In a league that thrives on generating natural (and unnatural) storylines, it would be most fitting for last night’s Sacramento/Chicago match-up to be the first chapter in Marvin Bagley’s real rookie rivalry. Ignore he-who-shan’t-be-named in Dallas; ignore that Bagley and Deandre Ayton played together for a year in high school; and ignore that Jaren Jackson Jr. has already become a two-way monster. If the basketball gods are literately minded, the best long-term rivalry of the rookie class will be between Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr., his old Duke teammate—the last of the classes’ elite bigs to get drafted (maybe), and the one who was most underrated during that process... by many of us, anyways.
While the two worked well on the court together at Duke (on offense, anyways) and shared plenty of hugs and high fives, one aspect of this rivalry comes in the form of their shared stardom at Duke...which, to be fair, wasn’t all that shared. The headline at Duke always focused on Bagley, so much so that Carter’s family had some heated words for Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski; “I was concerned because I felt like we were lied to,” Wendell Carter Sr. told NBC Sports. “Wendell’s gonna be the man’ and then the rug was pulled from under us (when Bagley committed).”
This all makes for the best buddy rivalry since Red and Blue. And yet, despite this awesome pre-built narrative, the two didn’t guard each other last night. The lone time they came in direct contact on a shot attempt was Carter helping on a late missed layup by Bagley. The rest of the time, Carter was playing the 5, Bagley was playing the 4, and they guarded their respective positions.
Carter has started all 28 games for the Bulls, and has averaged 10.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.6 blocks, and 47% shooting. He’s also showcasing the ability to be a high level defender in multiple situations, an aspect of his play that was probably underrated by many (myself very much included) given his time at Duke. Per NBA stats, Carter has the best defensive rating (107.5) and the highest +/- of the Bulls starters (-6.0), which is pretty ok for a rookie on a 6-22 team that has given up the 28th most points on the season so far. Watch how Carter snags two different blocks against the Kings last night, in two very different situations against two completely different players.
And for anyone foolish enough to question Carter’s foot speed pre-draft, a De’Aaron Fox steal/dunk was the highlight of the night. Carter loses a bad pass, but flips himself around and nearly has the speed to catch up with the fastest player in the NBA.
On the other end, Bagley continues to showcase his developing and balanced scoring. He hit an open three off a nice double-screen, hit a face-up jumper in the corner, and made another ridiculous ally-oop lay-up with his stupidly large catch radius. It was the 7th time in his last 9 games where Bagley scored 15 or more points, and he’s proven himself a vital go-to option for a Kings bench that is pretty toothless without his scoring presence. But an interesting (and somewhat concerning) stat: in those 9 games, Bagley has only grabbed more than 6 rebounds (his average) four times. Sure, he had his 20 point/17 board night against the Warriors during that stretch, but this is the cost to playing Bagley at the 4—he’s the team’s best rebounder, and yet he’s not always in position to utilize his most NBA-ready skill.
Neither Bagley or Carter are generating the national attention that Ayton, Jackson, or Luka Dončić have gained, but they’re both having strong rookie seasons and look like foundation pieces for their teams moving forward. Hopefully someday, when Bagley gets moved to the center position (soon, please!), we’ll get the rivalry this duo deserves.