Over the past four seasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers have gone
for the long play in the NBA Draft.
Koby Altman hasn’t been afraid to take the proverbial big swing
at the plate since he’s been in charge of the front office,
selecting a one-and-done freshman in each of the four years the
wine and gold possessed a draft pick — Collin Sexton, Darius
Garland (and Kevin Porter Jr.), Isaac Okoro and Evan Mobley. That
was as Cleveland’s general manager.
On Thursday night, in Altman’s first draft as team president
along with recently promoted general manager Mike Gansey, recently
promoted assistant Brandon Weems, Brendon Yu and Co., the
organization shifted its philosophy. With the No. 14 overall slot
in the field, the Cavs got their guy in Kansas senior Ochai Agbaji
to further accelerate their ascension.
“To keep (the pick) actually brought a lot of energy to our
scouting department. ‘Let’s go after it and see who we can bring
in.’ Definitely different than the last three or four years in
terms of what we’re looking for,” Altman said. “This was more about
who can come in and really help us and help this team achieve. A
different process in terms of trying to find the most upside swing
talent versus who can be the best fit. It was certainly a luxury to
have that draft pick this year, and I guess that is a silver lining
of just missing the playoffs…
“...We really like his makeup, and he's solid. He knows he's
gotta defend and make shots to make it in the league, and I think
he brings that right away. Just excellent fit and super
accomplished. You talk about a national champion and brings a skill
set that we don’t necessarily have to the table. We did a lot of
due diligence, we had a lot of guys come in and we liked a lot of
players at this pick. But where we were standing and with him on
the board, we were super excited to bring Ochai in. That skill set
is going to be utilized, we hope, right away.”
Think about the most important phrase: Right away. The
Cavs, who at this point last summer were hoping to nail another
franchise cornerstone piece (and it appears they have successfully
done so with Evan Mobley), feel like they are ready to surround
those pillars with a ready-to-go prospect in Agbaji after coming up
one win short of making the 2022 playoffs.
“It means a lot, coming from Coach J.B. [Bickerstaff] and the
whole staff and obviously what they think about me, and why they
brought me here to this organization means a lot. I’m just ready to
start working and start working for Coach J.B. and the city,”
Agbaji said in his introductory press conference from Cleveland
Clinic Courts on Friday afternoon.
The 22-year-old is set to join a Cavs roster with teammates who
are younger than him, yet have more NBA experience. At the same
time, Agbaji boasts a list of accolades and high-stakes collegiate
encounters, most notably in his final season with the NCAA Champion
Jayhawks this past April.
“I think it’s great for where we are now. We’re trying to win
basketball games,” Altman said. “It’s a part of his makeup and he’s
coming to a team that wants to win. He’s going to bring some unique
ingredients to that. You’re seeing national champions kind of
sprinkled in these Conference Finals most recently. They definitely
bring a chip with them. We hope he brings that to us.”
Bickerstaff is thrilled that Cleveland was able to add Agbaji to
“I thought he could be a weapon. He’s got a skill that no matter
where you are in the NBA, you need it,” Bickerstaff explained. “He
has the ability to put the ball in the basket and it’s not just the
ability to stand in a spot and make a shot. When we watched him
play, it was his ability to move and catch and shoot off of
screens, off of handoffs, where he knew how to make himself
difficult to guard.
“And you know at this level, shot-makers are a premium — not
only as a young player, as a role player, as a star; his
responsibility is to help his teammates. Obviously, with the steps
that Darius [Garland] took, Jarrett [Allen] took, those guys are
going to need help to keep eyes off of them. That was one of the
things we saw was a lot of people just would stare that
pick-and-roll down. Now, when you throw in another weapon that can
create shots like that off the move and makes defenses shift, now
that frees up those guys as well. So he’s a great fit as a
complement to those guys. And then our expectations are for him to
grow into that role as well.”
Hearing that Bickerstaff is prepared to find a spot for him off
the rip excites Agbaji, who is admittedly anxious to get to work
with his new teammates, as Garland and Okoro have already reached
out to the soon-to-be rookie. Coming into a new situation, Agbaji
plans on being a sponge, soaking in all the advice from both the
veterans and the younger talent.
Altman referred to Agbaji as a “late bloomer” who is
“self-made,” no pun intended for who Ochai was coached by in
Lawrence. (Altman repeatedly gave credit to Bill Self for the job
he did in helping further Ochai’s development though.) That
assessment certainly checks out.
In four years with the Jayhawks, it wasn’t until his junior and
senior seasons that Agbaji blossomed into an NBA lottery pick. He
stuck to the script and stayed for every season he was eligible to
grind away at his craft, and in the final go-round, the work
The 6-foot-5, 210-pound upperclassmen averaged 18.8 points, 5.1
rebounds and 1.6 assists on a career-best 59.5% True Shooting
percentage. He cashed in on 40.7% of his triples to boot (and on a
high volume of nearly seven perimeter attempts per contest).
“My mindset going back into my senior year was different than
the past three years. What I've learned in that pre-draft process
(where he tested the waters) was, I had a whole level of my work
ethic that I could take it to a different level and what if I apply
that to my senior season?” Agbaji said. “And that's what I did,
mentally, physically putting more effort into my mind, my body, all
that stuff, and just seeing where the cards play out.
“You learn a lot. You go through ups and downs and in those four
years, I went through a lot of ups and downs. Not everything’s
going to be perfect, you’re going to have off days, but your off
days, you want them to be better than some other people’s off days
in a way. You go through ups and downs and you learn those
experiences. In those four years, that’s what it’s taught me.”
Altman and Bickerstaff believe that, while he’s a plug-and-play
type of player, there should be no his-development-is-over talk
when it comes to the more seasoned Agbaji.
“I mean, you have four years of data. You've seen him get better
each year,” Altman said. “Now, I will say I don't want to put a
ceiling on him because he has at every pass from high school to his
senior year of high school, being under-recruited, goes to Kansas,
they redshirt him his freshman year, they lift the red shirt
because he's doing so well in practice because he can compete and
play. Grows his way to becoming first team All-American, Big 12
Player of the Year, a number of accolades that he grew towards.
“So does he figure out the NBA and have some upside? I think he
does. But I think immediately we know what he's going to be able to
do. He's going to defend, he's gonna compete, and I know JB wants
to run him off a lot of stuff and get him some shots. So certainly
more of a finished product than what we've drafted in the
Self vehemently called such an assumption "a bunch of crap," and
less hostily, Agbaji echoes that sentiment.
“That’s just more motivation to get better,” Agbaji said. “I
think as my progression, my years have gone by, I feel like I’m
only getting better. That last summer, what I learned, applying
that to my career moving forward is even more motivating to
As the league continues its shift into positionless basketball,
there are many wondering how Agbaji figures into a guard room
occupied by Garland, Okoro, Caris LeVert and possibly Sexton (a
restricted free agent), if he is brought back into the
Bickerstaff insists that the Cavs will find a way to put him on
the floor, and that the work will start before training camp in
September as it did last season before a terrific ensuing campaign.
Cleveland’s coaching staff does not like putting players in a box,
as we saw with their jumbo lineups featuring Lauri Markkanen,
Mobley and Allen among other unorthodox combinations.
And while Altman concedes that Agbaji is probably more of a
2-guard, the Kansas star possesses a completely different tool kit
than the rest of the bunch.
“There's a need for that shooting piece. And not just standstill
shooting, but really guys that can sprint off pindowns, and even if
they're not getting the ball, you have to account for their
movement away from the ball,” Altman said. “He does several
different actions that create meaningful offense. We got a little
bogged down last year, a little stagnant at times. And so maybe he
can sort of turn it up and make us harder to guard right away... He
can really shoot. He’s got a really quick trigger. You can run him
“The fact he can play wing, the fact he can guard wing is great.
I don’t know if that went into it so much as the need for shooting.
I don’t want to put him on a pedestal and say, ‘This is the next
great wing that we draft,’ but maybe it is. I do know that he fits
a need right away and he’s going to compete, and he has that
winning pedigree that we really like.”
(In a related note, Altman and the Cavs are hoping to get Sexton
back for his cultural importance, stating that the Agbaji addition
“is not a duplicate.”)
This morning, Agbaji woke up as a Cavalier, and he felt the love
from the city when he landed in Cleveland on Friday morning. Going
into draft night, he was already feeling blessed: a national
champion, waiting to realize his dream of playing in the NBA. Then,
a team came calling and proved they believed in him.
To Agbaji, this is where he is supposed to be.
“From the moment I got here, from my workout — I just felt that
home feeling,” Agbaji said. “Coach JB and Koby and Mike, they gave
me that home feeling the first second I walked in here. So I mean,
that's why I said I felt right at home here. I was here just like a
week-and-a-half ago but it actually really does feel like home, so
I'm glad to be here.”
As we know, this lengthy, rangy Cavs defense creates a lot of
turnovers. Agbaji is a tremendous pick-and-roll defender against
ball-handlers (teams scored just 0.43 points per possession in such
situations, per InStat), and can “shoot the gap” well with his 6-10
wingspan, according to Altman.
But in turn, a terrific transition player in his own right,
Agbaji is poised to throw it down in the open floor as a result of
Is he already thinking of that moment at Rocket Mortgage
FieldHouse? You bet.
“I'm really excited. I'm really excited for the first dunk at
home and for the fans to go crazy,” Agbaji said.
“I'm old, we'll just take the two points,” Bickerstaff said with