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Rookie Rivals: Marvin Bagley Brings the Heat against the Suns and Deandre Ayton

The Kings and the Suns are in totally different stages of their rebuilds, and that’s providing Marvin Bagley III plenty of opportunities to dominate.

Kimani Okearah

This one mattered to Marvin Bagley III.

The rookie from Duke had a career-high 32 point effort on Sunday against the Phoenix Suns, while also adding in 7 rebounds, an efficient 10 of 15 line from the field, and an also-career high 11 of 13 mark from the free throw line. Bagley plays hard nearly every moment he’s on the floor, but he attacked the Suns defense with extra determination on Sunday, capped off by this beautiful right-handed spin-move against Deandre Ayton. Yes, a right-handed spin-move. Right handed. May the NBA gods tremble as Marvin Bagley unlocks his second-hand.

After missing the first two contests with injuries, Bagley finally got to play against Ayton—his former teammate from Hillcrest Prep in Phoenix—and the Suns, who selected the collegiately-loyal Ayton from the University of Arizona over Bagley, who was born and raised in Tempe. But one would hypothesize that Bagley might feel a little differently about the Suns passing on him now, eight months after the draft, than he did back in early June... back when he said it felt “disrespectful” that Ayton had openly claimed the top draft spot while much of the basketball world nodded in agreement.

As the rookies head out to Charlotte next week for the Rising Stars Game, they do so in two completely different situations. The league may have had relatively similar expectations for these two teams, but Sacramento’s rebuild got hit by a bolt of Fox lightning and a flash of Buddy fire... while Phoenix is stuck in the yearly ping-pong ritual sacrifice to the basketball gods. Bagley’s on a much better team, with a much stronger collection of teammates and an identity for the first time in a decade. Ayton’s rookie season is getting underappreciated—16.5 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2 assists, and a 60.9% true shooting mark—but the Suns don’t have an identity, besides athleticism. They don’t have an offense, or a point guard to get the ball to their match-up breaking center. Through 32 minutes last night, Ayton attempted only 10 shots despite scoring on 8 of them. This opening attempt by Devin Booker summed up the game nicely; off the high pick and roll, Ayton sprung free and had only Nemanja Bjelica to beat, but Booker took the contested two instead.

Bagley’s role with the team has been rightfully discussed—that’s what’s going to happen when you bring your best big man off the bench, regardless of the logic behind the decision—but you can argue he’s getting more opportunities for his time than Ayton is. Ayton’s averaging six more minutes per game, but per 36 minutes, Bagley averages 0.5 more field goal attempts, 2.5 more free throws, and a higher usage rate (22.8%) than Ayton (21.5%). Coming off the bench has also allowed Joerger to immediately get Bagley touches—against Phoenix, Bagley spent a lot of first-half minutes with a Yogi Ferrell/Bogdan Bogdanovic/Alec Burks/Harry Giles lineup that basically begged him to be the focal point on offense and get into a rhythm (he was 3-3 in the quarter, including a three). Meanwhile, Ayton started the game and got two total field goal attempts in the first quarter.

The Suns offense is still in the infancy stage, while Bagley’s game is really benefiting from the transition dominance, spacing, and patience the Kings offense has provided him. Bagley is shooting 24.5% from three and is still attempting 1.7 threes per game since New Years... because the Kings know that Bagley needs to unlock that shot to optimize floor spacing in the long-run. Deandre Ayton has attempted 4 threes ALL YEAR on a team with 11 wins.

The two bigs selected at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft are at the cores of two teams in totally different stages of their rebuilds. As Jerry Reynolds reminded us multiple times against Phoenix, rookies need three or four years of NBA experience before we can really see who they’ll become in this league. But for the first time in more than a decade, you can unequivicably call Sacramento a better developmental situation than most of the other 2018 NBA Draft lottery teams. Marvin Bagley is going to be an offensive force after a few years, and even if he’s currently coming off the bench, Sacramento’s giving him plenty of opportunities with the basketball.