It’s becoming increasingly difficult to compare current NBA players to historical predecessors. Basketball is more positionless than it has ever been and has a greater focus on the perimeter and three-point shot than ever. Moreover, some of the freakishly athletic, young players like Zion Williamson and Jayson Tatum can only be compared to players from recent eras because nobody from the 1970s or 1980s looked or played like them. Therefore, when making comparisons to past eras, it’s better to focus on an attribute or skill or even career arc instead of looking for a perfect copy of today’s player.
With that said, here are 20 historical comparisons to players in their rookie, second or third seasons in the NBA:
The Jazz's Mitchell’s been getting this comparison ever since he exploded onto the scene his rookie season, becoming the go-to guy on a team that made it to the second round of the Western Conference Playoffs. While his progress has flattened off more than Wade’s did in his first three seasons (Wade went from 16.2 ppg., 4.5 apg., 4.0 rpg. his rookie season to 27.2 ppg., 6.7 apg., 5.7 rpg. and a championship his third season), Mitchell has the body, the athleticism and a pretty good feel for the moment in just his third season, averaging 24.2 ppg., 4.2 apg., and 4.4 rpg. If he can improve on his playmaking a bit more, he’ll be the closest thing we’ve seen to D-Wade.
While James Harden would be a perfectly apt comparison to the Mavericks' Doncic, we’re going with Larry Legend because of their similar court vision, playing style and flare for the dramatic. If Bird played in this era, he would have leaned on his elite perimeter skills and shot close to the 9.1 three-pointers Luka shoots per game as opposed to the 1.9 he shot during his career. And the Celtics would have put the ball in Bird’s hands even more (only a 26.5 usage percentage), like the Mavericks do with Doncic (37.0 usage percentage). But Bird played before anyone understood the value of the three-point shot, so we’ll have to settle for the evolutionary Bird…and everyone should be just fine with that because Doncic is a future MVP.
While Zion’s body better resembles the likes of Rodney Rogers or Charles Barkley, his once-in-a-generation blend of power and athleticism better resembles the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and LeBron James. Like O’Neal, who was immediately one of the best centers in the NBA in his rookie year (23.4 ppg., 13.9 rpg., 3.5 bpg.), Zion has taken the NBA by storm in his abbreviated rookie season with New Orleans, averaging 23.6 ppg., 6.8 rpg., and providing countless breathtaking highlights every single night. Every time you watch Williamson, you see him move in ways that don’t seem physically possible for someone his size. Anyone who was old enough to remember early-Shaq should remember that arguably his most impressive attribute was his ballerina feet and how they allowed him to utilize his power better than any big man before him. Zion may be a half a foot shorter than Shaq, but he is probably the closest thing we’ll ever see to Shaq…or maybe it’s the other way around?
This is certainly a lofty comparison for the Celtics' Tatum, but in his past 16 games, he looked every bit the part, playing great defense and averaging 29.0 ppg. and 7.7 rpg. When Durant was a 21-year-old, third-year player, he averaged a league-leading 30.1 ppg. and grabbed 7.6 rpg. for the entire season. So Tatum still has a long way to go, given his full season numbers are 23.6 ppg. and 7.1 rpg. Like Durant, Tatum’s long limbs make him look taller than his listed height of 6-foot-8 (or he may have actually grown during the season), and his effortless scoring is surreal to watch.
The 76ers' Simmons is everything Odom could have been had Odom been born 15 years later. Odom was a lefty with excellent court vision, passing skills and the size to always be a mismatch for defenders. Unfortunately for Odom, because of the era he grew up in, his 6-foot-10 body forced him into more of a small forward/stretch-four role as opposed to a point guard role like Simmons has. Simmons’ ideal role would probably more of a Draymond-type role where he’s a pseudo-point guard but also plays off the ball as a screener. But he’ll probably have to wait until Brett Brown is out of Philly before that happens.
Although Rose is 25 pounds heavier than Memphis' Morant, they both share a rare kind of explosiveness for a point guard. In his rookie season, Morant has put plenty of players on unsuspecting posters much like Rose used to before his knee injuries. His vertical leap is impressive, but it’s the quickness with which he gets off the floor that is plain scary. In his rookie season, Rose had an incredibly impressive playoff series for the Bulls against the Celtics, and it looks like Morant might have the chance to do the same as he’s led Memphis to the eight seed out of nowhere.
If you pop in the tape of Archibald, he looks nothing like the Hawks' Young. The three-point line wasn’t even in existence until the back end of his career. However, this comparison is more about their early-career statistical dominance with points and assists. Tiny Archibald remains the only player to lead the NBA in points and assists per game in a season — in his third season, he averaged 34.0 points and 11.4 assists per game. Young’s stats this season? It is 29.6 points and 9.3 assists per game – good for fourth and second, respectively, in the league. One thing Young may want to note about early-Archibald, however, is that his team, like Young’s, was never good when he was putting up such gaudy stats, as he missed the playoffs in the aforementioned 1972-73 season.
Because of their generational speed with the basketball and route to the NBA through Kentucky, the Kings' Fox will forever be the left-handed version of Wall…and that’s a good thing. Although Wall’s career is at a crossroads due to an Achilles injury, peak Wall was a bad, bad man – averaging 23.1 ppg. and 10.7 apg. back in 2016-17. Fox, who is the same freakishly athletic blur with the basketball, is putting up 20.4 ppg. and 6.8 apg. in only his third season. Like Wall (career 32.4 percent three-point shooter), if Fox can improve his three-point stroke (career 33.5 percent three-point shooter), it’ll open up the potential for him to develop into an All-NBA level point guard and maybe even a fringe-MVP candidate someday.
At 6-foot-9, 255-pounds, Miami's Adebayo doesn’t look a lot like the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Green, but the two play similarly. Both are excellent defenders — they can protect the rim, they can keep the NBA’s best wings at bay with their strength, and, most impressively, they can effectively switch out onto guards hunting for big men switches on pick-and-rolls. Likewise, on offense, both players are surprisingly savvy passers, making them perfect roll-men in today’s pick-and-roll-dominated offenses.
Though not a perfect comparison in terms of playing style — Oklahoma City's SGA is more of a scoring guard whereas young-Livingston was a better playmaker — both of these guys’ gangly frames and savvy games remind me of one another. Obviously, due to a horrific knee injury suffered at age 21, we never got to see what an unleashed Livingston looked like, but it’s not hard to imagine him using his uncommon length and offbeat tempo at point guard to throw off defenders in a similar manner to SGA. The next step in SGA’s progression as a player (he’s already averaging 19.3 ppg. and 6.1 rpg.) would be to channel Livingston’s passing and improve his playmaking (only 3.3 apg.).
This comparison might seem like a bit of a slight toward the Grizzlies' JJJ, as he has the potential to develop into a far better player than Ibaka. However, Jackson plays just how Ibaka plays — they’re both built like athletic, rangy forwards who can provide elite rim-protection and surprisingly effective perimeter shooting. (Both are currently shooting 40 percent from three.) Jackson’s obviously way ahead of Ibaka’s progression at this point in his career, but he’d be smart to study how Ibaka has improved his rebounding through the years, as Jackson is only grabbing 4.7 per game despite being 6-foot-11.
Hear me out on this one. I know that part of what made Sampson so impressive during his incredible college career at Virginia and his NBA career in Houston pre-injuries was his 7-foot-4 height. But this is an apt comparison, as so many NBA teams play small these days, making the Suns' Ayton stand out on the court almost the same way Sampson did back when every team had a traditional 7-foot center. Additionally, Ayton has great hands around the basket, the ability to effortless score and rebound and a nice jump shot like Sampson once had (Ayton’s averaging 19.0 ppg. and 12.0 rpg. this season). If Ayton can continue to improve his shot blocking (1.7 bpg.), he could really become a dominant two-way presence like Sampson.
From a statistical standpoint, Ball’s third season (12.4 pg., 7.0 apg., 6.2 rpg.) is pretty much on par with or even better than Kidd’s third season (10.9 ppg., 9.0 apg., 4.5 rpg.). Stats obviously aren’t everything because Kidd was already an All-Star-level point guard by his second season in the league, and Lonzo isn’t close to that yet. However, Lonzo has shown that, when healthy, he can be an above-average all-around player on both ends of the court. Like Kidd (6-foot-4), Ball is a huge point guard (6-foot-6) with excellent floor vision and feel for the game. To get to Kidd’s level of impact, the Pelican must continue to play high-level defense and knock down three-pointers at a similar rate as he has this season (38.3 percent).
This comparison is mostly about the elite jumping ability shared by these two power forwards. The Reign Man has some of the greatest in-game dunks in NBA history — just ask poor Alton Lister. And while the Hawks' Collins hasn’t dunked on a player so badly that that player shook his hand afterward, don’t sleep on Collins’ ability to do so. While Collins will never be as powerfully explosive as Kemp was compared to his peers, Collins has the skills to be a better all-around offensive player than Kemp ever was, as he’s already averaging 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds.
Unfortunately, the Kings' Bagley hasn’t even played a full season’s worth of games in his NBA career due to various injuries. However, in those 75 games he has played, he’s looked extremely bouncy on offense and is quite possibly the fastest big man end-to-end in basketball. His game isn’t defined yet, but his whole package of raw athleticism and ability to score above the rim reminds me of a modern-day Stoudemire. Like Amar’e, Bagley jumps off the screen at you. While Bagley's team doesn’t have the same type of offense or infrastructure as the Suns had when Stoudemire was young, talent like this normally finds a way in this league. Let’s hope Bagley stays healthy so that we aren’t robbed of years of highly entertaining De’Aaron Fox-Marvin Bagley pick and rolls and fast breaks.
Congratulations, MPJ!! You’re being painted into the tantalizingly talented but maddeningly inconsistent corner in your rookie season. But it’s not your fault just yet. For all we know, when Nuggets coach Mike Malone finally lets you play consistent minutes, you might end up being a superstar. But for now, you’re Rudy Gay. You’ll have short flashes that make you look like a superstar, and then you’ll disappear for a while. At worst, you’ll be the next Jeff Green and alternate between awful and great every couple of games. At best, you’ll be the next Paul George and become a top-10 player. Most likely, however, you’ll be the next Rudy Gay and put up great numbers and flirt with making some All-Star teams but always leave a little more to be desired.
While Harris’ game is a little smoother, the Lakers' Kuzma projects to be an effortless scorer in a secondary role for a contender for his career. Both players are 6-foot-8 forwards who can score from all three levels of the court, and both players can catch fire on any night to swing a game. Unlike Harris, however, Kuzma is playing for a championship-caliber team early in his career and he’s in the position to round out his overall game and evolve into defensive stopper and energetic rebounder. While his scoring numbers have dipped, if he sweats the little things that help teams win championships, he’ll become a more impactful player than Harris has ever been.
Like DeRozan, the Knicks' Barrett was a prodigious high school player with a knack for getting buckets because of his advanced athleticism and size at guard. Like DeRozan, Barrett’s knack for scoring has made him a little too one-dimensional as an NBA player early on. However, like DeRozan (5.6 apg. this year), Barrett has shown signs of having some playmaking ability when you hand him the keys to the offense. And while becoming another DeRozan (a four-time All-Star) would be nice, Barrett will want to separate himself from the DeRozan comparison by addressing a fault that still holds DeRozan back from being an elite player: three-point shooting.
When you think of Crawford, you think of the ultimate heat-check sixth man. He might not always do the small things on defense or distribute the ball as well as his coach may have wanted, but the man was a walking bucket. Even in his final NBA season, Crawford could sub in, put defenders in a blender with playground moves and get scores – hell, he had 51 points on 30 shots in his final NBA game! With a similar mentality, the Bulls' White seems well on his way to becoming this next generation’s version of Crawford. In his last nine games, the rookie White averaged 26.1 points.
Nothing like comparing a sweet-shooting Euro big man to another sweet-shooting Euro big man. Though the Bulls' Markkanen has regressed a little in his third season after averaging nearly 19 points per game last season, he still has all the makings of an ideal floor-spacing big man in the modern NBA — in other words, he has all the makings to develop into Gallinari, who’s averaged 18.9 ppg. and 5.5 rpg. over the past five seasons. To become a more complete player, Markkanen next must learn to get to the line like Gallo (6.1 free throws per game the past five seasons) as he barely attempts three free throws a game.