The preseason national title favorite changed in mid-August when Marvin Bagley III reclassified to the 2017 class and signed with Duke.
Men's basketball got its introduction to Bagley over the weekend, and he vindicated those who tabbed Duke as the title favorite because of his addition.
The 6'11" freshman dazzled in his debut, setting a Duke freshman record for most points in a season opener—going for 25 points and 10 rebounds against Elon—and he then followed that up with 24 points and 10 boards against Utah Valley.
Neither game was on national television, and the majority of the country will get its eyes on Bagley for the first time Tuesday when No. 1 Duke faces No. 2 Michigan State at the Champions Classic in Chicago. That includes NBA scouts, who enter this season kind of in the dark on Bagley.
"He'd been a legend just based on YouTube videos, because he didn't really do much USA Basketball and then he didn't do the high school all-star game circuit because the reclassification was so late," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report. "I think people are still kind of getting their head wrapped around him."
There's a lot to unpack with Bagley, who is unlike any player Mike Krzyzewski has had in his Hall of Fame career in Durham, North Carolina. There are some parts of Bagley's game that fit the modern stretch 4, but his skill set is diverse enough that Coach K will likely spend this season inventing ways to use him.
A multiskilled scorer
Comparisons are not always fair—and this isn't going to help temper the hype—but Bagley has some Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo in his game.
Much like Simmons in his lone season at LSU, Bagley's combination of size, quickness and guard-like skills will be overwhelming for players at the college level.
It's not uncommon to see him grab a defensive rebound and then take off down the floor with the ball, something Krzyzewski has smartly green-lit. He has also moved Bagley around in half-court settings, allowing him to attack from various spots on the floor.
The willingness to give players like Bagley that freedom, combined with Krzyzewski's offensive creativity, is why Duke has become the destination for the top wings in America. Coach K has already landed commitments from R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish, two of the top four wings in the 2018 class, per 247Sports.
What makes these marriages a bit unusual is that Krzyzewski has unleashed his recent star wings at the power forward position, a spot he's tried to use to exploit mismatches much in the same way he had with Carmelo Anthony as the small-ball 4 on Team USA.
Starting with Jabari Parker in 2013-14, Coach K adopted the small-ball model, moving one-and-done wings Parker, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum to the 4.
The fact that these players were not used like post players was a selling point for Bagley.
"We don't want to put a label on him," his father, Marvin Bagley Jr., told B/R two years ago. "A label equals a limit. We just ask him to play. You have to be able to do it all, especially at this young age."
Duke made the most sense for Bagley when he decided to reclassify this summer. He would join an already stacked roster, but one that was missing a playmaking 4, and his addition vaulted the Blue Devils to preseason No. 1.
Bagley doesn't fit the model like the others—he's built more like a true big—but his ceiling as a scorer and defender is higher than any of the recent one-and-done lottery picks to come through Durham.
"You still have to figure out which position he's going to defend primarily," the scout, who watched Duke practice in the preseason, said. "What's his primary defensive position going to be? And how much more development does his body have to undergo, because he took this opportunity to come [to college] quicker than he had to? Is he going to end up being a 7-footer? What's that going to look like? And then combining that with the development of his skills, there's no real definition of what he is. He's more just kind of a baller."
Bagley's potential to become an elite defender is what sets him apart from Simmons during his year at LSU. Simmons may have had the tools, but Bagley shows a desire to defend.
Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel told Reid Forgrave of CBSSports.com:
"The thing that's been most impressive to me, and this is from the first time I saw him, I have never seen—whether it's a workout, a practice, whatever—I've never seen him not play hard. And that is very rare for any player, but especially for an elite player. Every time I've seen him he has played his ass off. That's a gift. And that's something that's very rare, especially now."
Bagley is a dream asset for the way many college and pro teams want to defend these days. Duke is already asking him to switch on every ball screen, and he has the quickness and length to defend all five positions.
This is why it makes more sense that the Blue Devils are a national title favorite this season than it did a year ago, when Coach K's club also opened the year No. 1.
Last year, the Duke finished 47th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. That's not a terrible mark, but it essentially eliminated the Blue Devils from the national title picture, as no champ since Ken Pomeroy started tracking advanced stats in 2002 has won with an adjusted ranking outside the top 20.
Since Coach K made the philosophical switch to small ball, Duke has had an unbelievable run of offensive efficiency, finishing first, third, fourth and sixth in adjusted offensive efficiency. No other program has finished in the top 10 every year during that stretch.
But defense has been another story. Over the last four years—starting with the Parker-led 2013-14 club—the Blue Devils' average finish in adjusted defensive efficiency has been 58th. That is not in line with how Coach K's clubs have typically performed. Over the 10 seasons before that, Duke's average finish was 18.1.
The youth movement might be partly to blame, but Kentucky's success under John Calipari on that end proves you can have an elite defense built around freshmen. The 2014-15 national champion Blue Devils also proved that during their tourney run.
That group struggled on defense for much of the year—entering the NCAA tournament with the 57th-ranked unit. Coach K had gone back to a traditional lineup that season, with Winslow playing on the wing. But in late February, Krzyzewski moved Winslow to the 4, and the Duke defense was dominant in March and April, finishing as the 11th-best unit in the country, per Pomeroy's metric, and climbing an amazing 46 spots over six games.
Winslow had the strength to bang in the post and the quickness to guard just about any position. Bagley isn't as strong, but he's not a pushover and has some of the attributes that made Winslow so valuable.
"He's really going to be good, because he's probably more capable of defending multiple positions than a few of those guys—like Brandon Ingram anytime he got bumped, he was cashed," the scout said. "Jayson Tatum's lateral quickness wasn't as good as Bagley's. Justise was a monster defender, and then Jabari found his best success when he was guarding the 5. I think he'll be a little bit more versatile in terms of how he can be used defensively."
The sample size is way too small, but the early results are promising. Duke held Elon and Utah Valley to 89.5 points per 100 possessions. Pomeroy's preseason prediction for those two games was a defensive efficiency of 92.7, so the Devils slightly outperformed his expectations over the first weekend.
"We could be a really good defensive team where we protect the basket—hopefully not give up second shots and be able to cover—and be a real wide and athletic team," Krzyzewski told CL Brown of The Athletic before the season. "So it's not just height; it's width. I think we can be a wide team. And hopefully that's what that height will translate into."
Duke is deep up front, with four potential pros in Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr., Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier. Krzyzewski is already playing lineups with three of those four on the floor together and utilizing their length by playing a zone defense when he goes big.
The Michigan State offense will offer a good early test. The Spartans can play big, with projected one-and-done lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr. at the 4 and the 6'7" Miles Bridges at the 3, or go small, with Bridges at the 4. Bagley could be matched up with both, and scouts will pay close attention to how he fares.
If any team in America is built to combat Bagley's athleticism, it's Michigan State. Bridges and Jackson are NBA-level athletes, and Coach K will likely give Bagley the opportunity to see what he can do one-on-one. Krzyzewski has run a heavy dose of isolation plays for the star freshman in the post and at the elbows.
Bagley is also a deadly weapon in the pick-and-roll because of how quickly he can dive to the rim. His teammates can lob passes in his direction with the confidence of Brett Favre. He catches everything, and his ability to gather quickly and finish is impressive.
In most NBA draft classes, Bagley would be a no-brainer as the top overall pick, but the 2018 class is as strong at the top as any in recent memory. He'll battle for the top spot with Arizona's Deandre Ayton, Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. and Luka Doncic, an 18-year-old Slovenian star who is averaging 21.2 points per game for Real Madrid.
Bagley, 18, is the youngest of that group and might still be at the lowest point of his developmental curve.
"He's still a player that is still developing in many ways," the scout said. "The end is not as close as it may be for some players, but he's definitely impressive. He's definitely athletic. He definitely has a body that can become something that is much greater than it currently is."
Simmons was probably more refined as a freshman, but he was also a year older and had more experience against international competition.
Bagley projects as a better outside shooter—which is a weakness for him right now, but he's capable and did knock down a three-pointer against Utah Valley—and he is a bit bouncier than the Philadelphia 76ers star. Bagley does not have the passing acumen of Simmons, but his ball-handling is almost on par, and like Simmons, he's a slippery lefty who is difficult to contain in the open floor.
It's going to be fun watching how he evolves in his one season at Duke. The Devils have so much offensive talent that they don't need him to put up 20-plus points every night. The supporting class around him looks to have even more firepower than the 2014-15 team.
Grayson Allen looked like a better version of his sophomore self through two games. Carter is a gifted back-to-the-basket scorer who can also step out and hit a three. Gary Trent Jr. would be the go-to guy on most teams in America. And Trevon Duval, who has 20 assists and one turnover in two games, looks like he can be the setup man at point guard Duke has been missing the last two seasons.
Tuesday will give a good indication of how far along the Baby Devils are. It's hard to win in March and April with so much youth, but if Bagley can play to his defensive potential, Duke may have the goods to become the first team to start four freshmen (Bagley, Carter, Trent and Duval) and win a national title.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter @CJMooreHoops.