They were the Top 2 picks in the NBA Draft.
And yet monster-sized Deandre Ayton and super-bouncy Marvin Bagley III are already getting snubbed by folks who spend their days and nights watching game tape and projecting rookie impacts on the NBA.
Ayton and Bagley are shaped differently (Ayton is bigger, Bagley jumpier) but both have similar strengths: high efficiency scoring around the basket, talented rebounders on both ends, with underdeveloped outside and defensive games.
Both were 20-point, 10-rebound producers and the clear alpha leaders as freshmen at two of the highest-profile programs in college — Arizona and Duke, respectively.
But it’s two other big men who are getting the pre-preseason hype, while Ayton and Bagley are being downplayed.
The skills of the day are all centered around the Golden State Warriors model — undersized multi-talented defensive dynamos at the big man positions, and super-sized three-and-D wings who can hold up at the power forward position.
Basically, the narrative goes, if you can load your rotation with a 6’7” do a little of everything point guard (Shawn Livingston), a handful of 6’6” - 6’8” wings who can provide at least two pretty good skills among passing/shooting/defending at the very high level (Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala), and anchor that group with a 6’7” defensive player of the year candidate with super long arms (Draymond Green)... that’s how you build a team!
It’s not about 7’1” 260 pound physically overwhelming centers anymore, or 6’11” bouncy power forwards who rebound but don’t defend or shoot at a high level.
How many times have we heard since last year’s playoffs that you need to build a complete switchy rotation of multi-talented 6’6” - 6’11” guys to succeed deep in the playoffs?
Well, James Harden, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant might want to raise their hands and take a little bit of credit for those lineups actually working as dreamy as they appear.
Because those are the alphas that make the formula work.
What those guys bring are Hall of Fame scoring potential, and skill or physical mismatches that other teams just cannot defend.
People are focused on finding the next Draymond. But here’s the problem: there’s only one Draymond. And Draymond is only Draymond because of the presence of Stephen Curry and the rest of his mates.
Yet long-armed swiss-army-knives Jaren Jackson Jr. and Wendell Carter Jr. this year are getting hyped up just a little more than they would have been hyped four years ago, all thanks to Dray.
These are all potentially very good players.
The long and winding point I’m making is that while JJJ and Carter Jr. are more well-rounded in skillsets at this time in their careers, neither showed the alpha mentality of #1 overall pick Deandre Ayton or #2 overall pick Marvin Bagley Jr.
Which is why Ayton and Bagley went Top-2 in the draft. It takes an alpha mentality to excel in the NBA. Otherwise, you can get lost in the shuffle.
People remember the Buffalo game with a very sour taste in their mouths, but let’s recall a pre-tourney scouting report on NCAA.com regarding Ayton:
C Deandre Ayton, Arizona
Jalen Brunson seems to be the Naismith frontrunner, but if you started a team from scratch and had the first pick, Ayton would be the guy.
Ayton’s putting up monster numbers – he’s averaging 20.3 points and 11.5 rebounds on 62 percent shooting. Arizona isn’t as good this year as many expected; that’s mostly because the supporting cast has underwhelmed. It’s hard to trust anyone on the roster not named Ayton, Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins or Dusan Ristic. Despite that, Arizona blitzed through the Pac-12 and is a 4-seed in the tournament. Ayton is the main reason why.
He looks like Greg Oden with a jump shot. Ayton is 7-1, 250 pounds but moves better than most guards. Keep in mind: he posted these gargantuan numbers playing (mostly) out of position. Ristic eats into his interior territory, causing Ayton to drift on the perimeter more than he should. He constantly faces double teams and doesn’t have many great kickout options due to Arizona’s lack of depth.
He’s balled out in a suboptimal environment and is the only Wildcat with a defensive rating south of 100 – in other words, Ayton is keeping the defense afloat. Easy pick.
And here’s the report on Bagley.
F Marvin Bagley III, Duke
Bagley makes 20 and 10 look easy. The explosive lefty has an absurd rebounding radius and elite body control for his size. Bagley’s second and third jumps are more fluid than most players’ first. 50-50 balls are more like 80-20 if Bagley is in the zip code.
He’s averaging 21.1 points and 11.5 rebounds on 61 percent shooting for the Blue Devils. A possession ending in a Bagley shot attempt is almost guaranteed to be a quality one; it’s rare for a post player to be able to create his own offense, but that’s Bagley’s specialty.
So is offensive rebounding, and punking foes on the glass is Duke’s new identity. The Blue Devils retrieve 39 percent of their own misses, tops in the country. A reason to like Duke in the NCAA tournament: outside shooting can be fluky from game to game, but offensive rebounding travels everywhere. Bagley claims 14 percent of Duke’s misses by himself when he’s on the floor, a monster clip.
The ACC Player of the Year should have a big tournament.
Wendell Carter Jr. and Jaren Jackson Jr. were not mentioned among the best prospects in March. They were appreciated, for sure, but neither was the best player on his team.
But then the basketball offseason began.
By draft time, they had almost caught up to Ayton and Bagley on the draft boards, but not quite.
Then summer league happened, and then the dead times without any basketball at all, and somehow the hype around Jackson and Carter grew louder.
Among summer league competition, all four players had at least one great game and one bad game and overall ended up with good showings.
Yet now as preseason rankings come out, it’s Jackson and Carter who are getting all the buzz among rookies while Ayton and, to an even greater extent, Bagley are being forgotten.
But that’s because the games are not being played yet.
Once the games start and the months build, we will see why Bagley and Ayton were taken as the top 2 players overall.
Until then, we get to read things like The Step Back’s “Top-25 under 25” leaving Ayton and Bagley off the list while including three other rookies: Carter at #25, Jackson at #22 and Luka Doncic at #14.
In the whole NBA.
Before playing a game.
But I’m not going to make the argument you think I’m going to make.
I actually don’t think ANY rookies should enter the season above the Top 25 players under 25 years old that are already in the NBA.
I don’t think any of Ayton, Bagley, JJJ, Carter or Doncic should rank ahead of proven NBA players like De’Angelo Russell, Jusuf Nurkic, DeJounte Murray, John Collins, or Terry Rozier until they’ve actually proven it on the court. They even have Doncic above Jamal Murray!
And even among rookies, how can they decide that Carter and Jackson will outperform not only Ayton and Bagley, but also Trae Young? or Mohamed Bamba? or Collin Sexton?
Let’s just see how the season goes.
And we’ll see who’s got the alpha qualities to be big time NBA players and who does not.
My money is on Doncic, Ayton, Bagley and Young producing the most in the NBA next season.