Wizards

Bagley Embracing Present over Past Has Him Unleashed in Washington

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Marvin Bagley III hasn’t yet been in Washington for three full weeks, but he’s already conquered the various challenges thrown at him.

He’s no stranger to instability through six wild NBA seasons, having spent the entirety of his professional career missing the playoffs on sub-40 win teams in Sacramento and Detroit. The only thing that’s brought Bagley relevance since his selection with the second overall pick in 2018 has centered around his inability to deliver on his draft promise, especially compared to the glut of All-Stars and go-to options picked later down the board.

2023-24 looked like another lost season for the presumed draft bust, as he racked up 12 DNPs on a Pistons team that went 3-36 during his time in Detroit. 

He was punted to Washington, a team that wasn’t doing much better, but they were in more desperate need of a backup center than anyone else in the league. Daniel Gafford had been forced to contest every paint shot and collect every rebound, and found himself in concussion protocol upon Bagley’s entry into the Wizards locker room alongside Isaiah Livers.

The former top prospect answered the call for the suddenly-available starting center spot with the best stretch of his young career, and he’s rapidly blossomed into the team’s most reliable scoring and rebounding big.

Bagley, who had only averaged 10.2 points and 4.8 rebounds playing under 19 minutes per game in Detroit, has upped his production to 16.3 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.3 free throws per game on 60% shooting in 25 minutes a night. Even with Gafford’s return bumping Bagley to the bench, he’s still yet to score under 13 in a game with his reliable downhill scoring and finishing touch.

His per-36 minutes stats back up his very real production, as he’d be on track for 23.6 points on 14.5 shots a game if given the leash. What’s more, nearly half of his rebounds are arriving on the offensive end, helping the Wizards where they’ve been at their weakest. 

Washington, once the weakest rebounding team in the association, has averaged an eighth-best 11.0 boards on the offensive glass since Bagley arrived seven games ago, according to NBA.com.

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Gafford isn’t the same traditional big man scorer that bought Bagley his hype, but his defense alone will help him maintain his starting role as long as he’s a Wizard. He’s been through thick and thin in Washington, with his shot-blocking, rim-running and league-leading 69.8% field-goal shooting drawing attention from other buyers. 

The incumbent center, as if sensing the competition, has recently upped his game to snag at least 15 points and 13 rebounds across his last two games while only missing five total shots. That could be due to a reinvigorated approach from the coaching staff, who’ve suffered from some serious turnover in previous days.

Brian Keefe was named interim coach for the remainder of this season after Washington management dismissed former head coach Wes Unseld Jr. last Thursday morning, and he’s since won two of his three games at the helm. Granted, they arrived against bottomfeeders in Detroit and San Antonio, but their most-recent victory over the Spurs saw the Wizards temporarily buck their losing ways to come back from a nine-point deficit in the final six minutes.

Keefe saw what he needed to see out of Bagley during Unseld’s final days, and has the reserve scoring as efficiently as ever under the new regime. The center scored 15 on 5-for-6 shooting on Monday as the smaller Wizards got out of his way and let him go to work, a breath of fresh air when the usual perimeter scorers floundered.

He’s at his best when the Wizards are at their best, which is on the open floor. Their league-leading pace is no accident, as that’s where the passing of Deni Avdija, Tyus Jones and Kyle Kuzma truly shines, and it rewards big bodies running with the pack with easy points. Bagley, unlike Gafford, can get his in transition and the half court when he’s made a priority.

Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trae Young, Jalen Brunson and Jaren Jackson Jr. have evolved into award-winning stars since that 2018 NBA draft, leaving Bagley in the dust to figure it out for himself on perennial losers. 

Washington didn’t expect that caliber of player when they traded for him in early January, but he’s shown to be far from a lost cause. It took no time at all for them to unlock the 24-year-old’s potential as a valuable, multifaceted role player, and he’s only getting started in the District.

About Henry J. Brown

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