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The NBA is in a perpetual state of evolution, and its superstars are no different.
Today’s hardwood heroes are better conditioned, more versatile and as skilled as ever. But they’re also built from a foundation formed long before their big league arrivals.
Each current star has a historic doppelganger, although not by appearance but rather play style and production. These aren’t exact replicas, since the Association has changed considerably, but they are different chapters from the same book.
With the 2010s down to their final months—can we get some flying cars already?—we caught the nostalgic bug, so we’re looking back to the 1990s for yesteryear’s version of today’s elites.
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Giannis Antetokounmpo is the face of positionless basketball. He has spent at least 6 percent of his career at all five positions and had everything but center as his listed position.
His range of potential comparisons stretches as far as one’s imagination.
His former coach, Jason Kidd, said, “He can be Magic Johnson and KG [Kevin Garnett],” per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Mannix. His recent teammate, Pau Gasol, detailed shreds of Russell Westbrook (downhill pressure), Shaquille O’Neal (speed, skill, physical dominance), Kevin Garnett (intensity and aggressiveness) and Kobe Bryant (focus, approach, competitive fire) in a piece for The Players’ Tribune.
Antetokounmpo is an amalgam of all of the above and more, but Garnett comes closest to sketching the blueprint.
While ’90s NBA coaches more strictly adhered to positional designations, Garnett forced them to think outside of the frontcourt box. In his first season, he saw 52 percent of his playing time at the 5. By his sophomore campaign, he logged 37 percent of his minutes at the 3. In his third go-round, it was 82 percent at the 4.
Garnett could lock down the interior or shut down smaller players on the perimeter. He had handles, a knack for shot-creation seldom seen in someone his size and explosive athleticism, a combination that made him a formidable offensive player on the perimeter even without a three-ball. Antetokounmpo just turned that model into an MVP award.
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Before Stephen Curry could conquer the NBA, he had to revolutionize it.
That means his fingerprints will forever be on the league. It also means appropriate comparisons don’t really exist.
Phil Jackson caused a stir when he linked Curry to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf in 2016, but it wasn’t entirely off-base. In terms of play style only, Abdul-Rauf played a similar game built on handles, pull-up shooting and an emphasis on the deep ball.
But comparing a two-time MVP with a zero-time All-Star feels preposterous. Not to mention, Abdul-Rauf’s lack of accolades makes him ineligible based on our criteria.
Enter Mark Price. While hardly a Curry clone, Price, a four-time All-Star, helped pave the path for a below-the-rim point guard to dominate with outside shooting, expert vision and fearless attacks, as Joe Posnanski detailed for NBC Sports:
“When you look back at Price highlights, you can see some of the early sketches of what Steph Curry would become. Price would slip between defenders. Price would unleash the quickest shot around. Price would make passes to teammates who did not even know they were open. And, of course, Price had a glorious shot.”
Price never climbed as high as Curry or matched his volume, but the shooting efficiency was a mirror image. Price compiled a 47.2/40.2/90.4 slash line over his 12-year career. Through 10 seasons, Curry’s career line sits at 47.7/43.6/90.5.
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Anthony Davis is unfair.
His size-skill combo is absurd, especially when it’s all powered by turbocharged explosiveness. He’s a former guard in a center’s body, and he has maintained his old perimeter talents while wreaking havoc on the interior as a shot-eraser, glass-cleaner and lob-crusher.
Show that paragraph to a hoops addict in the ’90s, though, and they’d swear you were describing David Robinson. The San Antonio Spurs legend blazed an almost identical trail to the top back then, logic-defying growth spurt included.
“Robinson was 5’9″ his junior year of high school, grew to 6’7″ in his senior year, then up to 7’1″ while at the Naval Academy,” ESPN’s Andre Snellings wrote. “Davis was 6’3″ as a junior in high school but hit 6’10” by the time that he graduated. Both players retained much of the quickness and skill of their shorter selves even after they attained their full heights.”
Robinson took a longer route to the pros, spending four seasons at the Naval Academy and another two in the service before his debut. When he finally arrived, he was shot out of a cannon. Over his first seven seasons, he averaged an incredible 25.6 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 blocks and 3.1 assists. Over the past three seasons, Davis has tallied 27.5 points, 11.6 boards, 2.4 rejections and 2.7 dimes.
Both wrecking balls in the open court and too big, quick and strong for anyone to comfortably cover in isolations, each was a walking cheat code.
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Kevin Durant is the first of his kind.
He’s essentially a 7-foot scoring guard, only his game has matured to the point he also fills secondary roles as a playmaker, rebounder and shot-blocker. The history of the Association shows no one quite like him, and those who perhaps come closest—George Gervin, Tracy McGrady—don’t fit this exercise, since neither made an All-Star appearance in the ’90s.
But the final three of Larry Bird’s 12 All-Star selections came in the decade, which is perfect since he’s the better comparison in terms of impact and ability.
“He and KD had a lot of the same skills,” ESPN’s Jalen Rose said on Get Up!. “They both could dribble, pass and shoot. They both could knock it down from three. They both could play from the post. They both did their best to compete defensively.”
Durant has more hops, Bird was the superior distributor, but they reached a similar level of across-the-board dominance.
Each is a member of the vaunted 50/40/90 snipers club. Both are among the four players to post career marks of 24 points, seven rebounds, four assists and 49 percent shooting. Each has at least one MVP trophy from the regular season, the Finals and the All-Star Game.
These are two of the greatest this game has ever seen, and they share more similarities than you might think.
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Ever catch a clip of Joel Embiid clowning a defender in the post or otherwise flashing impossibly fluid footwork for his size and think you stumbled on an old clip of Hakeem Olajuwon?
So has The Dream.
“I can see myself [in him],” Olajuwon said in 2017.
That didn’t happen by accident. As Embiid wrote for The Players’ Tribune in August 2018, he watched a DVD featuring Olajuwon and other legendary NBA bigs “probably … every single day for three years.”
Embiid attacks the hardwood like he’s pining for the lead role in an Olajuwon reboot. It’s all there: the ball fakes, the shoulder shakes, the unnatural agility, the comfort away from the basket, the rim protection. Even the backstories are the same—born in Africa, late starts in basketball, footwork and agility honed on soccer fields.
Olajuwon made his first All-Star Game as a rookie; Embiid was selected the first time his body held up for 40-plus games. Olajuwon’s career-high scoring average was 27.8; Embiid just posted a best-for-now 27.5. Olajuwon made nine All-Defensive teams; Embiid just made his second in three years.
Olajuwon earned 12 All-Star selections, 12 All-NBA honors and a pair of world championships. Embiid has a chance to follow those footsteps and maybe make it even farther.