INDEPENDENCE — When new Cavaliers guard Ochai Agbaji was asked what position he preferred, coach J.B. Bickerstaff quickly interjected.
“Don’t do that,” Bickerstaff said to the questioner.
Bickerstaff need not have worried; Agbaji gave the correct answer.
“Whatever he needs me to play," he said.
That will be one of the biggest questions Bickerstaff will have to sort out after the Cavs used the 14th overall pick Thursday night on the first-team All-America who led Kansas to the 2022 NCAA title.
Even in the NBA’s new world order of positionless basketball, is Agbaji a 2 or a 3?
“I would defer to coach, but I think he’s probably more of a 2,” Cavs President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman said Thursday night. “You know coach is going to use Dean Wade at the 3. So we’ll see.”
Bickerstaff wouldn’t go that far on Friday.
“We don't put boxes on guys and put positional numbers on 'em,” Bickerstaff said as the Cavs introduced Agbaji and 7-foot-1 center Khalifa Diop, their 39th overall pick. “We're going to put him on the floor with a group where he can be successful and it most helps the team.
“It's opportunities for people to earn everything, and that's what we believe in. Nothing is handed to our guys. We expect 'em to go out, compete and earn it all. And no matter what your skill set is, it has to be for the greater good of the team, and us figuring out how we put the best five-man groups on the floor is the only thing that matters to us. We've played small before, we've played big, we've played jumbo. Whatever it may be, it doesn't matter to us.”
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Wade, a 6-9 forward who has shot 36.5% from beyond in the arc during his career, had his fourth-year team option picked up Wednesday. He was the primary backup to 7-foot forward Lauri Markkanen in the Cavs’ three-big man lineup that debuted last year.
It is not Wade that complicates the issue, but more so Collin Sexton, a restricted free agent whom the Cavs hope to bring back when the negotiating period opens at 6 p.m. on June 30. Sexton played only 11 games last season before undergoing season-ending meniscus surgery. His camp is reportedly seeking $20 million a year in a new deal. The Cavs might be more inclined to offer in the $15 to $18 million range. They seem willing to let Sexton test the market and have the right to match any offer Sexton receives.
Altman didn’t back off from his post-season support of Sexton, the eighth overall pick out of Alabama in 2018.
“Collin is obviously super important like we've always talked about, a big part of our culture,” Altman said. “Can't talk too much about that right now as he's a restricted free agent, but you know how we feel about him.”
In contrast to Sexton, Altman said Agbaji’s skill set “is completely different from what we have.”
“You hear coach talk about him as a weapon, how he could strategically use him across the floor, how he fits with our guard play. People also forget that [center/forward] Evan Mobley's an incredible passer and we're going to use him a lot more out of different hubs on the floor … that's going to happen naturally. And just having off-the-ball movement is going to be just different.
“So it's definitely not a duplicate. He has a unique skill set, wonderful character, comes from an incredible basketball program, and a head coach that we have a ton of respect for in Bill Self, and we know how hard he works. And so, he fits that. But he's unique and he's different, and so I can't say it's a duplicate at all.”
After studying Agbaji, Bickerstaff was effusive in his praise of how Agbaji can help the Cavs' offense.
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“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 said. “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.
“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 [point guard] Darius [Garland] took, [center] 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. 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.”
There is also guard Caris LeVert to consider. Acquired just before the trade deadline from the Indiana Pacers, Columbus native LeVert struggled to fit in. A sprained right foot cost him nine games and he played in 19 games (10 starts) for the Cavs, averaging 13.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 29.8 minutes. He was adept at finding mid-range shots, hitting 48.5% of his 2s after he arrived, but made 31.3% of his 3s.
Physically, Agbaji seems best suited for the 2. He stands 6-5 and 215 pounds with a 6-10 wingspan. In four years at Kansas, he shot 37.4% from long range, 40.9% last season, higher than guard Isaac Okoro, the fifth overall pick in 2020 from Auburn, who has made 31.5% from deep in his two-year career, 35% last season. Sexton carries a career average of 20 points per game, connecting on 37.8% beyond the arc, 24.4% last season.
Agbaji would be an upgrade over Sexton on defense, but likely not over Okoro. But Bickerstaff believes Agbaji can help on that end of the court as well.
“You look at the best defenses in the league now, you start with Boston and what they were able to do, Miami and what they're able to do. What they have is a bunch of guys who can keep their man in front of 'em,” Bickerstaff said. “They have a bunch of guys who can individually guard the ball. And the more of those guys that you can put on the floor, obviously, the better your defense is going to be.
“When you have the two-way ability that we feel like we have with our guys, that's when you really start to take huge steps and huge leaps. But again, none of this will happen if you don't get stops. Defense can be taught a million different ways, but it's about the guys who decide to buy into that side of the ball. So you get that buy-in and guys who have proven that they're committed to it? Now you give yourself a chance to be special.”
Bickerstaff said he will start evaluating his crowded guard room in Summer League, which starts in Las Vegas on July 7. The Cavs will hold practices in Cleveland before they depart.
“You've got to get 'em in front of you to figure out exactly how he fits here,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s going to take some time, but we're going to give everybody a fair opportunity at it. At the end of the day, what our team does is compete, so you're going to have to earn your opportunities, and that opportunity is going to be what's best for the whole.
“It's a long season — everybody gets a chance. No matter what it is, no matter where you think you may start, at some point in time you're going to get a chance. And then, it's a matter of what you do with it.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more about the Cavs at www.beaconjournal.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Cleveland Cavaliers won't pigeonhole new guard Ochai Agbaji