Eight games is enough of a sample to look at Marvin Bagley III and say there’s something really special going on here, beyond the usual draft-fueled attention that follows the top freshmen around no matter how well (or not) they actually play.
It’s so rare these days that players – from Ben Simmons to Dennis Smith Jr. and so on – live up to the hype that they enter college carrying, like luggage. In Bagley’s first month at Duke, he has actually exceeded expectations, which were high enough already.
It took him only that long to make Duke history with back-to-back 30-point, 15-rebound games, among other statistical notables. The biggest flaw in his game, to start the season, was his free-throw shooting. He made all but one of his 10 attempts in Sunday’s win over Florida. He’s doing things at Duke few other players have done, and their names aren’t exactly obscure: J.J. Redick. Christian Laettner. Jason Williams. Johnny Dawkins.
Bagley’s performance so far has been staggering, at an age where he was supposed to be a senior in high school. And he has done it against difficult competition, against teams like Michigan State and Florida, and while playing a key role in Duke’s comeback win over Texas on Friday, scoring the first five points and eight of Duke’s 12 in overtime. He’ll be in the national spotlight again Wednesday at Indiana, even if the Hoosiers are likely to be outmanned, but Bagley appears comfortable there.
It’s as if Duke’s mad scientists – when they weren’t 3-D printing new bionic parts for Mike Krzyzewski – managed to combine the best attributes of the Blue Devils’ recent one-and-dones in a single player. Bagley has Justise Winslow’s physique, Brandon Ingram and Jabari Parker’s versatility, Jayson Tatum’s confidence and Jahlil Okafor’s power. Maybe he even has Tyus Jones’ clutch gene. It’s possible. We’ll find out at some point. It’s too early to say now.
Of that entire group, Bagley is the most polished and college-ready Duke freshman since Kyrie Irving in 2011, one coincidental difference being that Irving’s signature performance came against Michigan State, just before the toe injury that knocked him out for almost the entire season, while Bagley’s one outlier game was against the Spartans after he was poked in the eye in the first half and did not return.
His performance may be the closest we’ve been yet to seeing what it would have looked like if LeBron James had been required to spend the requisite one season in college. Which isn’t to compare Bagley to James in any tangible way – James, at that age, was a better shooter and more fluid player, while Bagley leans toward the upright at the moment – only to marvel at how Bagley’s instant adjustment to this higher level of basketball and physical gifts give us a window into what a single James college season might have looked like, whether that was at Duke or Ohio State or wherever.
Bagley’s mere presence at Duke has become an example of how the one-and-done system, for all its obvious warts and flaws, for players, schools and the NBA alike, does allow college basketball to get a glimpse of a singular talent like this, however briefly. Under more rational circumstances, Bagley would be playing in the NBA by now. Even as things stand, a fifth of his Duke career is already complete.
Before one Duke home game in November, Bagley was out early for warmups, one of the first players on the floor. Wearing headphones and moving to his own music, he loosened up with several NBA-distance 3-pointers from around the arc before moving into the college line as more of his teammates joined him on the floor. He made far more than he missed. At both distances.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock