Luke Walton cannot escape the scrutiny of fathers of his current players, apparently. After dealing with the LaVar Ball fiasco in Southern California, this predicament has followed him up to Northern California after Marvin Bagley III’s father, Marvin Bagley Jr., tweeted he wanted the Kings to trade his son during last Saturday’s game against the Houston Rockets. Though the tweet has since been deleted, like Luke Skywalker once said: no (tweet) is ever really gone. Since then, this saga has now crescendoed to franchise star De’Aaron Fox’s father also tweeting that he, not his son the basketball star, wants the Kings to trade Bagley III. It’s just the latest in line of mishaps that have befallen the woebegone Sacramento Kings franchise.
Let’s start with Marvin Bagley III. He didn’t ask to be one of the two players taken before already perennial MVP candidate Luka Doncic, already All-Star Trae Young, and future All-Star Jaren Jackson. But through two seasons and six games, it’s been more than fair to say that Bagley III has not lived up to the billing of his draft pedigree. Though last season and this season will not play the custom 82 games of normal NBA seasons, Bagley has yet to even reach that number, playing in just 81 games so far in his career. During the aforementioned game on Saturday against the Houston Rockets, Bagley III wasn’t even on the floor to close the game as the offense sputtered to score just 19 points in the 3rd and 4th quarter of that game, with Richaun Holmes playing in his stead. Though Bagley III starts games, he wasn’t there to close that one. Head Coach Luke Walton instead opting to play smaller with Cory Joseph and Kyle Guy to play more perimeter options. With all due respect to Holmes, Joseph, and Guy, if your second overall pick is not on the floor in the minutes that matter, something is wrong.
Something is wrong, however. Marvin Bagley III has his strengths going back to his days at Duke as an athletic rim runner with a super quick second jump to smash the offensive glass and solid post-up player, he had his limitations back then that has haunted him to this day. He’s a rim-running big that plays alongside another rim-running big in the aforementioned Holmes. See a problem there? That situation could be feasible, however, if Bagley III could stretch the floor, but that isn’t his game. In 81 NBA games he’s only shot 131 threes, and has converted a ghastly 29% of them. Bagley III hit nearly 40% of his threes in Durham, but shot just 62.7% from the free-throw line, a more sticky suggestion of where one is at as a shooter (Bagley III is a career 69.7% free-throw shooter).
His most glaring weakness, in particular, has come on the defensive end of the floor. His offensive shortcomings could be more manageable if he were more stout on this end of the floor, but alas. You’d think an athletic big like him would be able to switch on the perimeter against guards, but he routinely gets dusted off the floor when asked to do so. He isn’t ready yet to anchor a defense whatsoever. With the NBA having teams play opponents twice in a row on certain road trips to better handle travel in the days of COVID-19, the Kings’ played Houston on Thursday before playing them again sans James Harden on Saturday. In both games, they attacked Bagley III mercilessly and got just about anything they wanted. In six games so far this season, the Kings’ defense squanders 12.3 points per 100 possessions more when Bagley III is on the floor as opposed to him off the floor. While the difference hasn’t been as stark in the previous two years, the Kings’ defensive rating with him on the floor has hovered above bad as well. There’s a reason he isn’t on the floor to close games.
However, I do see the Bagley side of things here as well. Though things haven’t gotten off to the start I bet he imagined coming into the NBA, he still is super young, as the age clock will only tick toward 22 in March for young Marvin. He’s been unlucky when it comes to nagging foot injuries, though surely concerning for a big man. After Sacramento went 39-43 and blitzed the league at a blistering pace in Bagley III’s rookie season, the Kings decided progress was not enough for then-head coach Dave Joerger to retain his job, hiring Luke Walton to map the future of the franchise instead after he was fired as Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
That decision was curious at the time (purely from the basketball perspective of things, not even including the sexual assault allegation levied upon Walton at the time) and hasn’t aged much gracefully since. The Kings regressed last year and would’ve finished at a 35 win pace had the world not turned upside down from the fallout of COVID-19. The Kings went from the 3rd-fastest team in the NBA in 2018-19 under Joeger to the 11th-slowest under Walton. I do understand some of this; teams figure others out in the NBA, and learning how to better execute in the halfcourt is beneficial for a young team still figuring the league out. Still, it does seem strange for a coach to step in and fairly drastically change what was working pretty damn well. This same episode we’re seeing now with Marvin Bagley III strangely was on display a year ago with Fox’s backcourt running mate in Buddy Hield after Hield, the current champion of All-Star Weekend’s Three-Point Shootout was spectating watching the offense sputter while trailing by… three points! This led to frustration from Buddy Hield, taking to social media to voice, or in this case like, his displeasure with the team.
Neither has player development. As a Lakers fan, the talent and potential of all the team’s previous draft picks were always on display, but neither one was groomed into what they are now. There are many reasons for this: almost none of these picks were finished products by any means with the exception of probably Larry Nance Jr., circumstances changed the instant LeBron James walked into the building and were exacerbated once the Anthony Davis trade rumors shot a dart through the confidence levels of the young players. However, it was quite damning that nearly every player has improved even in a short timeframe from leaving Walton’s stewardship. Brandon Ingram literally won an award for it, now personifying the lethal three-level scoring potential we all envisioned him being. D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star (albeit in the Eastern Conference) for the Brooklyn Nets. Lonzo Ball’s jumper from deep improved from the lower 30 percent mark to 37.5% a year ago. Jordan Clarkson went from a daring chucker to useful sparkplug off the bench for two different playoff teams. Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant both have emerged as starting centers, albeit with drastically different strengths and weaknesses. Larry Nance Jr. never averaged above 2.4 assists per-36 minutes as a Laker; he’s never dipped below three the last two seasons as a Cavalier. Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso emerged as pivotal pieces for a championship team, with the latter literally being the difference-maker in the starting lineup of a closeout Game 6 to win the Lakers a title. Others have come and gone Lakerland during Walton’s tenure, but what does it say that a player the Lakers drafted after Walton was let go, Talen Horton-Tucker, has now fought his way into the rotation of a championship contender, was thrown into the fire in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets, and now has scouts (not affiliated with the Lakers, mind you) buzzing that Horton-Tucker could, in their words, average 20+ points per game *right now as a 20-year-old* on a rebuilding team? Neither Ingram nor Russell could manage to do that under Walton’s watch. Walton and his staff are supposed to elevate the games of their players. That didn’t happen in Los Angeles all that often and it isn’t happening right now with Bagley III.
What does this all mean? Are the Kings really going to give up on a guy they just drafted second overall not even three years ago? Unlikely (even if they wanted, his value isn’t at a spot to get what I imagine they’d want back in return), but maybe? Are the Kings going to fire *another* coach? Well, you can’t put anything past them, which is much at the root of what ails the Kings.
They’ve been the laughing stock of the NBA this side of the New York Knicks with meddling and impatient ownership stepping in the way of incompetent management. Not exactly the combination you want, but get with Vivek Ranadive running the show. This cycle has repeated itself again to where we are now. Luke Walton wasn’t the Head Coach when the Kings drafted Bagley III. Current GM Monte McNair wasn’t in the building when that selection occurred either. Neither of those two owes it Marvin Bagley III or his family to see this thing through. But in order for the team to take the kind of steps the teams of other players in his draft, like the Grizzlies, Suns, Hawks, and Mavericks, have taken the last couple of years, the two sides need each other to help Bagley III become the best version of what he can be. If that happens, perhaps the Kings become what we thought they had a chance of being after the 2018-19 season. If not, they’ll be the same-old’ Kings: churning through another head coach and general manager, another missed draft pick, and perhaps another disgruntled star counting down the days to escape the NBA purgatory Sacramento has found itself to be for nearly the last two decades.