Marvin Bagley Is Using Summer League To Adjust To The NBA’s Steep Learning Curve

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LAS VEGAS — There are a few immutable rules of the NBA’s annual Summer League. One is that “Trap Queen” is the hottest song in the world — it was the official anthem of Summer League before it was ever recorded. Another is that the marquee matchup between the No. 1 and 2 picks in the most recent draft, usually scheduled within the first few days of the event, is going to be underwhelming.

The most memorable of these games came in 2014, when Andrew Wiggins’ Cavaliers faced off against Jabari Parker’s Bucks on the same morning LeBron James released his “I’m Coming Home” essay in Sports Illustrated. With seemingly the entire NBA crammed into the tiny Cox Pavilion (the smaller of the two gyms on the UNLV campus) on the day the greatest player in the world shook up the entire league, Wiggins found his debut overshadowed by questions about his omission from James’ letter and the inevitable Kevin Love trade.

But the game itself was highly forgettable, as neither Wiggins nor Parker set the world on fire. Last year’s Lakers-Sixers showdown was more memorable for the out-of-control Lonzo Ball circus than for anything that actually happened on the court.

This year, there weren’t even any external narratives to sell the Saturday showdown between No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton of the Suns and No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III of the Kings. The two were high-school teammates in Arizona, a fact that doesn’t exactly capture the public’s imagination the same way, say, the debut of Ben Simmons did.

Bagley’s struggles from last week’s Sacramento Summer League have carried over to Las Vegas — his 15-point, 7-rebound performance in Sacramento’s loss to Phoenix was something of a bounce-back after he finished with just one point in 29 minutes in the final game in Sacramento on Thursday. Still, it was hardly a dominant performance, as he shot just 5-for-13 from the field and got a shot viciously blocked by second-year Suns forward Josh Jackson. Near the end of the game, he suffered a hip injury that kept him out of the Kings’ next game, a loss to the Clippers on Sunday.

“The last couple games I had weren’t my best, but it’s always a next-play mentality for me,” Bagley said after the game against Phoenix. “Coming into this game it was just getting ready like I do any other game. Having a whole different mindset. Coming out and playing my hardest. I’m not happy, we could have gotten the win, but I’m excited.”

While Bagley’s struggles haven’t received the widespread attention and scrutiny of, for example, Trae Young, he hasn’t had the kind of impressive first Summer League showing that fans in Las Vegas have seen from fellow lottery picks Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kevin Knox. All rookies have to adjust to the speed and physicality of NBA competition, but it comes more easily to some than others. For Bagley, it’s still a work in progress.

“It’s a lot of learning,” Bagley said. “I wouldn’t say it’s easier or harder (than expected). It’s a lot of different terms. Especially when you’re out there playing, you’ve got to see things a lot quicker. So that’s the big adjustment for me, is being able to catch onto everything and learn it. I feel like once I get that, the game will slow down and everything will take care of itself.”

Bagley’s place in the present-day NBA is uncertain. He’s a freak athlete with elite finishing and rebounding skills, but he doesn’t have the length or the shooting ability that most bigs need to succeed. He’ll have plenty of room to put up impressive numbers on a still-evolving Kings roster that isn’t close to getting back to the playoffs. Whether he’ll have the kind of long-term impact that would justify the pre-draft hype remains to be seen.

For now, he’s enjoying playing against his former high-school teammate on the biggest stage in Summer League.

“It was exciting out there,” Bagley said. “A lot of people came. A lot of fans, even in the top rows. It was a great game. After the game, there wasn’t any trash talk. That’s my guy. On the court, playing against each other, there’s no friends, but off the court, he’ll always be my guy. It’s pretty cool that we played together for a little bit, and seeing how far we’ve come, now playing against each other in the NBA, it’s a great experience.”