Arizona forward Deandre Ayton and Duke forward Marvin Bagley will likely be compared to one another for a long time.
They’re both transcendent talents. Ayton and Bagley have been the best players on bluebloods that feature experienced college stars like Allonzo Trier and Grayson Allen.
They’re also incredibly similar, both in style and in statistical output. Their numbers are nearly identical:
But there are subtle differences between them. Let’s break down two of the most talented big men we’ve seen in college basketball in recent years.
At 7-1, 250 pounds, Ayton is a house, and he plays like one. And unlike a lot of guys that size, he’s extraordinarily fluid; Ayton moves like a guard.
There are big men across the country who have Ayton’s athleticism, but none pair it with his caliber of strength. Ayton displays both on this play.
Oh dear. Big men flush alley-oops frequently; rarely are they coordinated enough to do so with a running head start like Ayton has here. With apologies to Greg Oden (as strong but not quite as athletic) and Anthony Davis (more athletic, but rail-thin), you’d probably have to go back to Blake Griffin’s Oklahoma days to find a big man with the kind of strength and explosiveness combination Ayton has.
Ayton is a notch above Bagley here, too – he’s wiry, and about as athletic as Ayton. But he’s not nearly as filled out. Bagley has elite body control and outstanding hands for a guy his size – he looks like an All-American tight end going up for loose balls, and his rebounding radius is insane. That was all on display in this 30-point, 15-rebound performance against Florida:
Bagley is a freak. Ayton is whatever the level above “freak” is.
Slight edge: Ayton
Ayton’s pet move is his face-up midrange jumper – perhaps even to a fault. It’s not a high efficiency shot; even if Ayton cans 50 percent of those, he’d be better served if he stepped out and hit 3s at a 35 percent clip.
Ayton’s range isn’t reliable yet, but he has feathery touch. The face-up mid-range jumper is also inefficient because, frankly, it’s a hard shot to make. Ayton drains it frequently, and that speaks to his shooting chops. He’s only shooting 29 percent from 3 but Ayton has made four of his last 10 attempts. He’s shooting a respectable 69 percent from the line, so it feels like that range will come with time. Ayton’s stroke is textbook:
Bagley is shooting 33 percent from 3 but does much more of his damage near the hoop as opposed to the mid range. He’s also shooting just 61 percent from the free-throw line, which is a bit of an issue considering Bagley’s relentless interior style. He’s going to get there a lot. Bagley would be scoring at an even higher rate if he shot free-throws at a normal clip.
Bagley’s jumper isn’t broken, by any means. But he’s not as fluid, or quick in his release as Ayton. This off-the-bounce 3 goes in, but his shot is a bit flat, and he takes some time to wind up.
Bagley’s outside shot has actually been better than advertised. But Ayton is a bit ahead of him at this point.
Slight edge: Ayton
If we’re saying Ayton is a better shooter, but Bagley scores just as much as him – guess what that means? The latter is better on the interior.
Bagley’s motor just runs so hot. Effort was a knock on Ayton coming into college – but it’s kind of hard to see why; he’s been outstanding for Arizona, and there’s been no evidence of him dogging it. But Bagley’s maximum effort jumps off of the screen.
Ayton and Bagley are both monsters down low. But Duke’s rookie is more consistently dominant.
It’s probably too early to tell, to be honest. Ayton and Bagley are so physically overwhelming that the right basketball play is usually for them to try to score the ball themselves, regardless of who’s on them.
They’ll face more double-teams as the season wears on. For what it’s worth, they both saw them in their last game – Bagley against Boston College, and Ayton against Alabama. Each had one assist, but Bagley had four turnovers to Ayton’s two, and is coughing it up more frequently in general.
Keep an eye on this moving forward. Defenses will start to adapt, and Bagley and Ayton could find open 3-point shooters often if it’s something they prioritize.
The raw numbers are nearly identical, but dig a little deeper, and this gets complicated.
Duke ranks 55th in adjusted tempo. Arizona ranks 190th. Therefore, Bagley has had more opportunities to grab rebounds than Ayton – and their rebounding rates reflect as much. Ayton has collected 30.8 percent of available defensive rebounds when he’s on the floor, the ninth-highest mark in the country. Bagley’s defensive rebounding rate is 23.7, which ranks 115th. For what it’s worth, Bagley’s offensive rebounding rate is higher, but only by a smidge.
There’s some noise here. Bagley’s frontcourt partner is Wendell Carter, who’s a significantly better rebounder that Dusan Ristic, Ayton’s frontcourt partner. And Duke is rebounding better as a team than Arizona; the Blue Devils are first in offensive rebounding and 144th in defensive rebounding; the Wildcats are 76th and 121st. Bagley’s offensive rebounding is part of the reason why Duke has the No. 1 offense in the country, and rebounding isn’t all about individual totals. Sometimes, a quality boxout to ensure a teammate snags the rock is just as good as an actual board.
This is the closest category yet. Even though Ayton has been a slightly more impressive individual rebounder, Bagley’s ferocious second-chance efforts have propped up Duke’s offense. Side note: it usually doesn’t matter, but Ayton rarely boxes out, and Bagley at least makes an effort.
Slight, slight, slight edge: Bagley
For as good as these guys are on offense, their defense leaves some to be desired.
Given their athleticism, it’s shocking that Bagley averages less than a block per game and Ayton is barely over a block per game. Duke’s defense has been a mess – it’s ranked 70th – and while there’s way more to that than Bagley, he hasn’t been a difference-maker on that end.
And it’s fair to criticize Ayton for attempting to pad his rebounding totals, meaning he often pulls up on shots he could potentially alter or swat. Arizona has been better than Duke defensively, but the Wildcats still rank just 54th – given the personnel, both teams should be better on that side of the floor. Bagley is more agile side-to-side and better at containing guards, while Ayton is a more effective rim-protector. But their offensive transcendence hasn’t translated to defense. Perhaps it will in time; both guys have the tools to be dominant two-way players.
To settle the debate, we dove into the on-off court splits. Duke is essentially the same defensively with or without Bagley — the Blue Devils allow about a point less per 100 possessions with him in the game. Arizona, on the other hand, is clearly better with Ayton on the floor — the Wildcats surrender about five less points per 100 possessions with their freshman manning the lane.
Defense is usually harder to learn on the college level than offense. Ayton and Bagley will pick up defensive concepts in the coming months, and be better for it.
But for now, Ayton is slightly more important to his team’s defense than Bagley.
Overall edge: Ayton, ever so slightly. But it's so close that it could flip on a game-by-game basis.
What tremendous talents these two are.