Look Ahead: 2018 Newcomer of the Year — Bagley is more than a freshman phenom

Blue Devils rookie is arguably college basketball’s best player already

Duke forward Marvin Bagley III is the top freshman in college basketball and perhaps the best player in the entire country. (Greg M. Cooper / USA TODAY Sports)

Marvin Bagley III will be a distant memory in Durham by the time 2018 ends, but as the year begins he’s still the clear-cut choice to be the Newcomer of the Year.

Bagley’s 2017 has already been special. He enters the new year second in the ACC in scoring to senior Bonzie Colson, by a fraction of a point. He leads in rebounds and is averaging better than 20 points and 10 boards a night.

Despite being a freshman who reclassified to enter college a year early, he’s the best player on one of the favorites to end the season as the nation’s best team.

The 6-foot-11 18-year-old has taken college basketball by storm. Duke has a history of one-and-done superstars in recent years, but Bagley has separated himself from that pack of lottery picks as well. He’s second in the nation with 10 double-doubles, and his seven straight broke a Duke freshman record set by Jabari Parker.

Bagley already has the freshman mark for points in a game, with 34 against Texas, tying J.J. Redick’s mark. As he continues to shred first-year records, he’s started to chalk up program-wide accomplishments, regardless of year, and he’s being mentioned in some impressive company.

Bagley added 15 rebounds in the Texas game, becoming the second Duke player since Mike Krzyzewski took over the program to have a 30-15 game. Christian Laettner was the other.

He did it again the following night, against Florida, to become the first Duke player to do it back-to-back. He posted 15 rebounds for a third straight game, becoming the first Blue Devil to do that since 1973.

Bagley’s 30 dunks this season are more than Duke’s opponents have managed against the Blue Devils (24).

“He’s just unique,” Coach K said early in the season. “You have to let unique happen.”

There’s still a risk of hitting a rookie wall at some point — in his recent “mini slump,” Bagley has scored just 15 and 18 points in the last two outings, and he had just seven rebounds against Evansville, his lowest output since an eye injury limited him to 10 minutes against Michigan State.

Bagley has shown a consistency that’s extremely rare for a freshman, however. Despite averaging more than 13 shots a game, he’s never shot below 50 percent in a contest. For the season, he’s hitting .617 from the field. That’s ninth in the ACC, and none of the eight players ahead of him have taken anywhere near as many shots. He’s also hitting .346 on three-pointers and .628 from the free throw line.

He’s also only been in foul trouble twice — he fouled out of a blowout against Southern and had four fouls in the loss to Boston College. Four other Blue Devils have more fouls than his 24 on the season.

Despite his accurate shooting, Bagley is always prepared for the possibility of missing a shot, thrilling crowds with impressive putbacks on his misses.

“He’s got that quick second jump,” Krzyzewski said. “Quicker than almost anybody.”

Even with all his physical gifts, Bagley has been humble, hardworking and a team-first player, again, something rarely seen in elite freshman players. He’s not overly demonstrative on the court, but his intensity is hard to miss.

“He wants to be really good, and he comes to work every day,” Krzyzewski said. “All of his teammates love him because he’s as hard of a worker as we have.”

As 2018 dawns, the Blue Devils have as good a chance as any team in the nation to cut down the nets in early April, and if they pull it off, Bagley will be the primary reason why. On a team that’s filled with future NBA draft picks, including a top senior in Grayson Allen, that’s a strong statement. However, as Krzyzewski said early in the season, players who were worried that he might be stealing their spot only needed to watch him play once before concluding, “That’s not my spot.”

By the time we’re busy writing 2018 wrap-up stories in December, he’ll likely be well on his way to earning another newcomer of the year honor, as an NBA rookie.

Bagley appears to be the entire package, and as ready for the NBA as any first-year player in recent memory.

“I don’t see that (combination of skills),” Krzyzewski said, “and I’ve been with as many great players as anyone ever.”