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Marvin Bagley will be Detroit’s X-Factor

Entering his fifth season, Bagley finally has a team willing to let him play to his strengths and continue getting better

Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

There’s no question Marvin Bagley exceeded expectations upon his trade to the Detroit Pistons in February. The once highly touted big man left behind the pressures of being a high draft selection in Sacramento and entered Detroit with a fresh slate.

In only 18 games, Bagley posted averages of 14.6 points and 6.8 boards in predominately a bench role for coach Dwane Casey. General manager Troy Weaver clearly liked what he saw from the former 5-star recruit, rewarding him with a three-year, $38 million contract this past summer. Sadly, Bagley suffered an MCL sprain in the preseason and will miss the start of the season, but when he returns, he should be fully healthy.

Bagley’s play in Detroit highlighted all the reasons why he is a tricky player to project long-term. He seemingly does a bunch of things at a high level while also struggling mightily in key areas of the game. Offensively, Bagley is an elite roll man and finisher around the rim, but he can’t consistently hit a shot from outside 5-feet. Defensively, Bagley’s a beast on the boards but comes up short as a positional defender.

The swings and roundabouts within Bagley’s game make him the ultimate X-factor to Detroit’s line-up. Entering his fifth season with fresh, 23-year-old legs, Bagley’s career could take a variety of different paths.

Detroit Pistons v Washington Wizards Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

Know Your Role, Marvin Bagley

Below are three goals the bouncy forward could aim for entering year five as a pro.

Develop a consistent perimeter stroke

Each of the young bigs currently on Detroit’s roster seemingly has a glaring hole within their game, making them somewhat of an awkward fit in the frontcourt. For Bagley, his lack of a reliable jump shot hinders his ability to play alongside Stewart, Noel or Duren.

Throughout a turbulent four seasons, Bagley has flashed some perimeter capabilities. As a rookie, Bagley canned a respectable 44% of his ‘long twos’ on decent volume (34-of-78), per Cleaning the Glass.

In his third season with the Sacramento Kings, the young forward converted on an impressive 41% of his corner three-point attempts, connecting on a decent 35% clip from three overall (Per Cleaning the Glass).

Unfortunately for Bagley, the aforementioned shooting stretches haven’t amounted to any consistency or improvement. In fact, if we exclude an injury-riddled sophomore campaign where Bagley registered a mere 334 minutes, the 23-year-old shot career-lows from long-two range (21.4%) and three (23.7%) last season.

Hence it should come as no surprise the Duke product placed a priority on shooting this off-season:

If Bagley could return from the summer with a sturdy perimeter stroke, not only would it benefit his game tremendously but the added element of spacing would make the athletic forward a more versatile piece in the Piston rotation.

We already saw how damaging the Cunningham and Bagley pick-and-roll was last season. If Bagley were to add a dependable jumper, that pairing becomes ever more dangerous.

All you need to be is a neutral defender

It’s no secret Bagley has struggled to defend in the NBA. Putting aside injury issues, the four-year pro’s lack of playing time in Sacramento came largely because he couldn’t defend at a good enough level. Most troubling, his struggles seem to have more to do with focus and comprehension than any physical limitation.

Armed with a 6-foot-11 frame and the ability to jump out of the gym, one could expect the California native would thrive as a rim protector. To date, Bagley has been anything but, especially during his brief Detroit stint. In his 18 games with the Pistons, opponents shot a breezy 68.9% at the cup, placing Bagley in the 5th percentile (BAD) for defense at the rim, per Synergy Sports.

As previously highlighted, this is not by way of physical limitations. Rather, Bagley often found himself out of position due to an unhealthy tendency to bite on pump fakes. When he wasn’t caught air-born swatting at nothing, Bagley’s rotations were late, in turn offering up a measly contest on the shot. Our very own Bryce Simon put together an excellent breakdown of Bagley’s defense:

While I’ve just spent three paragraphs outlining the issues with Bagley’s defense, there is reason for optimism. You see, at this stage of his career, the goal for Bagley should be to become a neutral defender. Encouragingly, as Bryce points out in the above breakdown, upon his arrival to the 313, the spry forward showed improvements off-ball, particularly as a communicator.

These enhancements to his defensive approach are reflected in the numbers. Per Cleaning the Glass, Detroit's defense was only +0.7 points per 100 possessions worse with Bagley on the floor. A far cry from the +3.3 (or more) points per 100 possessions in three of his four years with Sacramento.

The film also showed Bagley was much more adept at guarding the pick-and-roll when switching. A component of his game that should fit well with Jerome Allen’s switch-heavy defensive scheme. The only caveat to this would not be allowing opposing ball handlers to drag Bagley out on an island into isolation situations, this is sub-optimal.

The intellectual advancements Bagley displayed off the ball, combined with renewed financial stability, provide hope that ‘Motown-Marv’ can get to a respectable level of defense.

Continue to provide high-level production, no matter the role

For all the warts in his game, Bagley is capable of producing points and rebounds at a rapid rate. High-level, efficient production in these areas still holds weight in any NBA rotation. In 18 games with Detroit, the Duke product scored 14.6 points and 6.8 boards in only 27 minutes of action each night.

Upon inking a three-year extension with Detroit in July, it’s reasonable to think Bagley may have had expectations to start in the upcoming season. But, with the acquisition of Bojan Bogdonavic and an injury that will sideline him for several weeks, it’s unclear what his ultimate role within the rotation will be.

It’s important the 23-year-old doesn’t let a reserve role alter his effort. While Bagley seems to be content in Detroit, it was only a year ago his agency, Excel Sports, released a scathing tweet, lambasting the Kings organization for their handling of Bagley’s role within the playing rotation.

A locked-in Bagley is an incredibly valuable piece offensively, his ability to convert inside the arc (62.4 2P%) was a blessing for a Detroit team that ranked 29th in the league for two-point percentage (49.8 2P%).

It’s also been well-documented how Bagley’s introduction greatly enhanced Cade Cunningham’s attack inside the arc. While some of Cunningham’s improvement was a result of match duration, with Bagley in the line-up, he averaged 20.6 points and 6.3 assists, both up from his season tallies of 17.4 points and 5.6 assists.

It’s for these reasons Bagley is the ultimate X-factor. If the springy big is able to equip himself with a jumper, his value increases drastically. Add in an improved application to defense, and Detroit has themselves a viable playoff contributor. There’s also a very real possibility Marvin Bagley is already the peak version of himself.

If I’m sipping on a crisp glass of Detroit kool-aid, I’m placing stock in a rejuvenated Bagley finding his feet again with a team and front office that values him.

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