the Bagleys stronger academics or a better basketball tradition than Corona del Sol, but it could offer something else: a job for Marvin Jr. as assistant basketball coach. He accepted and enrolled his sons there, explaining to a local reporter, "We all love Corona. We just felt Corona served its purpose."
To that point, Marvin Jr. had been working as a union plumber and pipe fitter for UA Local 469. Matt Allen, the director and co-founder of Hillcrest Prep who was in attendance at the Peach Jam to watch Ayton play for California Supreme, made no bones about why he hired Marvin Jr. "I don't know that we hire him if his son isn't Marvin Bagley III. That's the truth," he admitted. "I knew he wanted to be involved with his son, so we hired him to coach." That move paid off doubly when the Bagleys convinced Ayton, a native of the Bahamas who was in the midst of extracting himself from Balboa City School in San Diego, to move with his mother to Arizona and enroll in Hillcrest as well.
It didn't long for things to go sour. At the time, Hillcrest Prep was affiliated with a local charter school named Starshine Academy. However, last fall a member of the NCAA's basketball group traveled to Arizona and concluded that the classes at Starshine Academy in Phoenix could not be count toward the players' collegiate eligibility. Hillcrest would eventually land suitable replacements, but Marvin Jr. decided to bail. After a brief search of potential landing spots, he moved his family in December to California and enrolled Marvin III and Marcus at Sierra Canyon, a private school located about 40 miles north of Los Angeles. (The Bagleys have three other sons as well.) Sierra Canyon does not provide housing, so the family is renting a house nearby. Marvin Jr. said he and his wife "try to make ends meet" with a newly-launched athletic apparel business and the sponsorship agreement Nike has with Phoenix Phamily.
Allen claimed that part of the reason Marvin Jr. wanted to leave Hillcrest Prep was that he was upset to discover the school was not a part of the Arizona Interscholastic Association. Marvin Jr. declined to provide further details, but he expressed no regrets over his decision to leave. "I was told that everything was O.K. with the NCAA and the school was certified," he said. "After being there for a while, a lot of things started revealing themselves. We were intentionally lied to, I believe. It became a gamble to stay."
The family was dealt another blow in January, when the California Interscholastic Federation determined that Marvin III had transferred to Sierra Canyon for athletic reasons and thus declared him ineligible for the season. "We never even thought about that until they said he couldn't play," Marvin Jr. says. Marvin III was able to practice with the team, but when the games began all he could do was sit and watch. "Sometimes I got frustrated knowing how bad I wanted to be out there," he said. "I even cried not being able to play, it hurt so bad."
When I asked Marvin Jr. if leaving Arizona was difficult for the family, he replied, "Not really. It's been fun." But Marvin III had a different answer. "It was [difficult] for me," he said. "I grew up there my whole life. Every school I've been to is in Arizona. The first couple of weeks were hard at first, but then I was still able to talk to them, FaceTime with them. So that helped."
"Social media makes moving easy," Marvin Jr. added.
Marvin Jr. pointed up the benefits for his son to go through adversity. "He grew so much from that experience," he said. "He saw that you can actually go through tough times and be O.K."
Still, it's hard not to wonder why all of the tumult was necessary in the first place. "It's not my place to say what decision a parent should make about his kids, but if [Marvin III] would have stayed at Corona del Sol, he would have been a four-time state champion," says Frank Burlison, a longtime high school and college scout who is based in Long Beach, Calif. "He certainly wouldn't have been dogged by all this controversy."
Whatever decisions are made about Bagley's future, it is clear that his father will be heavily involved, which is hardly unusual in the recruiting world. The entire family regularly accompanies Marvin III on unofficial college visits. (Several weeks ago Marvin III announced a list of six schools he is considering: Kentucky, Arizona, Arizona State, Duke, Oregon and UCLA.) In October 2014, Marvin III attended a minicamp hosted by USA Basketball in Colorado Springs, but even though he accepted an invitation to be a part of the Junior National team, he has declined to attend any of the three subsequent tryouts, thus denying himself the chance to play on the squad that just captured the gold at the Under 17 World Championships in Spain.
That would have been an amazing basketball and life experience, but it would also have meant extended time away from his family. During the Peach Jam, Marvin Jr., who is listed as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Phamily, was easy to spot. He did not use his video camera (he is known to record every one of Marvin III's games), but he was plenty loud and animated from his seat behind the bench. Many of the college coaches watching the games remarked on it.
One college head coach who is familiar with Bagley's recruitment believes there is a benefit to a player of Bagley's caliber keeping his circle so tight—but only to a point. "There are no agents or runners involved at all. It's all the dad," the coach said. "He's so domineering. He wants to be a part of everything. You can say you don't want to deal with that, but the kid is really a great kid, great student, and you'd rather him play for you than against you—even if it's only for one year."
There was considerable chatter at the Peach Jam that Bagley may try to reclassify and graduate next spring, although it is unclear whether he will be able to accumulate the requisite credits given his messy withdrawal from Hillcrest Prep. Marvin Jr. also deflected any questions about the possibility his son will join the parade of one-and-doners to the NBA. "Marvin is a long way from considering anything like that," he said. "He still has to do Algebra II."
Marvin III sounds excited about returning to Sierra Canyon this fall. "It's a great atmosphere. The teachers are great," he said. "When you walk around campus and the wind's blowing, you just feel good. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else." After all the grown man problems he endured the last year, it must indeed feel good to get back on the court amidst some normalcy and stability. For now, anyway.