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Ochai Agbaji and Brandon Slater Are Proving Why Returning to School Isn't Always a Bad Thing
Ochai Agbaji and Brandon Slater are primed to be a few upperclassmen who can provide value to NBA teams early in their careers.
When it comes to the NBA Draft, upperclassmen are often an afterthought, and their age is viewed as a weakness because they are further along (in most cases) on their developmental curve. While upperclassmen typically don't provide the long-term upside that freshmen do, we've had plenty of examples in recent years of how they can provide an immediate impact while still growing their game. Two players who have taken full advantage of the additional experience in college are Ochai Agbaji and Brandon Slater.
Agbaji has been a personal favorite since his freshman season when he was diving for loose balls, playing chaotically effective defense, and flying in transition. Since then, I've essentially had a first-round grade on him, and if he yet again finds some way not to enter the draft, I can only absorb that as a personal offense.
I admit that I may have been a tad premature with my previous rankings of Agbaji. However, the player he has turned into is proving to be well worth a first-round pick. Even though Agbaji had shown flashes of being this type of player in previous seasons, his time at Kansas has afforded him developmental opportunities he wouldn't have gotten in the NBA.
The most noticeable growth in Agbaji's game over the years has been his comfortability and effectiveness as a ball-handler. Last season, Kansas didn't have reliable point guard options, which led to Agbaji being foisted into a primary initiator role. There were numerous hurdles for Agbaji that come with any learning curve, but Agbaji steadily expanded his skill set. Acting as a primary initiator likely won't be Agbaji's NBA role, but having that experience makes him a more versatile off-ball wing than if he went to the NBA early and was pigeonholed exclusively as an off-ball wing. This season, Agbaji is seeing less time as the primary initiator, but he is maximizing his broadened skillset as a secondary initiator and off-ball scoring threat.
So far this season, Agbaji is scoring 1.222 points per possession (PPP) as the pick-and-roll ball-handler (97th percentile), per Synergy. What has spurred Agbaji's pick-and-roll offense is his improved shooting. He is more comfortable, confident, and effective when shooting off the dribble, which is a significant development in his game. He is currently scoring 0.808 PPP on shots off the dribble (52nd percentile) and 1.212 PPP on all three-point attempts (79th percentile).
Here, Agbaji comes off the side pick-and-roll towards the middle of the floor. The help defender initially pushes him further out, but the defenders miscommunicate and hesitate on their assignments. Agbaji immediately sees the indecision and knocks down the deep pull-up three.
Again, as Agbaji comes off the screen, he reads the drop defender who is below the free-throw line. Agbaji received an excellent screen that created plenty of space, so his only read is the drop defender. Agbaji doesn't hesitate, takes advantage of the space, and isn't affected by the late contest as he knocks down the three.
Agbaji being a legitimate on-ball scoring threat makes his fit in a rotation much easier. What makes it more enticing, though, is his improved passing. Agbaji's assist numbers are down compared to last year, but that is due to a shift back to his more natural role as not the primary initiator. What is encouraging is that Agbaji's turnover rate is also down. He won't be a high-level playmaker in the NBA, but teams can run plays for him and trust him to make the proper decision.
Here, Kansas runs a dribble handoff for Agbaji to get him in motion and downhill. As he turns the corner, Agbaji attracts his teammate's defender. Agbaji sees this and knows that his center will be open on the roll. Agbaji continues his drive to the opposite side of the lane to give his teammate ample amounts of space and then tosses him a lob for the easy dunk.
Agbaji's improved on-ball capabilities are icing on the cake. It's the lone curly fry you find in your order of regular fries. You didn't necessarily expect or need it, but it certainly enhances the experience. While Agbaji's on-ball role in college will be much more significant than in the NBA, he still has plenty to offer as an off-ball wing as he is scoring 1.196 PPP spotting up (85th percentile) and 1.49 PPP in transition (94th percentile). He is a superb athlete in the open court, has excellent body control when attacking the rim, and has consistent mechanics with his jumper off the catch.
While Agbaji has used his additional time in college to solidify his place as a first-round prospect, Brandon Slater has used his to rise from the ashes of obscurity to being a legitimate NBA prospect. Slater was used as a defensive specialist off the bench in his junior season. As a senior, though, Slater is still a defensive stalwart but is proving to be a much more reliable offensive weapon.
The bankable skill with Slater is his defense. He has tremendous instincts and picturesque footwork. At 6'7 220 pounds, Slater also has the size and athleticism to be a multi-positional defender. He can take on the opponent's primary scoring option, switch in the post, and defend across the perimeter. He doesn't have obscene steal and block numbers, but Slater does his work early by consistently shutting down drives and making life difficult for his assignment.
While Slater's defense should garner teams' interest, his improved offense is what should capture their attention. At a glance, Slater's three-point shooting numbers are a bit concerning as 32.6 percent on 3.8 attempts is nothing to write home about. However, removing the 0-9 shooting performance against Syracuse, his three-point percentage jumps to 40.5 percent. I typically don't like doing that type of math because it can be misleading and distorts reality. I point that out, though, to show how one rough night can significantly skew the raw numbers at this point in the season. If we look at the 40.5 percent, it is more in line with his percentage from last season but on nearly quadruple the attempts, which is incredibly encouraging.
Like Agbaji, the most significant improvement in Slater's game has been the meteoric rise in his confidence with the ball. Last season, Slater didn't record a single jumper off the dribble. This season, though, 32.5 percent of Slater's shot attempts have come off the dribble, and he currently ranks in the 71st percentile with 0.926 PPP. This change in Slater's offense is most evident when he runs the pick-and-roll, which he is doing on 20.8 percent of his possessions and is scoring 1.08 PPP (92nd percentile).
To expect Slater to run the pick-and-roll this frequently in the NBA is unwise, but we can instead contort this improved on-ball effectiveness into how it improves him as an off-ball wing. For any player to succeed as an off-ball player, they have to meet a baseline of shooting ability. What separates off-ball scorers is what they can do when defenses run them off the line, and this is where we can see Slater's improved on-ball effectiveness help him at the next level.
Overall, Slater currently ranks in the 69th percentile with 1.036 PPP spotting up. When we continue to break that down, we see that Slater is scoring 1.083 PPP (78th percentile) when taking a dribble jumper after spotting up and 1.25 PPP when he takes it to the rim after spotting up. Slater's ability to now attack close-outs or fire straight off the catch makes him a more versatile, effective, and reliable off-ball scorer that NBA teams will feel more comfortable starting.
Ochai Agbaji and Brandon Slater will go in significantly different places in the draft, but both prospects are the next in line to prove that going back to school isn't always a bad thing. It can provide developmental opportunities that wouldn't be presented in the NBA and expose players to skills that will help them in lesser roles at the next level. I know hating on upperclassmen is the cool thing to do now, but remember that plenty of them will still provide immense value to NBA teams.