Through Mystery Injury And Luka-Mania, Kings’ Divac Stands By Marvin Bagley Pick

Around the league, there is Doncic Madness. And why not? In 43 games this season, Mavs guard Luka Doncic has averaged 28.8 points, 8.7 assists and 9.5 rebounds, recording 12 triple-doubles. He’s been praised from every corner of the NBA, from Carmelo Anthony to LeBron James to Charles Barkley, who labeled him, “a bad white boy,” a year ago.

Everyone’s loco for Luka. Except, maybe, Kings general manager Vlade Divac.

It was Divac, after all, who made the call to draft big man Marvin Bagley with the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft, passing on Doncic, who went third to the Mavericks after Dallas engineered a trade with the Hawks. At the time, Divac called it an, “easy choice.” Bagley had a solid rookie year (14.9 points, 7.6 rebounds) and has been injured for all but 13 games of his second season.

He’s got promise. But Bagley, even at his best, is not Doncic, already slated to be the NBA’s next big star. It’s unlikely Bagley will ever be on Doncic’s level. The Kings will be happy if he can just close the gap significantly. But here in the depths of this season, it hasn’t helped that Bagley is undergoing such an injury-riddled nightmare.

Divac doesn’t much care. He can’t afford to care. Bagley is his guy and there’s no going back. When it comes to the future construction of the Kings, Bagley is an integral part, like it or not.

In an interview that Divac gave to the Sacramento Bee this week, he defended the logic that led the team to pick Bagley nearly two years ago—the Kings had point guard De’Aaron Fox on hand and did not need more help in the backcourt.

“I’m not concerned with the fans booing,” Divac told Bee columnist Marcos Breton. “That’s them showing us that they are not happy with what they see and I’m OK with that. … I believe in what we did. I believe in Fox and Bagley. I think those two guys are going to take us where we want to go.”

Fox might not have fit so well with Doncic, Divac indicated, and the Kings were confident in Fox’s potential. His logic suggests Divac might pass up a Jaguar because he’s already got a Jeep Cherokee in the driveway. But Bagley was the pick.

“Marvin and Fox complement each other,” Divac said. “I agree it’s been difficult for the fans and for Marvin.”

Did Divac Imply That Bagley is Soft?

In fairness, Divac is right. It has been difficult on Bagley this season. But the Kings have not done much to soothe that difficulty. Bagley broke his hand in the season opener, when coach Luke Walton still had Bagley on the floor in the final two minutes despite a 30-point deficit for the Kings.

He returned after missing 22 games, played in eight games and injured his left foot when he landed awkwardly while grabbing a rebound on December 26. It was called a mild foot sprain.

But things got weird from there. Bagley played four games, averaging 15.5 points in 30.4 minutes, then somehow re-injured the left foot. He has missed four more games and there was some mystery to the injury—at one point, Bagley was seen in a waking boot.

In his interview with the Bee, Divac said he hoped Bagley would be back in a few games. He appeared to suggest that it was the kind of injury Bagley would play through as he got older.

“It’s a minor injury,” Divac said “He’s young and he’s learning how to play with the pain he has. It’s hard to jump and run when it bothers you and that’s his game. … When I was 30 and finishing up my career, I could play on one leg.”

Divac’s quote needs more context. But it sounds a bit like he is saying Bagley needs to toughen up, that he is soft. It hasn’t helped that Sacramento has been vague about what, exactly, is wrong with Bagley.

That changed on Thursday evening, when the Kings issued an injury update. Bagley had seen a foot specialist, who confirmed that he had aggravated the sprain he’d suffered in December. Divac was wrong. Bagley won’t be back in a matter of games—he will be re-evaluated in three weeks.

Marvin Bagley ‘Still A Weak Link’

It’s a double-whammy for the Kings. This should have been a season in which Bagley took a step forward, as many of his 2018 draftmates have done. Not just Doncic, either. Trae Young earned an All-Star spot. Jaren Jackson Jr. is averaging 17.7 points while shooting 40.6 percent from the 3-point line and recording 1.6 blocked shots.

The Kings could have had any of those players. Divac was sold on Bagley’s ability to run the floor, though, and how that would work alongside a speed demon like Fox. Bagley’s struggles this season look that much worse through the lens of how well the guys the Kings passed up have played.

In the 13 games he has played, Bagley’s offense has not shown much progress. The sample size is too small to present any serious concern, but his 3-point percentage has tanked, to just 18.2 percent this season.

Worse, Bagley has not had the chance to improve defensively. His lack of defensive focus and instinct was the knock on Bagley coming into the draft and it was a problem in his rookie year. This season, Bagley’s 114.6 defensive rating is worst on the team. Last year, among Kings rotation players, Bagley was second-worst (111.0 defensive rating).

As one Western Conference assistant coach told me, “If he is on the floor, you go at him. They’re not a great defensive team but they’re better. Marvin is not better, though. When he was out there, he was still a weak link you could pick at.”

Still, Divac defends the pick, claiming no regrets about not having Doncic in Northern California even as a gimpy Bagley has shown no measurable improvement. He hasn’t been healthy for most of the year and the Kings have not been particularly transparent in their disclosures about his injury. With the Kings well out of the playoff picture, frustration is rampant.

Meanwhile Doncic is an MVP candidate. Divac can still shrug that off, can still harp on the better fit that Bagley will have with Fox, someday. But after a season like this one, that’s getting harder to do.

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