Film Don’t Lie: Did Marvin Bagley III improve as a defender after arriving in Detroit?

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There will be plenty of time to continue arguing about the contract Troy Weaver gave Marvin Bagley III this offseason. Plenty of digital ink has already been spilled over whether it was an inconsequential or egregious overpay for the former No. 2 overall pick after his 18-game audition for the Detroit Pistons netted him a three-year, $37 million deal.

There is no doubt that Bagley came to Detroit and immediately provided a lift to an offense in desperate need of a big man who could finish above the rim. The sheer amount of lob passes Bagley corralled made the Pistons much more fun to watch. He also made an impact on the offensive boards. Bagley had juice, and I’m not really concerned about the cost of the squeeze.

What actually concerns me is his defense. More specifically how concerning is it, how much better can he get, and are his limitations on that end more about Bagley the player or the situation in which he found himself in Sacramento.

When the trade happened, I immediately went to the film and came away somewhat concerned with him on the defensive end of the floor. In my original article on Bagley, I even wrote that it wasn’t about him becoming a positive on defense. Instead, I wrote, “I think it would be a huge win for Bagley III just to become a neutral defender on the defensive end of the floor.”

The Pistons fanbase pushed back. I realized I was still calling MBIII a bad defender even though I had not taken the time to breakdown the film from his time with Detroit. They had a point. Maybe the defense had improved in his time with the Pistons and people will still punishing him with first impressions from his disastrous stint with the Kings. So, I went to the film to find out. I chose five games where Bagley played bigger minutes and one were he was in foul trouble. I also rewatched every defensive possession in which he played a part.

I always put ball-screen possessions in the “on-ball” category, even for the bigs, so we will start there. Most of the possessions we got from MBIII were “switch.” As the breakdown shows, Bagley showed enough to leave you thinking there was some developmental possibility there. He is never going to be Isaiah Stewart in that department, but there were multiple possessions where he used his length and showed an ability to flip his hips to hold up well enough.

My biggest concern? You get a team like the Celtics who target him and put him against Jaylen Brown in isolation over and over, and he simply will not able to hold up. Of course, these are issues that probably do not show up as much unless you are in the playoffs or when the game really slows down at the end of regulation.

The other coverage you could utilize is “drop” coverage, and I was honestly surprised about the number of “drop” coverage possessions we saw from Bagley. Simply put, I thought MBIII was worse in drop possessions than in switch possessions. Drop coverage does often rely on your teammates to do their jobs, but Bagley seemed to have a hard time “playing both” in this coverage. He would too often give up the lob pass or an easy layup to the ball handler.

As we look at MBIII purely off the ball, the biggest thing I would like to see him develop is a way to protect the rim. This could come from true shot blocking, but I question if that is possible considering his numbers thus far in his career and lack of anticipation and timing. It could be from playing with verticality or, as funny as this may sound, becoming proficient at taking charges.

Saying this is the biggest development off the ball is actually a good thing. When I wrote that article back in February I said “The first thing that stood out to me was his lack of awareness off the ball,” and I simply wasn’t sure the history of improvement of this in the league. While I am still not sure he has reached the bar of neutral with his off-the-ball awareness, I feel comfortable saying it was better in those games with the Pistons than what I saw with the Kings. Maybe it was the change of scenery, maybe it was the coaching, maybe something else entirely, but I can say I am excited to see if it continues to improve into his first full season with the Pistons.

The last thing I want to highlight from the film study was Bagley’s amount of communication. Maybe this was something I missed or overlooked when watching him with the Kings, but it did not stand out enough to make an appearance in my article or video breakdown six months ago. I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of communication he displayed in the five games I watched, and that is something that can be very useful/helpful when assembling an all around defensive team.

The purpose of this breakdown was not to try to justify the contract GM Troy Weaver gave Marvin Bagley III, one way or the other. At the end of the day, I am not sure we will have the answer to that question for another year or two. I simply wanted to answer the question of, was MBIII better on defense with the Pistons than he was with the Kings? I feel confident in saying….yes, with this caveat. Just because he was BETTER does not mean he was GOOD or has even reached the marker I was looking for in February of being a NET NEUTRAL. He still has growth to make but the fact we did see in that short stint last season is a good sign for what we may see moving forward.

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