Draft night 2021 was a pretty boring exercise for Portland Trail Blazers pundits and fans.
After sitting through a marathon first round, the Blazers stepped up and bought their way into the second round, snagging Greg Brown III with the 43rd pick.
As soon as the 60th selection was made, news came through that the team had also signed relative unknown Trendon Watford to a two-way contract.
That night, the Blazers added two young guys who, at the time, were unlikely to see much of the court during the 2021-22 season.
But nothing is certain in life.
Enter the COVID Omicron variant, which tore through the Blazers roster just before Christmas, sidelining more than half the team.
Watford was consequently called upon, thrown in the deep end and swam, despite the fact that a large portion of the NBA community still has no idea who he is.
Conversely, you’d struggle to find anyone with a basic understanding of the NBA, who doesn’t know Sacramento Kings big man Marvin Bagley.
Taken second in the famed 2018 NBA draft, Bagley was selected behind Deandre Ayton and ahead of Luka Doncic, Trae Young and Jaren Jackson Jr. — a series of decisions that will unfortunately follow him for the rest of his NBA career.
Perhaps this pressure of expectation has contributed to Bagley’s mediocre three and a half year career, with the NBA universe consistently comparing him with peers who just happen to be generational, or close to generational, talents.
But Bagley hasn’t helped his case, he’s regularly struggled for court time on a poor team through inconsistent play and not specializing in one particularly skill. Former Kings coach Luke Walton actually banished him to the extended bench before the team opened this season against the Blazers.
To put things in perspective, Kendrick Nunn, who went undrafted the same year as Bagley and spent a year in the G-League has hit far taller NBA heights. Nunn is a solid rotation player, averaging 15 points on 36 percent three point shooting, 2.9 rebounds and 3 assists, not to mention the multiple teams clamoring for his services last summer.
There're have also been others taken after Bagley, who’ve had an bigger impact on the league, including Mikal Bridges (10th), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (11th), Miles Bridges (12th), Michael Porter Jr. (14th), Anfernee Simons (24th) and Gary Trent Jr. (37th).
Part of me feels sorry for Bagley, but then I remember he’s earning millions of dollars playing a game he loves after given every opportunity to reach his potential following a successful collegiate season at Duke.
Unfortunately now, he could very well end up being the Darko Milicic of this generation — he just needs to suit up for another five NBA franchises.
I’m just wary of him including the Blazers on his tour around the NBA.
Why the Blazers might be better off with Watford
Now, the word on the street — never to be trusted — is that the Kings could be in talks with the Blazers to exchange Bagley and a pick for Robert Covington. I’ll preface this with rumors swirling around just before the trade deadline should always be taken with a grain of salt, with every man and his dog firing hypothetical deals into the trade machine 24-7.
Two things are relative sureties, Covington and frontcourt partner Jusuf Nurkic are almost certain to be moved before they become unrestricted free agents next summer.
So just for the purposes of this piece, let’s pick apart the above trade and why each side would or wouldn’t do it.
We’re not sure whether the Kings are trying to make the playoffs or tank, it’s a fairly familiar predicament for the less successful northern Californian team. But if they are looking to, at least, feature in the play-in tournament, a player with the experience and skillset of Covington would definitely be of use. When he’s on his game, he’s the definitive big 3 and D wing — when he’s on his game.
For the Blazers, it’s a different story.
A first round pick is always a plus, it can be executed on draft night or used in other trades to bring in real, proven NBA players.
As for Bagley, you could argue he’s the quintessential reclamation project, but there are some catches. The pending restricted free agent’s high draft selection will yield a Qualifying Offer of more than $14 million — a lot of money for a player who’s yet to prove himself.
More importantly, the Blazers might find that they already have a player with a similar skillset on the roster — Watford. To do a quick comparison let’s look at some per 36 numbers from this season.
Bagley has played almost five times as many minutes and has actually shot threes, very badly, but he’s shot them. Aside from this, the differences are negligible. The polarizing King has an edge by 1.1 points and two rebounds, however Watford has more than doubled Bagley’s assists and more than quintupled his blocks.
Bagley, standing 6’11 with a 7-foot wingspan, is a year older than the 6’9” Watford (7’2” wingspan) with three extra seasons in the league and earning almost $11 million more than the the former LSU standout.
But while Bagley has the physical attributes to play the center, he’s nowhere near capable of defending the position.
When it comes down to it, much of the this argument requires reliance on the eye test, given the smallish sample size for Watford.
But for an undrafted guy, 15 games into his career, Watford has already made solid decisions with and without the ball. He’s energetic and not afraid to take on larger and more experienced opponents.
While he might not have the same shooting ability, Watford can cut and get to the rim thanks to a natural basketball IQ. And while he’s no defensive mastermind, he’s tenacious on that side of the ball, rarely experiencing lapses, except for last night when he was fouled out after eight minutes of play.
With time he’ll be able to cut down on unforced errors and may even develop a long-range shot.
If the rumored Covington for Bagley and a pick trade eventuates, the clear prize for the Blazers will be the pick, not Bagley.
Bagley lacks a standout NBA skill, a relatively long wingspan, a long-range shot, playmaking, rim protection and defense. He can also go missing for games at a time. Bagley is expensive given his draft position with money being a precious commodity for the tax-pressed Blazers.
Alternatively, Watford is eager to make his mark on the game, pure energy as soon as he jumps on the court.
If the Blazers believe that Bagley can genuinely be a reclamation project, I’d offer a word of warning and suggest they already have a similar and cheaper version waiting in the wings.
I’m not sure whether this deal eventuates and maybe I’m a little too high on Watford but I’d be wary of bringing Bagley in on a Blazers team that’ll be trying to win next season.