Another draft dud?
*This article was published in the 6/28/18 edition of Sacramento News & Review*
The Kings came into May’s draft lottery with the 6th-best odds at a top-3 pick in this year’s draft. Fortune favored Sacramento for the second year straight year, and they jumped all the way up to the number two spot . Only this year, the pick was theirs to keep - and with it, a chance at the franchise-altering superstar they so desperately need.
The overwhelming favorite among fans and draft experts alike was Luka Doncic. A 19-year-old star from Slovenia, Doncic became the youngest ever Euroleague MVP while leading Real Madrid to the EuroBasket title just two days before the draft.
The Phoenix Suns, holding the first overall pick, chose Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, leaving the door wide open for Sacramento to nab Doncic. But for the most part, the intrigue was already over, as reports had surfaced hours before the draft that the Kings would take Duke big man Marvin Bagley III.
The Dallas Mavericks, at whose expense the Kings had moved up in the lottery, wasted no time trading for the 3rd pick (via Atlanta) to take Doncic. Many pundits pronounced they’d gotten the draft’s best player.
The Kings disagreed. “Marvin for us is better fit, better player, and great talent,” Kings’ GM Vlade Divac said when asked about passing on Doncic. “So, it was an easy choice for us.”
Doncic and Bagley may be forever linked in fans’ minds, but it will be years before either player - and the team’s decision - can be fairly evaluated. What is open for criticism, though, is the Kings’ all-too-familiar bungling of draft strategy and team building.
First: Marvin Bagley is an excellent prospect. An off-the-charts athlete, tenacious rebounder, and efficient low-post scorer, he put together a terrific freshman year at Duke. His defense is a work in progress, and his size precludes him from being an immediate rim protector, but at only 19, Bagley has time to grow mentally and physically into his 6’11”, 235-lb frame. It may have also helped Divac’ decision that Bagley was one of only two prospects to hold a workout with the Kings, while most others refused in hopes of avoiding Sacramento.
But Divac’ claim that Bagley is “a better fit” is debatable. Bagley joins a crowded Kings’ frontcourt alongside recent draftees Skal Labisserie, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Harry Giles, plus veterans Zach Randolph and Kosta Koufos. Some of those players will surely be moved, but Doncic would have filled a position of greater immediate need on the Kings roster. Moreover, Doncic’ skilled shooting, passing, and pick-and-roll play would have provided scarce breathing room for the Kings’ 30th-ranked offense. Though Bagley shot well from 3 in limited attempts at Duke, Doncic’ position and skill-set is particularly suited for an increasingly wing-dominated, pick-and-roll-heavy league.
Despite all that - when you are a franchise without a superstar picking so high in the draft, you don’t draft for fit. If the Kings saw Bagley as the best player available, they were right to take him. But it appears they were once again behind the 8-ball from a strategy standpoint by letting their intention to take Bagley leak. With suitors eager to trade up for Doncic, and many projecting Bagley would be available a few spots later, the chance to trade down, pick up future draft assets, and still get Bagley would have been the best outcome. While it’s impossible to know if that opportunity was ever a reality, Atlanta (this year) and Boston (last year) have shown that creative front offices can make it happen.
For now, the Kings bring in another solid building block in Bagley. They also picked up two future second-round picks in exchange for their own, and signed undrafted rookies Cameron Reynolds and Marcus Foster. They will theoretically be players in free agency, if there are any superstars more willing to join them than the draft prospects who dodged them. So after yet another lottery pick in Sacramento, consider the can officially kicked down the road.