Even before their final high school seasons tip off, the 5-star prospects in NCAA basketball's freshman class of 2014 have their eyes on the NBA. More often than not, they can find a pretty good approximation of their own skill sets among the big names getting the big bucks in that league.
Stanley Johnson, one of California’s top high-school hoopsters, has a power forward’s game at the small forward spot. He can only hope the combination eventually lands him a contract as rich as the one physical SF Josh Smith signed with the Detroit Pistons this summer.
Herein, a closer look at Johnson and the rest of ESPN’s 5-star recruits for next fall, along with an NBA counterpart for each.
NBA Comparison: Ty Lawson
No asset has been so important to Ty Lawson’s NBA success as his blinding speed. The Denver PG is a blur in the open floor, a description that also works quite well for new Huntington Prep floor general Josh Perkins.
That powerhouse program will give the versatile Perkins plenty of chances to demonstrate his combination of scoring and defensive acumen.
He doesn’t yet have Lawson’s three-point touch, but he does have (at 6’3”) a four-inch height advantage over the undersized Nugget.
NBA Comparison: Dwyane Wade
No, Ohio State-bound D’Angelo Russell isn’t an all-world talent like Dwyane Wade as a high school senior. When it comes to versatility from the SG spot, though, both are at the top of their respective levels of competition.
As great a scorer as Wade is, he’s even more valuable because he’s a top-notch passer, rebounder and defender in the same package. That kind of balance helps Russell make up for not being as lethal a pure scorer as some 2-guards in this class.
NBA Comparison: Deron Williams
Deron Williams has been so successful as a distributor that he’s shed the combo-guard label that dogs so many college PGs. That’s not to say, however, he isn’t also one of the most dangerous scorers around.
In the same vein, JaQuan Lyle is a classic combo guard as a scorer, but he can also make plenty of impressive passes.
Also like Williams, the Louisville commit is a solid defender who gets a lot of good out of his height (6’4”, compared to 6’3” for the Nets All Star).
NBA Comparison: Thaddeus Young
Ohio State commit Keita Bates-Diop is a combo forward whose point production is only a small part of his overall skills.
He shares those qualities with Philadelphia’s Thaddeus Young, a 6’8” forward who’s played both SF and PF for long stretches in his NBA career.
Like Young, Bates-Diop doesn’t have much of a three-point shot, but he’s still dangerous on the perimeter because of his ball-handling ability. Both players also use their length—the high schooler is 6’7” himself—to good effect as rebounders and defenders.
NBA Comparison: Kyle Korver
At this stage of his development, Kelly Oubre has only one major strength going for him: his deadeye three-point shooting. As Kyle Korver has proven for 10 seasons, that skill alone can become a path to a solid NBA career.
The 6’7” Oubre is a bit more athletic than the slow-footed Korver, giving him the potential to improve significantly as a defender and rebounder. For the moment, however, he’s not much of a factor except from the arc—which may be all he needs.
NBA Comparison: Larry Sanders
Larry Sanders isn’t exactly a big name outside of Milwaukee, but the Bucks center ranked second in the NBA in shot-blocking last season.
That kind of game-changing defense is the same asset that has Goodluck Okonoboh on the radars of power-conference coaches.
The 6’9” Okonoboh has both the leaping ability and the timing to rank among the best block artists in the NCAA as soon as he gets to college. However, also like Sanders, he doesn’t do anything else at nearly so high a level, limiting how much he can contribute.
NBA Comparison: Tony Parker
If you’re going to succeed as a point guard without a top-flight three-point shot, you’re going to have to be awfully good at beating defenders off the dribble.
Tony Parker has made his NBA career out of slicing into the lane for runners or assists, and Jordan McLaughlin may well follow in the All-Star’s footsteps.
The 6’0” McLaughlin thrives on getting to the rim no matter how well the defense packs the paint. And, like Parker, he does plenty of finishing for himself but still hands out his share of assists along the way.
NBA Comparison: Monta Ellis
The first step in being an elite scorer is to take the shot. That philosophy has helped Monta Ellis rank among the NBA’s points leaders since 2007-08, along with handing him a reputation as a ball hog despite strong passing ability.
The same stigma is starting to attach itself to Daniel Hamilton, even though (like Ellis) he can actually make some pretty impressive passes when he’s not firing up three-pointers.
And, also like the new Dallas Maverick, Hamilton does produce bales of points from his high-volume shooting.
NBA Comparison: Ray Allen
Unlike many young shooting guards, Devin Booker doesn’t specialize in soaring to the rim for highlight-reel dunks. As Ray Allen has proven, though, there are plenty of other ways to shine at the 2-guard spot, even at the game’s highest level.
Like the Miami veteran, Booker is at his best in catch-and-shoot situations, even if he’s not the historically great three-point threat Allen is.
Another similarity that’s all to Booker’s credit is that both guards stand out for their basketball IQ and team-first mentality.
NBA Comparison: Paul George
The obvious discrepancy in comparing Justise Winslow to Paul George is that while the latter is one of the NBA’s most prolific three-point shooters, the former is still working to hone a consistent long-range stroke.
That issue aside, though, the two multi-talented wings do have a great deal in common.
Most notably, Winslow is a devastating defender who uses his 6’5” frame and long arms to great effect against multiple positions, as does All-Defensive selection George (6’8”).
Both also contribute plenty even if they're not scoring, especially in terms of rebounding from the wing and passing.
NBA Comparison: Jameer Nelson
He’s neither big nor preternaturally quick, but Jameer Nelson consistently places among the NBA’s assist leaders. He’s stayed in that rarefied company with outstanding toughness and leadership ability, traits that are also going to help Joel Berry succeed.
Berry stands just 6’0”, but he does an outstanding job of absorbing contact in the paint and making plays (whether scoring or passing).
The North Carolina commit is already a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Florida, and he’s as much a winner as Nelson was coming out of St. Joseph’s (albeit without Nelson’s three-point stroke).
NBA Comparison: James Harden
Theo Pinson is a 6’6” swingman who pairs top-drawer athleticism with some highly developed skills for his age.
He can hurt you with his passing and rebounding on top of his considerable scoring punch, much as James Harden has been doing to NBA defenses for years.
Harden’s first season as a starter (in Houston) saw him light up the scoreboard with rebounds, assists and steals in addition to points. At 6’5” and 220 lbs, he’s a good bit more physical than the slender Pinson, but he’s also more turnover-prone.
NBA Comparison: Josh Smith
Regardless of what the Pistons and their enormous contract offer may believe, Josh Smith has never played much like a small forward. The 6’9” former Hawk excels as a rebounder and shot-blocker, but his outside shot is a definite weakness.
Similarly, Stanley Johnson is more physical than many high school centers at 6’6” and 220 lbs, but plays on the perimeter.
Johnson is a sensational rebounder and a very dangerous defender, but at this point, he does most of his scoring by powering his way to the rim, not lofting jumpers.
NBA Comparison: DeMar DeRozan
Rashad Vaughn is big and strong for a shooting guard at his level (6’6”, 200 lbs) and he uses every bit of that advantage in the paint. He’s also a terrific shot, but doesn’t contribute all that much when he’s not putting points on the board.
For better and worse, that assessment also fits Toronto’s high-scoring DeMar DeRozan. The high-flying Raptor is a more impressive dunker than Vaughn, but Vaughn has a significant edge as a three-point shooter.
NBA Comparison: LaMarcus Aldridge
Although LaMarcus Aldridge is a power forward and Myles Turner is decidedly a center, they play very similar games. Both have more length than bulk (7’0”, 225 lbs for the high-schooler) and outstanding shooting touches for their size.
Correspondingly, both are most valuable as scorers (especially in the face-up game), though they’ll contribute on the glass as well. Turner is probably even more potent as a shot-blocker than the Trail Blazer, but he’s not quite as sharp of a ball-handler.
NBA Comparison: David Lee
Getting drafted 30th overall tends to breed humility, but David Lee is the rare two-time All-Star who stayed on draft boards that long.
His level-headedness is just one of the qualities he shares with highly regarded Kevon Looney, a similarly hard-working PF.
Looney does some of his best work on the offensive glass, an area where Lee also excels. Aside from put-backs, mid-range jumpers provide a big chunk of the scoring for both players.
NBA Comparison: J.R. Smith
When the Knicks need points in a hurry, they turn to J.R. Smith. The super-aggressive swingman earned Sixth Man of the Year recognition despite the fact that a little bit of rebounding is just about his only contribution aside from his scoring punch.
North Carolina-bound Justin Jackson has a similar scorer’s mentality and the shooting touch to back it up. He plays more SF than SG at 6’7”, with a corresponding increase in his rebounding effectiveness.
NBA Comparison: Joakim Noah
Syracuse commit Chris McCullough is a bona fide big man at 6’10”, 220 lbs, but don’t tell that to the huffing-and-puffing centers trying to keep up with him in the open floor.
His speed and quickness also make him a shot-blocker to be reckoned with, as they do for NBA All-Defensive selection Joakim Noah.
Like McCullough, the Bulls center makes most of his plays with energy and hustle, plus a healthy dose of length. Unfortunately, McCullough is just as raw (and ineffective) a jump shooter now as the ex-Gator was when he entered the NBA.
NBA Comparison: Ryan Anderson
Only one player in the NBA drained more three-pointers last season than Ryan Anderson did for the Hornets.
That’s not a statement that can normally be made about 6’10” power forwards, but it’s also the path Karl Towns Jr. looks to be racing down.
The 7’1” Towns specializes in knocking down treys at the expense of his more traditional big-man skills.
In that regard, the Kentucky commit also resembles Anderson, who has been singularly unimpressive as a rebounder and shot-blocker given the minutes he plays.
NBA Comparison: Rajon Rondo
For all that 6’5” Emmanuel Mudiay doesn’t look too much like 6’1” Rajon Rondo, both players know how to get physical at the point guard spot.
The ability to body up on opposing ball-handlers (and outmuscle defenders) helps both of them take control of the flow of the game.
Also like Rondo, Mudiay isn’t going to scare anyone as a three-point shooter, though he does have a fine mid-range game. He’ll do more scoring than the Celtics All-Star, but at the cost of a few assists.
NBA Comparison: Brook Lopez
Trey Lyles is a mobile power forward with an outstanding shooting touch. Put a few more inches on his 6’8” body, and he’d look a lot like Brooklyn All-Star Brook Lopez (7’0”).
The agile Lopez is a world-class shot-blocker, and while Lyles has some talent in that department, he’s a long way from the Net’s caliber.
On the flip side, Lopez (despite a devastating face-up game) doesn’t have quite the array of back-to-the-basket moves that keeps Lyles’ scoring totals high.
NBA Comparison: Chris Paul
Chris Paul has more than proven himself as one of the best scoring point guards in the NBA, but he posted just 16.9 points per game last season. That’s not a dropoff in talent; that’s Paul not having to do everything himself on a talent-rich team.
In the same vein, Tyus Jones has an impressive three-point shot and great penetration skills, but he’s happier making a play for a teammate than hoisting his own shot.
Both guards are also outstanding leaders, but Jones is merely a respectable defender rather than the game-changer Paul is.
NBA Comparison: Blake Griffin
Although he’s developing as a jump shooter, there are two reasons Blake Griffin holds the exalted status he does among NBA fans.
The high-flying PF is a highlight waiting to happen every time he rises to hammer down a dunk or to block an opponent’s shot.
Those areas are also the specialties of center Cliff Alexander, whose ability to dunk over a defense compensates for his own iffy jump-shooting touch.
The 6’8”, 240-lbs Alexander doesn’t have nearly the leaping ability Griffin does, but both big men have power to spare.
NBA Comparison: Dwight Howard
There isn’t a more physically dominant center in the NBA than Dwight Howard. The 6’11”, 240-lbs perennial All-Star led the league in rebounding while finishing fifth in blocks—and that was considered a down year.
What Howard is doing to the world’s best, Jahlil Okafor—already 6’10”, 265 lbs—will be doing to high schoolers next season.
He even has a better shooting touch than Howard does, along with much better footwork than the newly minted Rocket had when he jumped from high school to the pros.