ASU men's basketball entered the 2020-21 season as the No. 18 team in the Associated Press' preseason poll, boasting the strongest top-end recruiting class in school history headlined by freshmen Josh Christopher and Marcus Bagley.
A pandemic recovery, two seasons and zero NCAA Tournament appearances later, Bagley is one of just five players remaining from that team's roster, an unusual path for a player many believed would play just one year in college before transitioning to the NBA.
Bagley, who played 15 total games in his first two seasons with the Sun Devils after having them cut short due to injury, is now entering his junior year at ASU. He hopes to remind fans and NBA draft scouts alike why they were so excited when he first committed to ASU over two years ago.
Although physical injuries have plagued his time at ASU, Bagley made it clear that his difficulties staying on the court have also taken a mental toll.
"I went through a dark, dark time the last couple of years," Bagley told the media in his first press availability since last season. "Just to see me gradually, inch by inch, get back, I'm just super proud of myself, and I can't wait to see what's in front of me."
When he is available, perhaps no Sun Devil is more important to the team's success than Bagley. On a roster stacked with guards and centers, Bagley has emerged as maybe the team's only true wing. His ability to space the floor by hitting 3-pointers, guard multiple positions and be positionally adaptable may determine this team's ceiling.
His importance on the court for the Sun Devils is compounded by the news that Jamiya Neal, one of the team's only wing-size players, started the season with a lower leg injury.
"I think he's really important," sophomore guard Frankie Collins, who transferred to ASU this summer from Michigan, said about Bagley. "He's kind of like our glue guy. He's a guy who does everything right and leads by example. We'll be perfectly fine if he's on the floor."
Bagley said he played an essential role in recruiting Collins to Tempe.
“When I heard he was coming here on a visit, I was like, 'Yeah, I gotta lock this in,'" Bagley said of Collins. "Many people don't know, but I played on the same third grade AAU team with him, so we go way back. We've been playing with each other for a long time… I feel like we just have that off-the-court relationship, and it just gels into the on-the-court game."
Collins announced his transfer to ASU the day after he visited Tempe.
Bagley's commitment to helping the Sun Devils succeed extends beyond his offseason recruiting tactics. He has been willing to play multiple positions on the floor depending on the team's needs.
Despite considering himself a small forward, Bagley played the majority of his freshman season at ASU as a power forward. He expects even more positional variation this season to give the Sun Devils an advantage on a game-by-game basis.
"It's going to be a lot of mismatches, matchup nightmares for the opponents," Bagley said. “At the next level, I’m going to have to be interchangeable in many different ways. I’m going to have to learn the two, the three, the four, so just having that experience under my belt is definitely going to help me going forward.”
It was not always clear that Tempe would be Bagley’s home this season. After a disappointing 2021-22 campaign where Bagley only played three games, and the Sun Devils fell far short of an NCAA Tournament bid, Bagley submitted his name for consideration in the NBA draft and entered the transfer portal.
After keeping his options open through the summer, Bagley said it was ultimately the support system fostered by Hurley and his staff that gave him no choice but to remain a Sun Devil.
"Something keeps pulling me back [to Tempe]," Bagley said. "I love it here. It's just the coaches and coach (Bobby) Hurley believing in me. I know I'm not going to get that type of belief system anywhere else, so that was a big thing for me, so I love him for it, and I hope Tempe loves me the same way I love it."
To many, Bagley's time as a Sun Devil has been observed through the lens of his future as a pro. Once considered a consensus first-round draft pick, Bagley has fallen off many draft boards due to concerns regarding his health. Bagley says he sees this season as an opportunity to prove himself again.
“It’s a blank start to me. That’s how I want to approach it,” Bagley said. “Just come in every day, put the work in, put the time in, and whatever stems from that, I accept because I know I put the time in.”
Hurley says Bagley's intensity level noticeably increased as the season approached.
"He's been healthy, and he's moving great," Hurley said. "I think the last couple days of practice, he’s kind of turned it up a notch. I think a lot of guys know when the lights are ready to be turned on, and he’s kind of taken his game to a different level the last few days, so that's been positive to see."
Bagley's return to the floor in Monday's season opener against Tarleton St. was rocky at times but showcased his potential to be an impact player for the Sun Devils. Despite his inefficiency (13 points on 4-11 from the field), Bagley made big plays in critical moments: he drained two consecutive 3-pointers to close out the first half and had the game-winning and-1 in the contest's final minute.
Bagley hears the noise from the media about his performance as a Sun Devil thus far, but in some cases, his issue is the absence of noise. He recently posted a picture from inside the Sun Devil locker room on his Instagram that showcases the number of national publications that have, in the eyes of the players, disrespected or ignored them. When asked what it would take to change the narrative, Bagley emphasized the importance of achieving the team’s goals.
“Win as many games as possible… if we do that, everything else will take care of itself.”
Bagley can be seen Thursday night when ASU takes on Northern Arizona at Desert Financial Arena at 7 p.m.
Edited by Walker Smith, David Rodish and Grace Copperthite.