Cleveland Cavaliers drafting NBA-ready Ochai Agbaji represents notable philosophical shift

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Two years ago, the upstart Memphis Grizzlies were coming off a play-in tournament appearance, about to enter the fourth year of their post-Grit-N-Grind rebuild.

Holding No. 30 after a trade with the Boston Celtics, the Grizzlies could’ve opted for another high-upside player to join one of the league’s most exciting young cores. That would’ve built on their draft philosophy, choosing raw Jaren Jackson Jr. at No. 4 in 2018 and selecting franchise cornerstone Ja Morant with the second-overall pick one year later. But Memphis pivoted. Ready to take another step forward and needing adults instead of kids, it added NBA-ready sharpshooter Desmond Bane — a four-year college veteran at TCU.

That was the 30th pick as opposed to No. 14. But the Cleveland Cavaliers used a similar line of thinking in the first round Thursday night, picking experienced Kansas sniper Ochai Agbaji over a trio of enthralling teenagers — Malaki Branham, Dalen Terry and AJ Griffin — in hopes that Agbaji will accelerate their timeline.

“We were one game away from the playoffs,” president of basketball operations Koby Altman said Thursday night. “I do think there’s a need for that shooting piece. Not just standstill shooting, but guys that can sprint off pin-downs and even if they’re not getting the ball you have to account for their movement. He does several different actions that create meaningful offense. We got a little bogged down last year, a little stagnant at times. Maybe he can sort of turn it up and make us harder to guard right away.”

There were two paths the Altman-led Cavs could’ve taken Thursday night. No. 14 was a freebie. The team wasn’t supposed to be back in the lottery. It wasn’t supposed to keep the first-rounder. More than four months ago, Cleveland made a trade-deadline deal with the Indiana Pacers, sending injured veteran point guard Ricky Rubio, two second-round picks and the 2022 lottery-protected first for bucket-getter Caris LeVert. At that time, the Cavs were a bonafide playoff team, perched near the top of the Eastern Conference. LeVert was supposed to be the missing piece. But untimely injuries caused a second-half tumble, sending them into the play-in tournament where they lost to Brooklyn and Atlanta and failed to secure a playoff spot despite a 44-win campaign.

Because of that, the Cavs didn’t convey their draft pick to Indiana. It’s once again lottery-protected in 2023.

“The silver lining of us missing the playoffs by that one game,” Altman said when discussing the addition of Agbaji. “Actually brought a lot of energy to our scouting department.”

The Cavs liked many prospects in that range. They grouped them into tiers. But a philosophical question hovered over their final choice.

Was this a pick for the future or now?

Given their roster crunch — with 11 players already under contract for the 2022-23 season — and the circumstances surrounding this first-round pick, the Cavs were well positioned to take a YOLO swing on a developmental kid who is far away from making an NBA impact. They might’ve done that had Oklahoma City not moved up one spot for French tantalizer Ousmane Dieng, snagging him three picks before Cleveland went on the clock. Sources tell multiple Cavs decision-makers preferred Dieng, putting him at the top of that No. 14 tier. The Cavs were one of about six teams that traveled to Miami in early June for a clandestine scouting trip, watching Dieng dazzle during an in-person, 1-on-0 workout, sources say. The supersized wing would’ve gotten heavy consideration at 14.

Even with Dieng gone, the Cavs could’ve stuck with that swing-for-the-fences approach. It’s what drove their choices the previous four years, placing great value on potential while drafting four consecutive one-and-dones — Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Isaac Okoro and Evan Mobley. It seemed like there was a specific player profile, with age being part of that equation.

The Agbaji pick represents a notable philosophical shift. He’s their Bane. The Cavs don’t see themselves as a plucky, early-stage rebuilding team anymore. They are hunting a playoff spot. Ready to win — now.

“Definitely different than the last three or four years in terms of what we’re looking for,” Altman admitted. “This was more about who can come in and really help us, help this team achieve. It was a different process in terms of trying to find the most upside swing talent versus who can be the best fit. Certainly more of a finished product than what we’ve drafted in the past.”

Coming into the offseason, the Cavs prioritized a two-way wing shooter. Draft. Free agency. Trade. They quickly addressed that need. It’s Agbaji.

“Brings a skillset that we don’t necessarily have,” Altman said. “That skillset is going to be utilized, we hope, right away. He can really shoot. He’s got a really quick trigger. You can run him off screens. The shooting piece was important. The fact he can play wing, he can guard wings, is great. I don’t know if that went into it so much as the need for shooting. I don’t want to put him on a pedestal and say, ‘This is the next great wing that we draft.’ But maybe it is. I do know he fits a need right away and he’s going to compete, and he has that winning pedigree that we really like.”

“I hadn’t heard from Cleveland much, but others on our staff had,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “They wanted perimeter shooting and nobody’s going to shoot any better in the draft for the most part than what Och does.”

The 22-year-old Agbaji averaged 18.8 points and 5.1 rebounds this past season. He shot 47.5% from the field and made around 41% of his 3-pointers. His best spots were the corners, drilling 58.3% from the right and 41.2% from the left. He also averaged 1.27 points per catch and shoot jumper, which ranked in the 94th percentile.

The thinking: Garland and others can attack and put pressure on the defense. Then it’s pick-your-poison. Collapse to take away the driving lane or stay connected to Agbaji on the perimeter? That inherent floor spacing and willingness to confidently fire will theoretically help raise Cleveland’s offensive ceiling.

Referred to as a late bloomer, Agbaji barely cracked the consensus top-200 prospects in the high school class of 2018. After eventually signing with the Jayhawks, he was expected to redshirt as a freshman. But a few players left the program and Agbaji impressed in practice, forcing his way into Self’s rotation. Following his junior season, Agbaji put his name in the draft but did not hire an agent. Receiving underwhelming feedback, he withdrew, took the criticism to heart, went back to Kansas for a final year and tried to address those shortcomings.

By the end of his college career, Agbaji had become an All-American, Big 12 Player of the Year, the fourth-leading 3-point shooter in school history, Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and NCAA champion. That pedigree — a unique ability to perform at his best on the biggest stage, in the most pressure-packed moments, with the spotlight shining brightest — helped him separate from Cleveland’s other options at No. 14.

“It’s a part of his makeup and he’s coming to a team that wants to win,” Altman said. “He’s going to bring some unique ingredients to that. You’re seeing National champions kind of sprinkled in these conference finals most recently. They definitely bring a chip with them. We hope he brings that to us.”

While there has been a lot of pre-draft chatter about Agbaji being a finished product, his year-to-year improvement has Altman believing there’s still more to come.

“Does he figure out the NBA and have some upside? I think he does,” Altman said. “I don’t want to put a ceiling on him. But I think immediately we know what he’s going to be able to do. He’s going to defend, he’s going to compete, and I know J.B. wants to run him off a lot of stuff and get him some shots.”

Unsurprisingly Self has a similar view of Agbaji’s next-level growth potential.

“People say Ochai, since he’s 22, that (he’s) closer to the ceiling. That’s a bunch of crap,” Self said. “I think that Ochai, his intangibles have improved so much from a competitiveness, even though he always was, he’s learned that there’s a different gear you have to get to in order to compete at the highest level. When you work as hard as he does in that fifth gear, every single possession, every single drill, every single shot, you’re going to get better. He’s a good shooter, great shooter, he’s going to become exceptional.”

One member of the organization is already calling him the Cavs’ third-best shooter — behind five-time All-Star Kevin Love and Garland. Another member of the organization has already requested Agbaji take at least 10 3s per game at summer league.

But the draw went deeper than just his picturesque jumper. Work ethic. Demeanor. Attitude. Mentality. Fit. Character. All the “controllables” the Cavs have gravitated toward during this rebuild.

“He’s just an incredible human being,” Altman said. “He’s had to work his way, sort of self-made. We did a lot of background on him, and he just fit the character and the attitude and the work ethic that we’ve been looking for. 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.”

“He’s very unselfish, he’s very thoughtful, he’s a ‘we guy’, he’s conscientious, he cares about others,” Self added. “I think from a character standpoint, it’s what you hope your son could grow up and be.”

Initially Altman deferred to coach J.B. Bickerstaff when asked about Agbaji’s natural position. But then Altman admitted he views Agbaji as a 2 rather than a 3, even cracking a joke about how many minutes fill-in starter Dean Wade will be getting at small forward this coming season. While the Cavs have a logjam at shooting guard — Sexton (if he returns in free agency), LeVert (unless he gets moved for a better-fitting piece) and Okoro (entering a critical third year) — Agbaji bring traits those players lack. It will give him a chance to earn rookie minutes. Plus, a 6-foot-10 wingspan, combined with his toughness and physique, could allow him to shift over one spot in certain matchups.

Agbaji isn’t without flaws. He’s got a poor assist rate and can’t create his own shot. He has shown minimal playmaking. The rebound and steal numbers are concerning. What if he doesn’t make shots? Is there any other way for him to add value? Given his overall profile, he could be the prototypical career role player. Is that enough?

The Cavs entered the draft with four picks. Already having a pair of second-rounders — Nos. 39 and 56 — they added the 49th pick from the Kings in exchange for the draft rights to Sasha Vezenkov and $1.75 million in cash. That gave them flexibility and optionality.

Sources say Cleveland made multiple attempts to move back into the late first round. But the asking price was too steep, with most teams wanting a future first-rounder. Unable to find a trade partner that was willing to accept their haul of seconds, the Cavs stayed at No. 39, selecting draft-and-stash center Khalifa Diop. A 7-footer from Senegal, Diop will likely participate in summer league. Then, he’s going back overseas to keep developing in the EuroLeague.

The Cavs considered other players at that spot, including Alabama point guard JD Davidson, NC State guard Bryce McGowens, Ohio State forward E.J. Liddell and Toledo’s Ryan Rollins. But they wanted a developmental center, believe Diop is only a few years away and didn’t think there was a roster spot available for another non-stashed rookie. Even Isaiah Mobley, the No. 49 pick who the Cavs had ranked right around there on the draft board, is expected to sign a two-way deal, spending some time with the team’s G League affiliate. Australian swingman Luke Travers, the No. 56 pick — and fourth member of this draft class — will also remain overseas, sources say.

Agbaji is the headliner. He’s the guy getting off the team plane early Friday morning, greeted by a jacked-up welcoming party. He’s the guy who is supposed to help Cleveland in its playoff pursuit — this year.

After picking top five in each of the past three drafts, the Cavs didn’t feel pressure to find a future All-Star. They weren’t looking for the guy with the most long-term potential. Early in this rebuild, positional fit didn’t factor much into decision-making. It was a best-player-available approach — a choice rooted purely in talent. But with three established building blocks — Garland, Mobley and Jarrett Allen — the priority has changed. It’s about surrounding the triumvirate with the right pieces.

Branham probably wasn’t helping this year. The intel on Griffin from people the Cavs trust and typically rely on wasn’t flattering. Terry isn’t ready to contribute right away. Agbaji is. That’s what they wanted — and needed — at No. 14.

The next piece of the (playoff?) puzzle.

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