Prospects to Pros: Comparing the 2019 NBA Draft Class to NBA Greats

The NBA Draft has become a bigger deal than the NBA Finals. In honor of the 2019 NBA Draft, we compared the top prospects to pros.

2019 NBA Draft Comparisons Lead Image
Complex Original

2019 NBA Draft Comparisons Lead Image

2019 NBA Draft Comparisons Lead Image

The NBA Draft has become a bigger deal than the NBA Finals. Both take place in the same month, but only one can change the fortunes of all 30 franchises. In fact, for many fans, the promise and potential of the incoming crop of players have eclipsed the biggest games of the NBA season. That’s because only a pair of teams can play in the pinnacle series, but every fan gets to dream about what drafting the next big thing will mean for their squad.

Because the NBA Draft has become such a big deal for the fortune of franchises, a lot of time and effort go into scouting the best collegiate and international prospects, age 19 and over (for now). There are the statistical breakdowns, with on-court analysis from a top player’s extensive NCAA work—usually numbering 35 games in between classes and the official end of their season. This boundless sample size against the very best competition in the land tells scouts and analysts all they need to know to predict a player’s future.

There are the draft buzzwords: “NBA body” just means that player’s body is big; “has all the physical tools” refers to an NBA body that moves laterally at a speed that’s incongruent with its size but might not be able to catch a pass. There’s little talk of dribbling, passing skills, or understanding of the game, unless there’s a European scout whispering in an assistant GM’s ear.

These days, there’s always a bit of armchair analysis about whether a guard can get his shot off at the NBA level, or if he has the long-range chops to survive in a make-or-miss league that values the space right behind the 3-point line above all else. It’s been almost 40 years since the advent of the NBA arc, and math has won in a landslide.

But despite all the measurements, times, bench presses, and video breakdowns scouts, executives, and analysts pour over in the weeks leading up to the draft, comparisons to past NBA greats continue to act as surrogates for the statistical minutiae that can give many fans a headache. It’s in that vein we introduce the prospects to pros list for the 2019 NBA Draft.

Superstar Big in A Fullback’s Body:

Zion Williamson Is Charles Barkley
2019 NBA Draft Comparisons Zion Charles

Zion Williamson’s singular body type—6’7” and weighs 285 pounds—seems inconsistent with the type of athleticism that made him a household name a couple years before he ever rocked a Duke jersey. It would also make him the second-heaviest player in the NBA today. However, it was Williamson’s lone season of college ball that turned him from an Instagram hype machine playing at a tiny South Carolina high school to a prospect scouts salivate over. And for good reason.

Zion averaged 22.8 points per game as freshman Blue Devil while sporting a 70.8 percent effective field goal percentage (which takes into account the added value of 3-pointers). He also snatched 8.9 rebounds per game and showed a surprising bit of playmaking ability, which was dazzling for those who never caught him in high school and rolled their eyes when some Gen Z kids oooh’d over a highlight. In terms of his game, he’s no one-trick pony, racking up 1.8 blocks and 2.1 steals per game in his freshman year, including this block of a 3-point attempt that still leaves us agog months later.

Williamson has almost as many Instagram followers (3.3 million, up from just 12K in 2016) as social media mainstay Joel Embiid (3.5 mill). Nike and Adidas will battle to sign the man nicknamed “Zanos” by his Blue Devils teammates, after the Infinity War antagonist. Williamson’s marketing flex was noted when Nike’s stock took a hit after Williamson blew up a pair of swoosh sneakers earlier this year. But it’s Zion’s odd build that earns him this comparison.

Because of Barkley’s largely ineffectual final four years in Houston (during which he had a hilarious feud with Scottie Pippen for Michael Jordan’s affections), and his star turn on TNT’s excellent Inside the NBA, fans often forget he was the Round Mound of Rebound. The Alabama native used to snatch a rebound in traffic and take off for a coast-to-coast slam that was truly electrifying in its day, and can be a shock for those who only know the rotund iteration of Sir Charles from TV.

Chuck stood 6’6” and weighed in at 285 pounds when he came out of Auburn after his junior year. That’s pretty close to Zion’s dimensions. Aside from the ample girth and underrated athleticism the Chuckster brought to the table, both he and Zion have motors that churn heavy and hard. They both explode with a physicality that can overwhelm their opponents. Zion might be able to leap clean over Barkley’s bald dome these days, and he’s got a long way to go before he can match Barkley’s Hall of Fame resume. But there’s more overlap than you might assume. On a scary note for everyone outside the Bayou, Zion’s more apt comparison would be a Barkley-Dominique Wilkens hybrid.

Athletic Wunderkind With Janky Jumper:

Ja Morant is Russell Westbrook
2019 NBA Draft Comparison Ja Russell

There was a brashness to some of the passes Ja Morant threw at Murray State, and it led to a high turnover rate (more than double his freshman-year figure, though his turnover percentage ticked up only slightly because he had a much higher usage rate). However, all those turnovers took a back seat to his vision because the 6’3”, 175-pound point guard led the nation in assists per game. That same brashness has come to define the persona of Russell Westbrook, another player who can fill up a box score.

But it’s Westbrook’s sheer athleticism that really overlaps with Morant the most. Both players can simply run by guys with the ball. And while Russ has long held the “Most Athletic” crown in the preseason GM rankings, his pre-draft measurements pale in comparison to Morant’s 46” vertical. Russ measured about a foot shorter before coming into the league, but both players dunk with a ferocity that’s equal parts bluster and a legit attempt to rip the rim off to then adorn opposing defenders with a new necklace.

Russ seems bigger, only because he came into the league over a decade ago. Like Morant, he was skinny and hadn’t added the NBA muscle that’s made him a nightmare for smaller opposing point guards. While their body types might not match, their tenacity does, and though Morant already has jump-outta-the-gym athleticism, the strength will come when he’s in the weight room full time as a professional.

At this point in his development, Morant is already in galaxy mode as a passer, but can he develop Westbrook’s feathery “Cotton Shot” pull-up from mid range, or switch his muddled mechanics on his set shot, so he can get it off fast enough at the next level? It’ll take more than just crazy hops and vision to match the 2017 NBA MVP.

Unrefined Leftie Scorer:

R.J. Barrett Is Jalen Rose
2019 NBA Draft Comparison RJ Jalen

As they did with Barkley, many NBA fans have forgotten how low-key talented Rose was when he left Michigan after his junior season—one year after fellow Fab Fiver Chris Webber. While Rose never made an All-Star team, he did average better than 20 ppg four times in his 15-year career, and even averaged greater than 20 ppg in the playoffs during Indiana’s surprising run to the NBA Finals in 2000 (where they pushed the dynastic Kobe-Shaq Lakers to six games).

Barrett looked to have more upside than this before his freshman season at Duke, but some explicit holes in his game were exposed, particularly his ability to shoot. He only connected on 31 percent from college’s shorter 3-point line, and, even more disconcerting for his future pro prospects, he hit just 66.5 percent from the charity stripe. Free throw percentage is often a better predictor of a player’s shooting prowess at the next level. But Barrett, like Rose, is a load to guard. He’s big and fast and can change pace at an elite level, something Rose did quite well during his prime years with Indiana.

Under the tutelage of Larry Bird in Indiana, Rose learned to act as a hybrid point-forward, which has become a bit of the norm for today’s wings. Barrett’s an inch shorter than Rose, but he’s thicker and has a lot of experience with the Canadian national team and with Duke as one of the primary ball-handlers and creators. Expect his learning curve to be steeper than Rose’s, since Rose floundered in Denver for a couple of years before Bird smartly turned him into a super sub and then a top-tier secondary ball-handler on those great Pacer teams at the turn of the millennium.

Barrett’s shooting in spot-up situations and off the dribble figures to improve at the NBA level, and the hiccup in his stroke when he’s challenged should eventually smooth out. He could be a high-volume performer for a lottery team next season, but his best bet is to get better with fewer reps to build up his confidence and break those bad habits—forcing it to his left hand, jacking long twos early in the shot clock—that saw him drop slightly on some draft boards after his year at Duke. He needs to find his Larry Bird, or he could become a Rudy Gay, Shareef Abdur-Rahim type that never expands beyond scorer on a bad team.

PG with Unlimited Range:

Darius Garland is Damian Lillard
2019 NBA Draft Comparison Darius Damian

Garland isn’t waving away opposing teams after a series-clinching 30-footer, like Damian Lillard did in April to the Oklahoma City Thunder. However, in the limited amount of time scouts and analysts saw him at Vanderbilt, before he tore his left meniscus after just four games, Garland showed he’s part of the evolutionary point guard, one who might not have the size or the athleticism of a Morant, but who does have the awe-inspiring range from downtown.

Like Dame, Garland already has a tremendous feel for the ebb and flow of the high pick-and-roll, and what to do when the big hedges hard, or drops below the free throw line, or something in between. He’s capable of shooting off the dribble as the big drops on those high screens, or finding the roll man for a lob when the big crowds him at the top of the screen. But he can also knock down a triple in spot-up situations on the weak side. That ability to be efficient in different roles has already seen him shoot to the top of many draft boards, with the Knicks at No. 3 or the Lakers at No. 4 as likely destinations, despite the small sample size at Vanderbilt.

Lillard played four years of college ball, and Garland announced for the draft after just four games, but they both offer up something every team needs in today’s three-obsessed NBA: range. Lillard is the only player outside of Steph Curry who bends defenses away from the rim to such an extreme degree the court opens up for his teammates. Garland has that same type of deadliness from deep.

But Dame has added a lot more than range to his game, and his decision-making, play-making, efficiency at the rim, and leadership are what make him a perennial All-NBA selection in the Western Conference. Can Garland make the same leap? It’s impossible to say, but he’s at least got a head start on Dame. Lillard came into the league after four years at Weber State, and turned 22 years old before making his NBA debut; Garland won’t turn 20 until he’s halfway through his rookie year.  

All-Around Secondary Option:

Jarrett Culver is Khris Middleton
2019 NBA Draft Comparison Culver Middleton

There’s very little the 6’7” Culver can’t do on a basketball court. When a player’s considered an all-around talent, it conjures up images of Kawhi Leonard or Klay Thompson, guys who bring almost as much to the table on defense as they do on offense (offense, of course, being worth more). But the designation for Culver refers to his broad offensive skills, with no one component considered elite.  He’s raw, after rejiggering his set shot after his freshman year to make it more efficient and eliminate a hitch at the top. His first step, his pull-up jumper, and his 3-point shot (particularly off the dribble) are all decent, and while he’s got the body and frame for a multi-positional defender that’s so important in today’s game, his scrawny build still isn’t equipped to stick with the NBA’s quickest wings.

It’s how he develops his shot and handle that could bring him up to the level of Middleton, who earned his first All-Star nomination this last February. Like Culver, Middleton saw a drop-off in his 3-point percentage in college as he progressed with Texas A&M through his senior season. But the Bucks all-star obviously put the work in when basketball became his full-time job. After shooting 31.1 percent from deep in his limited rookie season, Middleton hasn’t dropped lower than 35 percent from beyond for a season. As such, he now serves as the second option on a Bucks team that’s specifically designed to provide shooting around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

That’s Culver’s ceiling, but only if he can continue to improve his shooting and handle. Regardless, he already has a feel for the game you want in an NBA starter, which is about par for the course at this spot in the draft.

3-And-D Wing:

De’Andre Hunter is Luol Deng
2019 NBA Draft Comparison De'Andre Luol

It’s tough to draft for defense in the lottery, but De’Andre Hunter has shown increased accuracy along the arc, so he’s slotted to play the role that predated the superstar ascent of Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Luol Deng. It’s unlikely Hunter comes close to the first trio, but Deng might be doable if he can improve his feel for the game and continue to work on his shot and foot speed.

Hunter shot extremely well in catch-and-shoot scenarios from three, which is what he’ll see in the Association. But his defense might be a bit overblown. He’s not quick enough laterally to be an impact defender like PG-13, Jimmy, or Kawhi. True, he can defend multiple positions, but so can many wings his size these days. But alongside the so-so wing defense remains a steadfastness that can’t be overlooked. He can knock down a 3-pointer, make basic reads, and play to his strengths without overextending himself. And, after winning a title at Virginia, it’s clear he can play in a system and fill his role with aplomb. But don’t ask him to take the ball and get a bucket. He’s not that guy, and might never be that guy. He’s self-aware enough to know that about himself, though.

Similarly, Deng was the can’t-miss freshman sensation out of Duke who was turned into Tom Thibodeau’s defensive workhorse in Chicago. He reached two All-Star games and made an All-Defensive Second Team, but Thibs worked him to death. What made Deng so valuable was the commitment to his role and how ably he filled it with minimal fuss.

Physically, Deng stands 6’8” with a wingspan a little over seven feet. Hunter is a muscular 6’7”, 225 pounds, with a 7’2” wingspan, so the analogy goes beyond their skills. Hunter may never become the second or third option Deng was in his prime, but he might end up being a better shooter, and the type of 3-and-D role player title contenders need.

Volume Scorer in an Efficient Era:

Cam Reddish is Antawn Jamison
2019 NBA Draft Comparison Cam Antawn

The most polarizing player in this month’s draft possesses the physique—6’8” and 218 pounds, with a wingspan over 7’—and skills necessary to be a perennial NBA All-Star and primary scorer. He can handle the rock with fluidity and shoot off the pass or the dribble. He takes long strides, can mix up his pace, and understands how to finish in transition. His length makes him a dangerous defender able to get into passing lanes and strip players trying to post him up.

Despite all this, he was historically terrible getting buckets at the rim in his single season at Duke. His shot-making ability is both one of his upsides and a major disappointment in his single season of NCAA hoops. Analysts and scouts question his decision-making, his ability under pressure, and the physicality he’ll need to bring to the wing position as a defender.

Should he overcome some of those holes in his game, the career averages of 18.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game that sum up 15-year vet Antawn Jamison will be attainable. The former North Carolina star played over 1,000 games in the NBA, and he’s possibly on track for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Now, this says more about the Hall’s prerequisites for inclusion than it does about Jamison, who had a productive career but never really wowed and only appeared in a pair of All-Star Games over his 15-years in the Association.

That same pseudo-relevance might await Reddish, who possesses a body similar to Jamison’s, but in a dramatically different league, one that values what he can do—namely shoot and score—more than it did when Jamison first came in with his former teammate Vince Carter. Neither Jamison nor Reddish is Half Man, Half Amazing, but Reddish has the body and skills to be something special. Now he just needs the mentality.

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