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NBA Draft 2018: Battle of the bigs, Jackson or Bagley?

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On the wild chance that both talented bigs fall out of the top four, our experts take a deep look at which they’d like to draft more

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Michigan Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Fifth is not where the Dallas Mavericks hoped to end up in the NBA Draft, that much is obvious. But since there’s all the time in the world between the NBA Lottery and NBA Draft, it’s time to start dipping into a debate that possibly isn’t worth having: Jaren Jackson Jr. versus Marvin Bagley III.

So let’s get deep and dip into a debate we’d be lucky to actually have come draft day.

Jordan Brodess (@JBrodess): Let’s say Ayton goes to Phoenix at one, Doncic to Sacramento at two, Atlanta falls for Bamba’s wingspan and personality and takes him at three, and Memphis decides to swing for the fences and takes MPJ at four. It’s really not completely implausible. That said Ian, who are you taking between Marvin Bagley and Jaren Jackson Jr.?

Ian Miller (@SmitheeMMB): Marvin Bagley had a tremendous season at Duke and there is a lot to like about his upside, but I think there’s a chance Jaren Jackson Jr. ends up the best of all these highly touted big men, including big bad Deandre Ayton. With Sagaba Konate returning to West Virginia, Jackson is statistically the best shot blocker of any available draft prospect. He also made more threes than any big man draft prospect, and projects as one of the better shooting centers to come from the college ranks in some time because of that high volume of threes and his 80 percent free throw conversion. I’m fairly certain there’s **never** been a prospect who combined both those skills to that degree, and certainly not as a one-and-done.

So he has a pretty high floor, but it feels really strange to call one of the youngest players who will be taken “safe”. The rest of Jackson’s profile says he can get better, and maybe a lot better. He has terrific size and length for a mobile big, and if he’s not quite the explosive leaper Bagley is, he’s no slouch as an athlete. He’s an intelligent guy with a good feel for the game who is generally considered to be high character and a hard worker. He comes from a good family with NBA bloodlines (his father played for over a decade in the NBA), and because of all the talent around him at Michigan State, he was hidden at times, much the way Karl Anthony Towns was at Kentucky.

Simply put: he’s a tantalizing two-way prospect who impacts the game at both ends in a way maybe no player in this draft does.

Jordan: I’ve been a Jackson fan for a while, and wrote about him for Moneyball recently. I believe in his ability to eventually be the most complete two-way big man in this draft class. But you and I both know one thing about the Mavericks front office: they have no interest in practicing patience. No organization wants to tread water while rebuilding. But based on the way Cuban has talked about this process publicly, you’d think Dallas had been a bottom five team for the last five seasons.

We know they have intentions of spending money this summer, to try and bounce back in to the competitive conversation. So if they’re looking for someone to come in and be a key contributor game one — and by that I mean scoring and rebounding — is there anyone that makes more sense than Bagley? He feels like the obvious plug and play option in the class, primed to put up numbers from the get go. Not to mention, the energy and electricity he’s bound to bring.

Ian: I think you can make solid a argument for both being guys who could come in and play a specific role right away. Jackson’s floor-spacing and defensive instincts might not jump off the stat sheet in a manner that gets him Rookie of the Year votes, but in terms of actually helping the team win games immediately, I think JJJ might be the more impactful player from the jump. Bagley will be an excellent rim-runner and finisher, and his high motor and elite second jump would give Dallas an offensive rebounding angle they haven’t had in a decade, but defensively a front court of Dirk and Bagley will be abjectly terrible. There’s just no nice way to say that.

Continuing with that strain of thought, any conversation about Bagley has to settle how one sees him developing defensively, because I’m not sure I can recall a top 5 big man who looked worse defending in team concept than Bagley. It’s no wonder he posted a shockingly low block rate for a blue chipper his size. He was regularly caught out of position (hence the zone Duke implemented), and he demonstrated almost staggeringly poor technique and very little ability to diagnose and react. Some of this can be taught but his average-ish wingspan and stringy body won’t help him. Whats your assessment of Bagley’s defense right now and going forward?

Jordan: Bad...? But in all seriousness Bagley’s defensive woes are cause for concern. Until he starts to find his legs as a team defender, because he probably will never be a solid defender on his own, he’s going to need to be paired up with a defensive-minded big. I’ve actually said more than once that Bagley and JJJ are sort of an ideal pair to play together. Jackson could roam the perimeter on offense and give Bagley space to operate on the block. And then Jackson could protect the rim defensively. So yes, a Bagley-Dirk defensive tandem is, uhm, less than ideal. But offensively they would compliment each other well. And long term, after Dirk retires, Bagley would have another teammate down low anyway. So the specific concern above is only temporary.

Focusing on the Mavericks solely, do you have concern about Carlisle being impatient with the fouling and rebounding questions that come up with Jackson? I can see Carlisle forgiving some of Bagley’s defensive problems if he brings energy, rebounds like a mad man, and scores. But if Jackson has some of the same problems he did at Michigan State, I could see long bench rides for him. Even as much as I love Jackson.

Ian: I’m not overly concerned about the rebounds because I think it was partly a function of how he played in the offense (he played away from the basket a lot, taking away o-rebound chances) and who he played with. Most of his time on the court was spent next to Nick Ward, an old school low-post brawler who ate up a lot of boards. I think JJJ will rebound better at the pro level if he’s the center (his natural position). I don’t think Carlisle is going to punish guys for not hitting a certain rebounding threshold, he just wants to see effort and some proper boxouts.

The fouling is the bugaboo for Triple-J, if he has one. It may get him an early benching or two as a rookie, but then again, I imagine that’s true of a lot of bigs. In the end I’m more optimistic about toning down aggressiveness than trying to rev up a motor that wasn’t there before. As long as Jackson doesn’t try to freelance and gamble for steals like Nerlens Noel had an unfortunate tendency to do, I think he and Carlisle will get on just fine. Frankly, if we’re worried about the coach souring on him because he’s not prime-career Tim Duncan out of the gate, then we probably shouldn’t even bother taking a center at all.

Jordan: I don’t think it’s necessarily expecting him to be The Big Fundamental day one. But this is a crucial time in JJJ’s development. So having good chemistry with Carlisle is important. And coach has a track record of being pretty tough on young big men. I know his work with DSJ and how long a leash he gave him dispelled some of those concerns, but I’ll be very curious how he handles a rookie center.

I think we both understand how dynamic Bagley is offensively. Ignore for a moment somehow the defensive side of the ball. If Bagley’s outside shot progresses, would his playmaking ability sell you any more on drafting him? His free throw shooting (63 percent on the season) suggests he may have some trouble translating his outside shot to the NBA. BUT, he did shoot 40 percent from three, and was 16 of 33 from NBA range (48 percent). Combined with finishing 75 percent around the rim, it’s pretty easy to daydream about the offensive explosion that Dennis Smith, Jr. and Bagley could have together.