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Marvin Bagley III’s winding, complicated journey brings him back to Phoenix

Marvin Bagley III's improbably journey made a stop in Phoenix. (Photo by Jordan Kaye/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – The question lingered in the Al McCoy Media Center for a few moments.

If the Phoenix Suns don’t select Marvin Bagley III first overall in the NBA Draft, would the Arizona native hold a lifelong “chip” against his hometown team?

Finally, Bagley – who had just completed a pre-draft workout for the franchise – answered.

“I would say so,” he said. “I’m a competitive person. You never want to come in last.”

It might seem harsh, that a player would hold a grudge against a team just for drafting someone else.

Not to Bagley.

Like many elite basketball prospects, Bagley embarked on a twisted maze through prep and college basketball four years ago. As reported by USA Today in February, almost half of today’s five-star recruits (Bagley was a consensus five-star when he enrolled in college) transfer high school at some point.

Bagley did it twice. But all along, he expected and was projected to be the No. 1 pick when his time came to enter into the NBA Draft.

It hasn’t played out that way.

With draft night just weeks away, Bagley has been largely left out of the discussion for the No. 1 pick. Though Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said Friday that the team is strongly considering drafting Bagley with its top selection, not one of the 50 mock drafts tracked by Arizona Sports project the athletic 6-foot-11 forward as the first overall pick.

“It’s disrespectful, in a way,” Bagley said. “Just knowing what I do every single day and knowing how hard I go, you never want to be second. You want to be first.”

Bagley dreamed of being a top pick his entire career.

The 19-year-old, who was born in Tempe in 1999, became an immediate star during his freshman season in 2014-15 at Corona del Sol High School. His team won a state championship and he was named the azcentral Arizona Player of the Year.

“Man, that was ninth grade,” Bagley said on Friday, smiling while reminiscing on that early season. “That was my freshman year. A lot has changed since then.”

The first big change came early in his sophomore year. In August 2015, Bagley announced he was transferring to Hillcrest Prep, a basketball-focused prep academy in Phoenix. There, he played alongside Deandre Ayton, another five-star prospect who was a class older than Bagley and had also transferred to Hillcrest, from Balboa City School in San Diego.

The pair of big men “dominated” opponents when playing together, according to Hillcrest recruiting coordinator Nick Weaver.

“It was great having both Deandre and Marvin on the same team,” Weaver told Cronkite News via e-mail this week. “We would beat up on the junior colleges (that Hillcrest played) in preseason games.”

Bagley’s stay at Hillcrest, however, was short-lived.

In November 2015 – just three months after leaving Corona to enroll at the prep academy – his father told azcentral that Bagley (as well as his brother, Marcus) would be leaving Hillcrest because of “the negativity following the program,” which had faced scrutiny in its early years.

When Bagley left Hillcrest, it was he who looked poised to be a future No. 1 NBA pick, not Ayton – who many currently expect to be selected by the Suns on draft night on June 21.

Bagley wound up transferring to Sierra Canyon High School in Southern California – a swanky private school that has been attended by celebrities Kendall and Kylie Jenner as well as the children of actors Kevin Hart and Will Smith – but was forced to sit out the remainder of his sophomore season due to California Interscholastic Federation rules, as reported by ESPN.

Bagley returned to the court his junior year and was dominant again, winning the CIF’s Player of the Year Award. It was also during his junior year that he began contemplating the idea of graduating high school a year early and reclassifying to the 2017 class.

“It was an opportunity that I had ahead of me that not a lot of people are able to do,” Bagley said of reclassifying. “I just wanted to take advantage of it. I sat down and talked with a lot of people, my family mostly, and just got their opinion on what I should do. At the end of the day, I went with my heart and just attacked it.”

He officially announced the move to enroll in college a year early in August 2017 – a decision that presented significant challenges off the court.

Bagley had to complete four online courses (Algebra I, Algebra II, Latin and English) during the summer of 2017 to meet the NCAA’s eligibility requirements. All the while, he was training to make the step up to big-time Division I basketball.

“I sacrificed a lot for that,” he said. “Couldn’t hang out with my friends like I wanted to in the summer. Couldn’t do a lot of stuff because it was work out and do school. That was definitely a tough time but I locked in, got it done. I’m happy I did it.”

At Duke last season, Bagley took the college game by storm. He averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds, was a first-team All-American and was named ACC Player of the Year – credentials usually befitting of a No. 1 pick.

“His body of work speaks for itself,” McDonough said.

It still might not be enough for him to be the first pick. McDonough said he doesn’t know why more people around the league don’t consider Bagley when evaluating who might go first overall.

“He’s certainly worthy,” McDonough said. “I think the only reason I can think of is that this year – it’s a good position for us to be in – it seems like there are multiple guys who are worthy. Some years, to be honest, you don’t have guys who probably deserve it but somebody has to go (number) one. This year, for us, we are looking at four, five, six guys and he’s one of them, for sure.”

Bagley has been trying to ignore the prognosticators.

The idea of playing for the Suns excites him. He remembers their postseason clashes with the Lakers. He drew parallels between his game and those of former Suns stars Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson.

“That would mean the world to me, to come back, to be in my hometown,” he said. “A lot of people have seen my journey and what I had to go through to get to where I’m at now.”

He’s prepared to resent the team if they draft somebody else. He feels his journey deserves the payoff of being selected first. Anything less would be “disrespectful” he reiterated.

“At the end of the day, this is all talk right now,” he said. “Eventually, we’ll have to go on the court and we’ll have to play. That’s where all the talking ends.”

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