WESTFIELD, Ind. — Marvin Bagley III looked at the scoreboard late in the second half on Saturday afternoon and wondered what more he had to do to finally get a win. Bagley’s Nike Phamily team was trailing Houston Hoops by double-digits with about six minutes left in a situation that was becoming all too familiar but no less bizarre.
Bagley is the the best high school basketball player alive, the consensus choice for the top recruit in the class of 2018 and the heavy favorite to be the first pick in the 2019 NBA draft. At this moment, he was also winless on Nike’s EYBL circuit, staring at an 0-6 record unless he led a miraculous comeback.
With Mike Krzyzewski and assistants from Kentucky and Arizona sitting baseline, Bagley took over. He soared for a rim-level rebound, pushed the ball up the court, dribbled behind his back, and finished with a thunderous dunk. He caught the ball in the post, spun around a defender and hammered the ball through the rim. He blocked shots, showed off a feathery jumper and single-handedly willed Phamily back into the game.
As a 6’11 big man with the skills of a guard, basketball has always come easy for Bagley. His high school career has been anything but. That entire dynamic was on display as Houston Hoops went to the foul line up two with five seconds left.
As the first free throw swished through the net, Bagley’s father, Marvin Jr., walked past halfcourt. The Phamily is his team — he’s listed as the director and head coach, though he doesn’t sit on the bench. Instead, Marvin Jr. sits in the stands, where he yells out substitutions and videotapes everything. He’s emotional on the sidelines, kicking the bleachers earlier in this game when a call didn’t go his way. He wanted this first win of the season as badly as anyone.
While the Houston Hoops player released his second free throw, Marvin Jr. let out a noise that sounded like a bird call. He was trying to distract the teenager at the line shooting the free throw. Coach K took notice. You could tell by his cringe.
The shot was good and Phamily lost again. Marvin Bagley III finished with 27 points, 21 rebounds, and four blocks, but his team fell to 0-6. They would be 0-8 by the time they flew back to California at the end of the tournament. Of the 40 teams on the EYBL this season, only four are winless. The Phamily have the unique distinction of doing so while having the best player in the country.
"Being the competitive player I am, I want to win every game I play," Bagley III said. “We have to figure out how to get over this hump. … We’ll get it together but, right now, it’s frustrating, losing games like this."
No one questions Bagley’s talent. He looks like the evolution of the game personified as a big man with unmatched speed, agility, and ball-handing ability. Why, then, has his high school career felt like such a chore for everyone in his orbit?
Bagley’s path to No. 1 has been winding and full of detours. His talent has been the one constant.
Bagley has basketball greatness in his genes. His grandfather on his mother’s side is Joe Caldwell, an infamous character in NBA and ABA lore.
Caldwell was the second overall pick in the 1964 NBA draft after a storied career at Arizona State. He earned the nickname “Pogo Joe” for reportedly having a 50-inch vertical. As a 6’5 wing who played high above the rim, basketball had never seen a talent like him before.
Caldwell averaged 21.1 points per game for the Atlanta Hawks in 1970, his final season in the NBA. The next year, he played for the Carolina Cougars of the ABA before the team eventually turned into the Spirits of St. Louis. That’s where Caldwell’s story begins and ends.
The Spirits alleged that Caldwell — who was the president of the players’ association — influenced star rookie Marvin Barnes to leave the team over a contract dispute. Caldwell never played another game in the NBA or ABA again.
Caldwell believed he was wrongly blacklisted from basketball and still had lawsuits out three decades later. His case was finally dismissed by the Supreme Court in 1996. Three years later, his daughter Tracy gave birth to Marvin III.
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Marvin Bagley III was a star from the moment he started playing for Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Ariz. He averaged 19.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game as a freshman and led the program to its fourth straight state championship.
Five months after that, he was gone.
Bagley’s father accepted an assistant coaching job at Hillcrest Academy, a startup program that would play a national basketball schedule while players attended school at nearby Starshine Academy in Phoenix. Marvin and his younger brother Marcus transferred in. DeAndre Ayton, a top-two recruit in the class of 2017, joined them.
Just a few short months later, the Bagleys were gone again.
The NCAA questioned the courses the players were taking at Starshine Academy and Hillcrest, which was not a part of a state athletic association, couldn’t be nationally ranked. When ESPN pulled a Hillcrest game against Thon Maker and Athlete Institute in Canada from its airwaves in November of 2015, the Bagleys bounced later that month.
The Bagleys packed their bags for California and enrolled in Sierra Canyon High School, the same swanky private school that Kendall and Kylie Jenner and Will Smith’s daughter Willow attended.
When the Bagleys arrived, the California Interscholastic Federation ruled him ineligible for the season because of a rule that bans out-of-state transfers that are “athletically motivated.” Marvin Bagley III had changed schools three times in two states in less than six months and still wasn’t allowed to play basketball as a sophomore.
But when Bagley got back on the court again this past season as a junior, he again reminded everyone of his talent. He was named Gatorade State Player of the Year in California by averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds per game and leading Sierra Canyon to a 27-3 record.
There’s another oddity on Bagley’s road to become the top-rated high school player in America. He is one of very few players of his caliber to not play for USA Basketball.
A chance to play for USA Basketball has become a rite of passage for the best young players in the country. The junior programs at USA Basketball have won eight straight gold medals since coach Don Showalter took over. Recent alums include NBA stars like Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow, and Aaron Gordon, as well as future top draft picks like Markelle Fultz, Jayson Tatum, and Michael Porter Jr.
Bagley was invited to play for USA Basketball, he just never showed up after making the team in October of 2014. SB Nation reached out to USA Basketball and it provided this response.
Marvin Bagley III did attend the 2014 USA Basketball Junior National Team minicamp that was held in October 2014, and subsequently was named to USA Basketball’s 2014-16 USA Junior National Team program. He was invited to the 2015 USA U16 National Team training camp (trials) in the summer of 2015, but did not attend; He was invited to the 2015 USA Basketball Junior National Team minicamp in October 2015, but did not attend; he was invited to the 2016 U17 World Championship Team training camp (trials) in the summer of 2016, but did not attend; He was invited to the 2016 USA Basketball Junior National Team minicamp in October 2016, but again did not attend.
He is under consideration for an invite to this summer’s USA U19 World Championship Team training camp but those invites have not been issued yet.
Marvin Bagley III didn’t need USA Basketball to turn him into a star. It’s just another odd chapter in his high school career that he and his family chose not to play for the program when it’s considered a great honor for so many of the country’s top players.
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Despite his strange path to get to this point, the scouting community is in agreement that Bagley III has as bright of a long-term future as anyone in high school basketball today.
“He has all the tools,” said Jerry Meyer of 247 Sports. “He is that modern day big man with a face-up game, length, and great athleticism on the court. He could probably be good at most any sport. You don’t tell a guy like that just to go down and stand on the block.”
Bagley is currently leading the EYBL in scoring at 26.9 points per game. He’s averaging 14.7 rebounds and 2.9 blocks while shooting 55.7 percent from the field.
Bagley has announced his final six schools: Arizona, Kentucky, UCLA, Kansas, USC, and Duke. Wherever he decides to go, it will be a short stay.
“I’m not saying he’s LeBron James, but he’s like LeBron in that you plug LeBron in wherever you want in the NBA and the guy is going to flourish,” said Corey Evans of Rivals. “With Marvin, you can plug him into a half-court system, a more up-and-down place and he’s still going to put up monstrous numbers.
“He just has it all. Honestly, there’s not much he does not have.”
If there’s a common theme that has run throughout Bagley’s high school career, it’s impatience. He left Corona del Sol because his father wanted him to play a national schedule while also getting himself a job. He bolted from Hillcrest largely because the team didn’t get enough exposure. He’s currently winless on the grassroots circuit in part because he plays for a startup team run by his father rather than a more established program with better talent.
Meanwhile, Bagley’s talent perseveres.
There’s a reason Bagley’s father always carries that video camera. He’s supposedly collecting footage for a documentary about his son’s life. If his journey to this point is any indication, it’s going to be a must-see.