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Marvin Bagley vs. Jaren Jackson Jr. is the Rookie Rivalry We Need

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Both of the rookies are showcasing strong growth in the young season.

Kimani Okearah

We’re still in the opening weeks of the NBA season, but the 2018 rookie class is delivering in spades. We got a much-hyped match-up of two really promising youngsters on Wednesday night, and I’m not talking about the nationally-televised Luka Dončić and Trae Young battle (as fun as that Hawks comeback win was). No, it was the Marvin Bagley vs. Jaren Jackson Jr. showdown that really heated up, as the pair went pound-for-pound in the first of a matchup that could define the Memphis/Sacramento contests for the next decade. Bagley finished with 13 points and 7 boards on 4 of 8 shooting in the 97-92 Kings win, while Jackson Jr. had 14 points and 7 boards on 6 of 16 shooting

The top players selected in the 2018 NBA Draft have all had strong starts to their early careers. When you look at the per-36 stats for rookies who have played at least 50 minutes so far this season, the top five picks in the 2018 draft all reach the top of the scoring charts.

Radiant Rookies; Per-36 Numbers

PLAYER TEAM GP PTS FG% 3P% REB AST TOV STL BLK +/-
PLAYER TEAM GP PTS FG% 3P% REB AST TOV STL BLK +/-
Trae Young, ATL ATL 4 23.9 41.8 38.7 3.9 8.3 3.6 0.6 0.6 -5
Marvin Bagley III, SAC SAC 5 20.8 58.3 25 10.2 2 2.9 1.2 1.8 -11.1
Luka Doncic, DAL DAL 4 19.8 42.2 29 6.8 3.9 4.2 1 0.5 -5.5
Deandre Ayton, PHO PHX 4 19.3 62.8 0 12.8 4.4 1.2 0.6 1.2 1.2
Jaren Jackson Jr., MEM MEM 4 19.2 45.7 16.7 8.5 2 1.3 2 1.6 -10.4

Again, we’re less than two weeks into the season, and plenty can and will change for all of these rookies. But as Akis pondered yesterday:

It was obvious in Sacramento last night that both Bagley and Jackson Jr. wanted to make a statement against each other. The pair share a common ferocity in their game, and it’s the only way they know how to play. But another commonality between the rookies; they are both making huge strides in improving in their biggest collegiate weaknesses.

For Bagley, that massive improvement has been on the defensive end. Bagley’s 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes leads the three bigs selected in the top five of the rookie class, and he is 3rd overall (behind Mo Bamba’s 3.7 and Wendell Carter’s 2.2) for rookies who have played 50 minutes so far. This is a massive improvement from his college numbers; Bagley’s block rate has gone from 2.1% at Duke to 3.8% with the Kings. And while Bagley has a ways to go on overall defense awareness (as does the entire Kings roster), it’s been great to see him commit to defending the rim at all costs. It wasn’t a part of his game Duke could rely on last season, and to quote Tim Maxwell, Bagley becoming the Kings best rim protector isn’t an outcome I’d have expected this season.

I should now mention that Bagley didn’t officially have a block last night, but this missed dunk from Jackson Jr. sure looks like one to me. Bagley trailed the play, but had great timing and disrupted the shot on Jackson Jr.’s putback attempt.

For Jackson Jr., that growth spike has emerged on offense, where he’s getting almost double the attempts (11.5 FGA per game, tied for 2nd on the team) that he had while playing at Michigan State (6.6, 5th on the team). And while his efficiency has suffered somewhat in that increased usage—54.3% true shooting percentage, compared to Bagley’s 61.1%—I applaud the Grizzlies giving him the chance and responsibility to help carry the team on offense; he needed to prove he could be a leading option on an NBA squad. His first attempt against Bagley last night was a nice bit of footwork he didn’t have the room (or the coaching trust) to showcase a ton last year.

In my draft profile piece on Jackson Jr. from May, I said his lack of go-to scoring potential was his biggest weakness as a prospect. I thought he had a chance to become a 2nd/3rd option at the NBA level, but he didn’t get that usage in college. It’s quite possible that lack of obvious scoring potential is the reason the Kings didn’t even have him listed on Vlade Divac’s infamous white board. But so far—and again, we’re just five games in—the draft has worked out for all parties involved. Bagley is emerging as a actual low-post defender while providing excellent rebounding and balanced scoring for the Kings, while Jackson Jr. is emerging as a potential top option for the Grizzlies, as long as his efficiencies improve. And considering how hard the two went at each other in their first meeting, we can only hope this rivalry emerges and gives us a highlight duel to look forward to for years to come.