Cavaliers win now with Ochai Agbaji pick but keep eye on future
Gone are the days of drafting for the rise in Cleveland. By selecting Ochai Agbaji of Kansas with the 14th pick on Thursday, the Cavs picked a player who a) filled a need, and b) was more of a certainty than a high-ceilinged teenager with a lot of unknowns in his game.
The Cavs should have been a playoff team this season and expect to be one next year. They weren’t sure they had room in their rotation for another young hunk that needed time on and off the floor to develop. The way the board fell also made their decision a bit easier. If someone like Ousmane Dieng had reached 14, the Cavs would have had a decision to make.
But he did not do it. And while Ohio State’s Malaki Branham was always available as one of those high-potential wings, team president Koby Altman picked someone in Agbaji with a more refined game and skill set that meets the immediate needs of the Cavs.
Agbaji is a senior by NBA draft standards. He played four years at Kansas and is only three months younger than Darius Garland. While Agbaji signs his rookie contract this summer, Garland will sign a maximum contract extension.
But Agbaji is also the type of knockdown shooter the Cavs were looking for. He improved at long range every season in college and left Kansas as a career 37% shooter starting at age 3. He made over 40% of his attempts from age 3 as a senior.
Agbaji isn’t much of a perimeter playmaker, but the Cavs loved how active he can be off the ball. A member of the organization compared his ability to sprint on shots to how Kyle Korver fired up the Cavs’ second unit last championship window. No one compares Agbaji to one of the greatest 3-point shooters in the NBA, but those screen actions and off-ball moves have been absent from this offense in recent years. It was a role the franchise once hoped Dylan Windler could fill, but Windler can’t stay healthy.
If Agbaji can become a consistent 3-point catch-and-shoot threat from the longest 3-point line in the NBA, he’ll find minutes in a crowded rotation.
“He’s got a skill that no matter where you are in the NBA, you need it,” Cavs coach JB Bickerstaff said. “He has the ability to get the ball in the basket and it’s not just the ability to stand in one spot and take a shot. It was his ability to move around and catch and shoot off the screens, out of transfers, where he knew how to make himself difficult to keep. At this level, plan makers are a premium.”
I asked Altman after the first round of the draft on Thursday if it looked like a “free” pick. Maybe “bonus” would have been a better term. The Cavs weren’t expected to be back in the lottery after trading their draft pick to Indiana for Caris LeVert. If they were honest, they would have gladly traded it for a first-round playoff. Nonetheless, both LeVert and Agbaji are now in Cleveland. If this season goes as many hope, the pick the Cavs ultimately pass on to Indiana will be somewhere in the 20s.
“Keeping (the pick) actually brought a lot of energy to our scouting department,” Altman said. “It’s definitely different from the last three or four years in terms of what we’re looking for. It was more about who could come and really help us.
The Cavs made four picks in the draft, about two more than I expected. When they acquired the 49th pick hours before the draft, I assumed they had a bigger game in mind. They could have either pooled their three second rounds to move up a few spots out of 14, or tried to spin second-round picks into one of the last first-round spots, like they did in 2019 when Altman spun three seconds. -rounders in the final first-round pick and ultimately Kevin Porter Jr.
Turns out, however, that was never really the idea this time around. They were able to buy the Kings’ 49th pick for less than $2 million in cash and used it on Isaiah Mobley, Evan’s older brother. Isaiah will likely be on a two-way contract with the Cavs next season, while their other second-round players, Khalifa Diop and Luke Travers, will be away.
A member of the organization said the Cavs have a chance to move on at the end of the first round if they want to, but any player selected there comes with a guaranteed contract. The Cavs are very interested in bringing back Ricky Rubio, whose expiring contract was used as paycheck in the LeVert trade. If they did, it would give them 14 guaranteed contracts. They didn’t want to add any more at this point.
Rubio will certainly not be ready for the start of the season as he continues to recover from a second ACL operation, and is unlikely to be available until January. If the Cavs choose to bring him back, they’ll likely have to try and make do with LeVert and/or Collin Sexton sharing point guard duties until Rubio is ready. It’s not ideal, but it illustrates how much this team still values Rubio.
And that, of course, also assumes that Sexton is still in that squad next season. Sexton is a restricted free agent this summer.
It should be noted that the Cavs could also sign a veteran point guard to a league minimum contract, with the understanding that he could be gone when Rubio is ready in January. Navigating deals for Sexton and Rubio this summer will be complicated, especially since the Cavs would ideally like to stay out of the luxury tax for one more year.
Expenses have never been an issue for Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and it won’t be now, but there’s no need to start the clock as a tax-paying team before it is. absolutely necessary. If the Cavs can keep their payroll off the luxury tax this season, they wouldn’t enter “repeat offender” status — when tax penalties become much more punitive — until the summer of 2027 at the earliest. Garland will then be in the last year of the extension he is about to sign this summer and Evan Mobley will likely be in the second year of his extension. Jarrett Allen’s current contract expires the previous summer.
All of that may seem like a long shot, but it’s the kind of thing teams always have to calculate. Time flies in the NBA.
(Photo by Koby Altman (left) and Ochai Agbaji (right): Ken Blaze/USA Today)