CLEVELAND, Ohio — For the first time since 2018, the Cleveland Cavaliers are not picking in the top five of the NBA Draft. When a team holds the no. 14 pick — the last selection of the lottery — they aren’t in control of the outcome. There’s no Evan Mobley or Darius Garland coming. It’s not a small pool of prospects to choose from this year. Sources tell cleveland.com that the front office has about 10 players on its first-round radar, trying to identify the best combination of talent and fit.
The countdown is on. June 23 is almost approaching.
In the days leading up to the draft, cleveland.com will examine a handful of prospects that could realistically be in play for the Cavs in their expected range.
Next up: Kansas swingman Ochai Agbaji.
2021-22 stats: 18.8 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 1.6 assists, 47.5% FG, 40.1% 3P, 74.3% FT
Height: 6-5 ¾
wingspan: 6-10 ¼
Position: shooting guard/small forward
Things to know:
In his blood– Agbaji grew up in Milwaukee, Wisc, where both of his parents played collegiate hoops at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Moving to the Kansas City area and attending Oak Park High School, he flew under the radar, barely cracking the consensus top-200 prospects in the high school class of 2018. ESPN’s recruiting service considered him a three-star prospect. With little interest until Kansas made an offer, Agbaji signed with the Jayhawks. Initially expected to redshirt as a freshman, a few players leaving program allowed Agbaji to receive a bigger role.
Testing the waters — Making steady improvements each year while at Kansas, Agbaji declared for the 2021 NBA Draft, attended the combine, received feedback about his draft positioning, took it to heart and returned to Kansas for his senior campaign. There were lofty expectations for Agabji upon his return. He exceeded all of them, taking Big 12 Player of the Year honors, being named a consensus First-Team All-American and leading the Jayhawks to their first NCAA championship since 2008. He capped his improbable star turn with Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Final Four. That exceptional senior year has elevated Agbaji from second-round pick into the lottery conversation.
Notable workout partner — Every now and then, Agbaji works with Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard. So, what’s the connection? Phil Beckner, who was Lillard’s college coach and now serves as a trainer, has been working with Agbaji during the pre-draft process.
Inside the numbers — There’s something to be said about a player who improves every season. While some of that can be attributed to a bigger role, it’s tough to overlook an increase from 8.5 points as a freshman to 18.8 by the end of his collegiate career. His 3-point shooting kept ticking up as well, going from 30.7% on 3.4 attempts as a frog to 40.7% on 6.5 attempts as a senior.
This past season, Agbaji averaged 1.27 points per catch and shoot jumper, which ranked in the 94th percentile. He also showed an ability to smoothly rise up off screens and dribble hand offs. Complementing his accomplished outside game, Agbaji used his power and athleticism when he had a clear path to the rim, averaging 1.45 points per shot around the rim in the halfcourt (94th percentile).
About the fit:
Is it possible we are all overthinking the 14th pick? Among other things, the Cavs covet a two-way wing who can shoot from the outside. That’s Agbaji. Adept in catch-and-shoot situations, not needing to hijack offensive possessions and powerful and athletic (the fourth-highest vertical leap) in transition, Agbaji is a plug-and-play 3-and-D wing — the archetype missing from the roster, the one needed to have success in this era. While he’s a bit smaller than desired to play full-time at the 3, his toughness and 6-foot-10 wingspan could make up for that.
Because of his age and experience, Agbaji is further along on the developmental curve, lacking the kind of upside and future star power some of his other classmates possess. But he’s also polished and mature enough — physically and mentally — to provide rookie minutes for a team looking to take another step forward and reach the playoffs. Plus, his obvious weaknesses — a lack of shot creation and inability to get to the free-throw line — may not be as detrimental with All-Star Darius Garland, Caris LeVert, Collin Sexton (if he’s retained in restricted free agency) , maybe Ricky Rubio (there remains mutual interest in a reunion) and Evan Mobley (his offensive role is expected to expand) serving as the primary initiators this coming season.
Maybe Agbaji — who worked out for the Cavs and would likely project as an off-the-bench sniper unless he takes someone’s starting gig in training camp — is rightly viewed as a high-floor/low-ceiling player. Or maybe he’s just a late bloomer. After all, he’s already gone from unheralded recruit to NCAA champion and Kansas’ best player. No matter his individual ceiling, Agbaji’s shooting skill set would help elevate Cleveland’s.
He’s not exciting but he’s needed.
What they’re saying:
Agbaji, when asked about who he molds his game after — “Great example would be Desmond Bane. I played against him when I was a freshman and sophomore. Kind of have similar games. Athletic, bigger-type wing that can defend and knock down shots. I watch his game and see my game in his game too.”
Jonathan Wasserman, Bleacher Report, NBA Draft Analyst — “Not very creative. But a 3-and-D guy who can be used right away for rookie minutes. If you’re a rebuilding team in the lottery you have no interest in Agbaji. He reminds me of Quentin Grimes who comes off as kind of a steal for the Knicks even though he has no creation. He’s pretty much a catch-and-shoot guy, make good decisions and defend your position. That’s pretty much how I see Agbaji. He can help a team like Cleveland right away and will be useful from Day One. Will he get much better in Year 3 or Year 4? Probably going to be the same player that he is as a rookie. But that rookie is useful.”
NBA Executives — “Streaky shooter. But probably the best one in the late lottery range. He’s also a fantastic finisher. Won’t make many mistakes. His shooting creates natural space. If his defense translates from Kansas, you’ve got a startable two-way wing.”
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