By John Fanta
FOX Sports College Basketball Writer
Coming off the franchise’s best season since Lebron James’ second stint in clevelandwhich concluded in 2018, the Cavaliers entered the NBA Draft with an interesting predicament at No. 14.
Would they take on an unfinished product and develop it, or would they opt to add a piece to help them win now?
The Cavs answered in emphatic fashion with the latter option, selecting a four-year college player, national champion and All-American in Kansas superstar Ochai Agbaji.
The 6-foot-5 wing from Kansas City is a great story, going from a sub-300 ranking on recruiting lists out of high school, to taking an offer from the Jayhawks. Through three years of college, he was on track to be a second-round selection. He then elected to take a final season in Lawrence, developed into a draft lottery-caliber talent and finished on top with a championship.
Cleveland’s rise from the basement of the Eastern Conference to an eighth-place finish this past season was rooted in defense, and Agbaji fits that philosophy well. The reigning Big 12 Player of the Year is an elite athlete, possessing a 6-foot-10 wingspan and 8-foot-8 standing reach. Some rookies can be a liability on that end of the floor at first, but Agbaji built up his strength from him in college and became a better on-ball defender.
Offensively, Agbaji’s catch-and-shoot ability will provide Cleveland with needed help on the wing. He averaged 18.8 points per game while shooting 48% from the field and 41% from 3 last season, and he’ll benefit from the passing of Darius Garland, Caris LeVert & Co.
With Cedi Osman and Isaac Okoro, Cleveland possessed some options on the wing, but now has a player who can more consistently knock down perimeter shots. Agbaji’s progression in that category speaks for itself.
While Agbaji is not really a playmaker and does not have a strong pull-up game, that’s clearly not what the Cavs were looking for when making this pick. Agbaji can get rolling off the catch, and his ability to move off the ball as a cutter is underrated.
More than anything, the Cavs hope that as a national champion who just spent four years under a Hall of Fame coach in Bill Self, Agbaji’s knack for making winning plays will translate immediately.
“I do know that he fits a need right away, and he’s going to compete and he has that winning pedigree that we really like,” said Cavs President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman following the draft. “He can really shoot. He’s got a really quick trigger. You can run him off screens. You talk about a national champion and he brings a skill set that we don’t necessarily have to the table. That skill set is going to be utilized, we hope right away.”
While there’s a draft narrative out there that the four-year college player who may be a finished product isn’t worth a lottery selection, that’s not where the Cavs stand as an organization. Between Garland, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, Kevin Love and a developing core of players, Cleveland’s goal was to find perimeter help for an offense that became a little too predictable as the year went on.
Whether Agbaji can defeat the narrative and in fact evolve will depend on what he can provide inside the 3-point arc. When teams close out on him, he’ll have to prove he can make things happen off the dribble.
Ochai Agbaji drops 29 points on Michigan State
Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji scored 29 points in a game against the Michigan State Spartans last season.
Beyond anything basketball-related, for a Cleveland locker room that produced one of the NBA’s better turnaround stories last season, the organization believes Agbaji will fit right in.
“He just fit the character and the attitude and the work ethic that we’ve been looking for,” added Altman. “This is the first time we’ve drafted a national champion right out of the gate and so he brings a lot of accolades, but I think he brings a humbleness that we appreciate.”
John Fanta is a national college basketball broadcaster and writer for FOX Sports. He covers the sport in a variety of capacities, from calling games on FS1 to serving as lead host on the BIG EAST Digital Network to providing commentary on The Field of 68 Media Network. Follow him on Twitter @John_Fanta.
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