Cavs NBA Draft report: What Kansas standout Ochai Agbaji could bring to Cleveland

The 2022 NBA Draft is less than a month away, and the Cleveland Cavaliers hope to make their mark.

This year, the Cavaliers have three picks: a lottery pick at No. 14 and a pair of second-round picks at Nos. 39 and 56. Cleveland can use those selections to address its roster needs, like adding another wing scorer. One of the names being discussed as a potential option for the Cavs at No. 14 is Kansas’ Ochai Agbaji.

To answer some questions about the Jayhawks guard and understand more about who Agbaji is as a player, The Athletic‘s CJ Moore — who covers Kansas — joined us for a conversation. Check back for a part two of our conversation on Kansas wing Christian Braun next week.

Ochai Agbaji | 6-6 wing | 22 years old

13.5 GPP | 4.4 RPGs | 1.6 AST | 44.8 FG% | 37.3 3PT% | 71.4 FT%

Kelsey Russo: Thanks again for taking the time for this, CJ The Cavs are in an interesting position this offseason with their draft picks, particularly at No. 14, the last spot in the lottery. How would you describe Agbaji to a Cavs fan?

CJ Moore: Agbaji fits as a 3-and-D wing. Until this past season, he was never a guy who could do much off the bounce. He drastically improved in that area, but his biggest strength is still making catch-and-shoot 3s. He gets them off quickly and backing up to the NBA 3-point line shouldn’t be a problem. He’s not likely to be a primary scorer at the NBA level, but he’ll be a guy who can go off every once in a while when he’s hot. When he’s really cooking, he makes 3s as effortlessly as layups.

His handle is strong enough now that he’s much better attacking a closeout. He’s also really good at turning the corner off a pindown when his defender locks and trails.

Agbaji developed a great feeling for reading these screens and knowing when to come off shooting or curl toward the basket. When he decides to turn the corner, not a lot of guys have a burst like he has. He was also one of the best lob threats in the country. If it was anywhere close to the basket, he was going to go get it.

Agbaji will grade out as high as anyone in any draft when it comes to character. Both his parents played college basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and never allowed any entitlement to set in. Everyone in KU’s program loved Agbaji because he cared about all the right things and treated everyone with respect. He will immediately find the veterans on the team that drafts him and picks their brains on how to succeed in that city and in the NBA. He got a head start last offseason spending time with Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, who immediately became a big Agbaji fan.

Russo: You wrote an awesome feature on Agbaji earlier this year (check it out here if you haven’t read it). How do you think Agbaji’s decision to go back to Kansas last year, followed by his 2021-22 season with the Jayhawks, prepared him the most for the NBA and helped him grow both on and off the court? Agabji is on the older side of other draft prospects at 22.

Moore: Agbaji took the feedback from a year ago, mainly that he needed to show he could be a dominant college player and improve his ability to make plays off the bounce, and he put in the work to make himself an All-American and first-round pick. His game is much more well-rounded than it was a year ago. Through the first couple months of the season, I kept finding myself saying, “He never would have done that before,” again and again and again. He’s able to do things now that I never would have imagined he could do before. One example: a behind-the-back dribble in transition to get around a defender. During his freshman season, he was lost when he got run off the 3-point line. The numbers were alarming. On spot-up opportunities that season, he finished 27 plays when he got run off the 3-point line. He was crowded twice and scored only twice on the other 22 tries.

As a senior, Agbaji put the ball on the floor with confidence. He put the work in to get there, and NBA trainer Phil Beckner really helped him grow the mental side of his game. One great example was the NCAA Tournament, when Agbaji was in a shooting slump. He never seemed to let it affect the rest of his game, and he stayed positive. After going 2-of-12 from 3 in the first three games, he made both 3s in the Elite Eight against Miami and then set a Final Four record by nailing 5 of 6 attempts against Villanova. That kind of shooting display was a prime example of how his 3-ball can completely change a game.

Russo: Do you think Agbaji has the ability to continue developing his playmaking and shot creation? If so, what about his time at Kansas makes you believe he can develop those two aspects of his game?

Moore: One mistake talent evaluators used to make is figuring that a guy at 22 was pretty much a finished product. Turns out, guys can still improve in their 20s. Agbaji has always had the athleticism, but he was a late bloomer when he comes to the skill side of the game. He made huge improvements last season, and it’d be silly to assume he’s not going to continue to improve in the areas where he got a lot better a year ago.

This is why Beckner and Lillard loved him so much. He just wants to learn and improve so badly that he’s going to do whatever it takes. Again, I’m not sure he’ll ever be a primary shot creator, but I also wouldn’t be completely shocked if he makes me look foolish there. He does enough now in the shot-creation department to have a counter if someone runs him off the line. His pull-up game is solid, and he’s got a more diverse finishing package from his work with Beckner. He’s not going to be someone to run isolation plays for, but Kansas ran plays for him where he’d get the ball coming off the move — see the pindown above, for instance.

Russo: During the 2021-22 season, the Cavs built their identity around their defense, especially when they used their three-big lineup. Yet they’ve also linked on the defense of Isaac Okoro on the wing or Lamar Stevens. How do you assess Agbaji as a defender?

Moore: This is another area where his confidence grew, and he started to see what a difference he could make because of his athletic gifts. Even when he’s not scoring, his defense could keep him on the floor. One example from the tournament was in the Sweet 16 against Providence when he scored a season-low five points but had a huge impact on the defensive end, finishing with two steals and four blocks.

Agbaji’s mindset offensively was different from his first game as a senior. He seemed to figure out he could be a dominant scorer at the college level, and his team needed that from him. But his defensive confidence seemed to grow throughout the year. He made fewer mistakes and also realized he could change games on that end. He is prone to fall asleep off the ball and get back-cut on occasion, but he’s such a quick-twitch athlete that he can sometimes recover in those moments. He’s also going to put the time in on scouting reports and ask questions. His self-awareness and willingness to admit when he needs help is one reason to bet on Agbaji. His pride is never going to get in the way.

(Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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