The time is coming. Whether it’s this week or two weeks from now or the start of next season, young big man Marvin Bagley III is going to work his way into the Kings’ starting lineup, where he could reside for the next decade or so.
His talent is undeniable, and he continues to show flashes of brilliance. His 32-point, seven-rebound performance against the Phoenix Suns last week comes to mind.
But the stretch run is here, and for the first time in more than a decade, the Kings are playing for more than just lottery balls. In most seasons, this is when Sacramento usually turns the team over to players like Bagley for crucial developmental time on the court.
With just 25 games remaining and Sacramento just a game back of the eighth seed, coach Dave Joerger is still trying to balance the future and the present. Yet It’s becoming more and more clear that the future and the present are one in the same.
Over the first six games of February, the game is slowing down for Bagley, and he’s playing his best basketball of his rookie season.
Since returning from a knee injury in early January, the former Duke star is posting 14.2 points and 8.1 rebounds per game off of Joerger’s bench. In February’s first six games, those numbers jump to 15.7 points and 8.7 rebounds in 27.7 minutes per game.
Bagley’s ability to score in the post gives Sacramento’s high-octane offense a new wrinkle. As his shot selection improves and he develops as the roller in the two-man game, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft is only going to get better.
“He has a special talent, nobody can block his jumpshot,” teammate Buddy Hield said last week. “He’s gifted and I just want to see him succeed at the highest level.”
In Sacramento’s equal-opportunity offense, having a big body to feed in the post is a nice luxury. It also doesn’t hurt that Bagley is one of the best rebounders on the team, especially on the offensive end.
“He jumps so high, it doesn’t matter what anybody does,” point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “Just pick a spot, get to it and be able to just rise up.”
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With Bagley stepping up his game, veteran Nemanja Bjelica has seen a reduction in court time. After carrying the team through stretches early in the season, the former Euroleague MVP struggled in January.
Bjelica has bounced back a bit in February, averaging nine points on 38.1 percent shooting from 3-point range in 18.8 minutes per game. Bagley has taken some of his playing time, but newcomer Harrison Barnes has seen time at the four as well.
Joerger has been clear throughout the year that Bjelica’s shooting ability opens the spacing on the floor for Fox and the team’s up-tempo style. The addition of Barnes at the deadline may give Joerger even more flexibility with his rotations.
Bagley has been shooting with the guards following practice, and he’s pushed his 3-point attempts to nearly two per game during February.
The rookie is shooting just 27.3 percent from behind the arc on the month, and 25.5 percent on the season. If teams don’t have to defend Bagley on the perimeter, it complicates things for the Kings’ offense.
If the Kings were struggling, it’s likely that Bagley would already be starting. With the team in the thick of the playoff race, Joerger has a tough decision to make about if or when Bagley assumes his position with the opening group.