The 2018 NBA draft can promise one thing with confidence at this stage: a fuzzy consensus. MarkelleFultz basically rode rail-to-rail last year as the popular choice for No. 1, at least in the public eye. The year before that there were people campaigning for Brandon Ingram, but Ben Simmons was widely viewed as the superior prospect.
Marvin Bagley’s decision to attend Duke and reclassify—placing him in this year’s draft—portends a more complicated choice. But as it stands, the 18-year-old will enter the season as the No. 1 prospect on SI.com’s draft board. And for me, it isn’t especially close.
It’s August, which is obvious but bears repeating. Few, if any decision-makers have made up their minds to an absolute. But the prospect of Bagley entering the league a year ahead of schedule is significant. The established elite guys in this class—Michael Porter Jr., Luka Doncic, DeAndreAyton—were already steps ahead of the rest. As someone who’s seen them all firsthand (with the exception of Doncic, who we gave a deserved deep-dive last week), mix in Bagley and the argument is rather simple.
As the game has paced and spaced its way to seemingly every possible permutation of offense, versatility has become the NBA’s premium skill, particularly when coupled with size. The cheat codes are big men who can shift the parameters of the floor, either by inheriting an interior workload that allows for non-traditional, specialized lineups around them, stepping out and making plays themselves, or challenging opposing schemes by switching defensively and covering extra ground.
Bagley is the only player in the draft with a legitimate chance to do all three things. For all the tiresome unicorn tropes, his best-case scenario would make him a clear-cut choice. To many evaluators, Bagley’s unique mix of tools made him the top prospect in high school basketball regardless of class, and that included two of his super-sized peers. There’s Porter, who likely has the best chance to unseat him with a well-rounded season at Missouri, and Ayton, whose skill package is tantalizing, but has a motor and attitude that can wax and wane. It’s Bagley whose combination of fluidity, length and athletic ability give him the best chance to anchor a franchise. We’ve seen super-sized shooters and super-skilled centers, but rare are the prospects talented, athletic and productive enough to scrape uncharted territory.
Keep in mind that NBA teams by and large know less about Bagley than his competition at this stage, since he won’t have the exposure of the national All-Star game circuit, where teams get their first looks at many of the top prospects firsthand. This is where Porter in particular enjoys an edge right now, as teams are familiar with his impressive blend of height, shot-creation and natural perimeter scoring. Teams will place weight on how he performs at Missouri and what other sides to his game he displays on a team that will need to come together quickly.
There’s also Doncic, a supremely skilled prodigy in his own right, and Ayton, who might wind up the best player on the best team at Arizona. Mohamed Bamba and his ridiculous length can make a case for himself at Texas. Any of these guys could end up atop the draft—but none of them possess Bagley’s ceiling.
Bagley has always been an outlier based on how well he handles the ball, faces up and scores. He’s been able to effectively draw contact and maneuver around defenses just on pure talent, but he can put it on the floor, attack the basket and initiate transition play just the same. At around 6’11” with a mature build that should be able to add weight effectively and help him adjust physically, he’ll have a chance to anchor the inside. His length isn’t freakish (he’s twice been measured with a wingspan around 7’0”), but his athleticism has helped the game come easily to him. He also averaged 25.5 points, 14.7 rebounds and three blocks while shooting 53.5% from the floor in 20 games on Nike’s EYBL circuit, an imperfect but impressive gauge just the same.
There’s also something to be said for Bagley’s way of popping up around the ball, often finishing lobs from teammates, making highlight-reel plays and finding easy baskets without ever having to force his own offense. There are times he can appear passive, but the fact is that even without a promising set of ball skills, Bagley would be the type of player who can impact the college game without needing to be fed touches. He’s not languid, but he’s also not a player who radiates intensity.
There is some Anthony Davis to his game in that respect, although that’s an admittedly tricky comparison you may hear in the coming months. Davis comps are lazy in the sense that Davis as a freshman at Kentucky was among the most dominant college defenders ever. Few if any teenagers hit the next level as complete products, particularly bigs, so the fact Bagley has the tools to do it matters more than the fact he’s not quite there yet. He’ll make spectacular blocks and grab tough rebounds because he can.
From Day One, Duke will ask him to up the fundamental side of his interior play, boxing out and banging with stronger players and likely playing some five. When and if he embraces that role, questions about what position he’ll play should matter less. Plus, we’ve asked the same things about many of the best young big men in the league in recent years. And when the size and skill are there, those answers almost always less important.
The make-or-break factor here is Bagley’s shooting, which will be a focal point for scouts. He’s a lefty with real range on his jumper, but like many teenagers, would benefit from more consistency. At Duke he’ll have the opportunity to pop outside and show he can make open threes while playing off a talented guard group. It matters less whether he’s a three or a four or a five on offense than whether he’ll be able to space the court. AAU stats aren’t always indicative, but as a baseline, he shot just 20.9% from three and 62.3% from the stripe. That will need to improve and very well could, given the help he’ll have alongside him. Bagley will need to apply himself, improve the jumper, and rein in turnovers—and Duke will certainly need to get the most out of him to contend. There are times where Bagley makes the game look so easy that you wonder if he’s coasting. There will be increasingly less room for those types of moments as the stakes rise.
There are still two months until the NBA season and closer to three before we see a college game, so we can reconvene once everyone’s had the privilege of an eye test. But the concept of best-case Bagley is novel, potentially massive, and certainly worthy of my figurative money right now. November’s right around the corner. Can you smell it?