It took four years for Ochai Agbaji to establish himself as a bonafide first-round selection — maybe even a lottery pick — in the NBA Draft.
“It shows everyone has their own path. Everyone has their own race. Sometimes you have to stay patient,” 2022 University of Kansas graduate Agbaji said after a recent workout with the Washington Wizards. “Sometimes it will not be there right away,” the 6-foot-5, 215-pound, 22-year-old guard added.
The former Oak Park High standout, who arrived at KU as the No. 145-ranked player in the recruiting Class of 2018 according to Rivals.com — “I came in undervalued as a recruit; the next thing I knew I was starting,” he said — steadily improved during his first three years in Lawrence and in fact tested the NBA Draft waters after his junior year at KU.
He elected to return to school after learning from NBA officials there were aspects of his game that needed fine tuning before he could be guaranteed a spot in the two-round draft.
“If you stay the course, things will come to fruition, said Agbaji, the Big 12 men’s basketball player of the year, first-team All-American and Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, who is one of 20 players invited to sit in the Green Room of Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York during Thursday’s 2022 NBA Draft. It will start at 7 p.m. Central time and be shown on ABC (first round) and ESPN (both rounds).
Agbaji has worked out for several teams with picks in the 14-team lottery: the Washington Wizards (10th pick), New York Knicks (11), Oklahoma City Thunder (12), Charlotte Hornets (15 and 13) and Cleveland Cavaliers (14). He’s also worked out for the Atlanta Hawks, who pick 16th and Chicago Bulls (18).
“My attitude is I am blessed and honored to be in this position. I think any team or teams that want me in their organization is a blessing. I don’t have any preference at all. I’ll consider it an honor wherever I’m at,” said Agbaji. He’s stated he “grew up watching a lot of Milwaukee Bucks games,” only natural for a person born in Wisconsin.
His family moved Kansas City when he was 6.
Agbaji, who will turn 23 April 20, is considered by scouts somebody who figures to earn minutes in an NBA team’s rotation right away. That’s partly because of improvements he made in his game during his final season of college basketball — one in which he averaged 18.8 points (on 47.5% shooting; 40.7% from three) and 5.1 rebounds per contest.
“It wasn’t anything particular what I needed to work on (in returning for senior year),” he said after a workout with the Charlotte Hornets. “(It was) being more assertive in the game, increasing my presence offensively and defensively, being the aggressor out there. It’s easier going back to school not having a lot to improve on — just everything in your game and not thinking about it too much. That’s the feedback I got.”
He explained the value of playing four seasons at KU in an interview on the March Madness 365 podcast.
“At Kansas it’s really different,” Agbaj said. “We’re playing in front of packed arenas every single night. Whether it’s a lesser opponent or top-ranked opponent we’re always getting a sold out crowd. We always have that pressure on us. You play with that pressure if it’s on the road or if it’s at home, or if it’s in the Final Four. You take all that adrenaline in. When it tips it’s basketball at the end of the day.”
Agbaji has been asked by many reporters and NBA front office types the during the pre-draft evaluation process what type of player he’ll be in the pros,.
Agbaji says he thinks he resembles former TCU standout Desmond Bane, who averaged 18.2 points and 4.4 rebounds a game this past season for the Memphis Grizzlies. It was Bane’s second season in the league. Bane, who like Agbaji is 6-5, averaged 9.2 points and 3.1 boards in 2020-21, his rookie season.
“I’ve watched a lot of Desmond Bane. He’s someone I would say is similar to me as far as game-wise. We are both athletic, strong and can make plays,” Agbaji said after his workout with the Wizards.
“He (Bane) was a four-year guy, who went under the radar and now has his feet planted in Memphis. It’s cool seeing that. He’s one of those guys I saw his transition into the league,” Agbaji added of the 23-year-old former Horned Frog, who was taken with the 30th and final pick of the first round in the 2020 Draft.
“I played against him two years when I was a freshman and sophomore. We are athletic, bigger type wings that can defend and knock down shots.”
Agbaji can pretty much guarantee his contributions as a pro will include “shooting the ball, making athletic plays, plus my defense, my competitiveness overall and my winning spirit.”
He said he’s most comfortable “being a utility guy 1 through 4, switching, guarding 1 through 4 on the defensive end, being a guy that moves well off the ball and compliments other guys.”
KU coach Bill Self told The Star he’s confident Agbaji will be selected in the lottery on Thursday night. Self, like many of the mock draft creators, has heard No. 14 (Cleveland) could be a possible landing spot.
Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com has mentioned Agbaji as a strong candidate to be the Cavs’ first-round pick.
“Is it possible we are all overthinking the 14th pick? Among other things, the Cavs covet a two-way wing who can shoot from the outside. That’s Agbaji,” Fedor wrote this week. “Adept in catch-and-shoot situations, not needing to hijack offensive possessions and powerful and athletic (the fourth-highest vertical leap of anybody at NBA Combine) in transition, Agbaji is a plug-and-play 3-and-D wing — the archetype missing from the roster, the one needed to have success in this era. While he’s a bit smaller than desired to play full-time at the 3, his toughness and 6-foot-10 wingspan could make up for that.”
ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla was asked by the New York Post about Agbaji’s game and potential value to a team.
“He improved as much as any player in college basketball over the past year,” Fraschilla said. “He went from being a good Big 12 player who had no real draft buzz after his junior year to putting himself in position to be a top-10 pick based strictly on how much he improved from the end of his junior year to end of his senior year. He’s an athletic wing who is a great shooter who still has to learn how to get to the basket and score in traffic.”
Franschilla added that Agbaji Is “arguably as good a shooter as there is in this draft, and it’s effortless. He did it so many times this year in clutch, high-pressure situations. That’s where I think he hangs his hat. He is an excellent shooter who isn’t afraid of the moment.”
Agbaji’s former teammate and good friend, Christian Braun, who also figures to be taken in the first round of the draft Thursday, praised his former teammate in a recent interview.
“He is humble, confident in the way he carries himself,” Braun said. “He always plays the right way, never forces things to get numbers. He does everything to give you the best chance (to win), scoring, playing defense. It’s been an honor to play with him..”
Self has told NBA executives they would be smart to consider drafting Agbaji.
“He’s incredibly bright and caring,” Self said. “This is somebody who was not on anybody list of top high school players. He’s worked hard to become one of the top five players in the country. It’s a pretty remarkable story.
“I actually thought last year he was a draft pick after the season, a draft pick who hadn’t figured it all out yet. Now he’s a potential lottery pick who has figured it out. He had a remarkable year and his future is extremely bright,” added Self, who will be in Barclays Center on Thursday supporting both Agbaji and Braun.