NBA Comparisons for the Top Incoming College Basketball Freshmen in 2014-15
Nothing can turn a college basketball team around faster than adding a big-time freshman. One easy way for fans to learn what their team is getting in its latest recruiting class is to compare the incoming youngsters (prematurely, of course) to the more recognizable stars of the NBA.
Kentucky-bound Karl-Anthony Towns, for example, is a 6’11” center with the three-point touch of a shooting guard. He can only hope to enjoy as much NBA success with that approach as Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavericks’ perennial scoring leader.
Herein, a closer look at the similarities (and differences) between Towns and the Dallas veteran, along with pro doppelgangers for the rest of the top 20 stars from our freshman rankings for 2014-15. Note that these comparisons are based on style rather than projected success—just because Towns plays Nowitzki’s kind of game doesn’t mean he’s also headed for a dozen All-Star appearances.
20. Malik Pope, San Diego State: Trevor Ariza, Washington Wizards
One essential ingredient for success on this year’s Washington Wizards was the ability to keep up with one of the NBA’s fastest transition offenses.
Trevor Ariza translated his foot speed and leaping ability into a healthy supply of fast-break dunks, just as Malik Pope will do at the college level next season.
The 6’8” youngster is also a fine ball-handler from the perimeter, though he’s not as close to Ariza in that regard as he is in athletic ability. He also lacks the three-point range that Ariza has gradually built up over nearly a decade of pro ball.
19. Dwayne Morgan, UNLV: Josh Smith, Detroit Pistons
Dwayne Morgan the athlete is well ahead of Dwayne Morgan the basketball player, especially on offense. The 6’7” Maryland native has terrific mobility and blocks shots with abandon, but his own jumper leaves something to be desired.
The same can be said, to Detroit’s chagrin, of pricey free-agent acquisition Josh Smith, though the ninth-year pro is a far better passer than Morgan is.
Defensively, both players have more quickness than discipline, but Smith has appreciably more muscle to back up his agility.
18. Daniel Hamilton, UConn: Monta Ellis, Dallas Mavericks
Monta Ellis is more of a point guard than Daniel Hamilton is at this stage, but labels aside, both players make their names with scoring. The catch, as Dallas found out firsthand this season, is that neither is all that efficient about it.
Both Ellis and Hamilton take an enormous number of shots, though they do put lots of points on the board in return. The younger guard, though, has the advantage of being a viable long-range threat, something the NBAer has rarely managed with any consistency.
17. Chris McCullough, Syracuse: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
This comparison would’ve worked even better after Anthony Davis’ rookie season, but the Pelicans star’s style hasn’t really changed even as his numbers have shot up.
He’s still a shot-blocker above all else, he’s still perilously skinny for the NBA paint and he still runs the floor extremely well for a 6’10” guy.
Chris McCullough shares all those traits, including the 6’10” length.
His offensive game is about as raw as Davis’ was upon arriving at Kentucky, but like Davis at either level, he’ll get enough dunks to score respectably while piling up bushels of rebounds and rejections.
16. Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall: James Harden, Houston Rockets
When James Harden wasn’t being asked to carry an offense—back when he was still an absurdly talented reserve with the Thunder—he shot .491 from the floor, an amazing percentage for an NBA guard.
The key to that figure was Harden’s ability to attack the rim, using his 6’5” frame and exceptional toughness.
Isaiah Whitehead has the potential to use his own size and strength to similar effect as a Pirate, but like Harden in his current gig with the Rockets, the freshman will have to force a fair number of shots on a team that’s relying on him for points.
Unlike the two-time All-Star, though, Whitehead is merely good rather than great as a three-point shooter.
15. Theo Pinson, North Carolina: Rudy Gay, Sacramento Kings
Swingman Theo Pinson is both a terrific athlete and a fine basketball player, but he doesn’t have any one skill that defines his game. In that respect, he’s in a similar situation to one of the NBA’s least-wanted players, Kings forward Rudy Gay.
Traded by Memphis and Toronto in the space of a calendar year, Gay has gotten stuck with the not-a-winner label (a problem Pinson has yet to encounter) while still filling up box scores on an individual basis.
Both are highlight-reel dunk artists, but the Tar Heels freshman won’t be quite as high-volume a scorer as the Sacramento veteran.
14. Kevon Looney, UCLA: Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
The most remarkable aspect of Kevin Love’s tremendous rebounding ability is that he doesn’t fit the hulking profile of the rest of the NBA’s elite glass cleaners.
Instead, Love relies on hustle, agility and positioning—not raw muscle—to pile up his double-digit rebounding games. The same can be said of Kevon Looney, soon to follow in Love’s footsteps in Westwood.
He doesn’t have the Timberwolf’s jump shot at this stage, but Looney's high-energy game on the glass (and on defense) is going to make him one of the Pac-12’s toughest big men to handle in 2014-15.
13. Rashad Vaughn, UNLV: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
An explosive finisher at 6’6”, Rashad Vaughn is the best pure 2-guard in a class that’s loaded with small forwards. He can put points on the board anywhere from the rim to the three-point arc, and he’s a first-rate athlete in the bargain.
Miami’s Dwyane Wade knows a few things about being overshadowed by small forwards, but that hasn’t stopped him from piling up All-Star appearances.
He’s a far more effective defender than Vaughn, but the youngster has the edge when it comes to long-range shooting.
12. D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
Combo guards don’t often get the chance to star in the NBA these days, but Damian Lillard is an obvious exception.
Portland’s nominal floor general earned his All-Star nod for his scoring much more than his passing, leading his team to 54 wins in the process.
Ohio State-bound D’Angelo Russell looks to be heading to the same sort of role from the opposite direction: He’s a shooting guard whose passing is getting the scouts’ attention.
Russell doesn’t have Lillard’s remarkable speed, but like the Blazers star, he’ll make opponents pay for giving him three-point looks.
11. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
The long-range bomber in a big man’s body used to be a European archetype, but it’s become a fixture on the college scene in recent years.
Towns is the latest standard-bearer, a 6’11” center who earns his accolades by blocking shots and burying treys.
Nowitzki, of course, has been knocking down three-point shots for over a decade at the NBA level, the prime embodiment of that old Euro-ball archetype. He's not the defender that Towns is, but he's a steadier rebounder and scorer.
10. Justise Winslow, Duke: Luol Deng, Cleveland Cavaliers
Twice an All-Star for his impeccable defense, Luol Deng has developed into a respectable three-point shooter as well. He’s a versatile complementary player, but he’ll never be mistaken for Kevin Durant as a scorer.
Justise Winslow, heading to Deng’s alma mater at Duke, is bound for a similar role on the star-studded Blue Devils. The 6’6” freshman is going to be a lockdown defender and a fine passer, but his scoring (and especially his shooting range) still needs some polishing.
9. Justin Jackson, North Carolina: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Although Justin Jackson—with his lean, 6’7” frame—has a lot of ways to contribute to a team, the one the Tar Heels are going to notice is scoring. He’s an imposing jump-shooter with his long arms, and he can also attack the rim when he gets the opportunity.
He’s not a deadeye three-point threat, but that’s one of the few differences between him and Golden State swingman Klay Thompson.
Both are pure scorers in the best sense of that term, and (with their similar builds) both can surprise you on the glass given the right matchup.
8. Stanley Johnson, Arizona: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Earning a starting job for an NBA title contender while scoring just 12.8 points per game is no mean feat. Kawhi Leonard, though, has done just that in San Antonio by playing lockdown defense at the small forward spot and cleaning up on the boards to boot.
Stanley Johnson is poised to shine in both those roles at Arizona, where his bruising 6’6” frame will let him overpower many Pac-12 forwards.
He has yet to develop the three-point shot that Leonard has been cultivating, but he's a more reliable scorer overall even with that deficiency.
7. Kelly Oubre Jr., Kansas: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Kelly Oubre Jr.’s quickness and 6’7” length make him a terrific defender, but that’s not the biggest reason Kansas fans have to be optimistic about their latest elite small forward.
A legitimate No. 1 scoring option, Oubre has a diverse offensive repertoire that includes some eye-catching dunks and a respectable three-point shot.
A similar balance of offense and defense has earned Paul George back-to-back All-Star trips for the Pacers. Also like Oubre, the Indiana standout is on the skinny side, though both can hold their own on D against bigger opposition.
6. Trey Lyles, Kentucky: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
Even when he was in his prime, Tim Duncan’s athletic ability was rarely what got him noticed.
One of the Big Fundamental's great strengths, on the other hand, was an offensive arsenal that has made him one of the most skilled (and productive) interior scorers of his generation.
Trey Lyles, similarly, relies on finesse rather than explosive finishes to put up his daunting point totals. He’s a respectable rebounder, but unlike Duncan, he’s not a premier defender at this point in his development.
5. Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers
Emmanuel Mudiay gets all the power he can out of a 6’5” frame, generating mismatches against virtually every point guard he faces. The high-scoring Texan is a solid mid-range shooter, but he doesn’t do much damage from beyond the arc.
A comparable lack of three-point touch didn’t stop Michael Carter-Williams from grabbing Rookie of the Year honors this season. The Sixers’ floor leader, who stands 6’6” himself, isn’t as potent a scorer as Mudiay, but he’s a far more productive defender.
4. Tyus Jones, Duke: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Kyle Lowry isn’t a game-changing scorer or an unstoppable athlete. He is, however, a first-class passer and—as Raptors fans learned in his first season as the team’s full-time starter—a winner who gets the most out of his teammates.
Tyus Jones plays a similarly low-profile game, but Duke fans are going to be just as pleased by the results he obtains.
The 6’1” Minnesotan is an extraordinary leader for such a young player, and while he’s not as aggressive with his shot as Lowry has become, he’s at least as dangerous as a ball hawk.
3. Cliff Alexander, Kansas: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
From a physical standpoint, Cliff Alexander is going to be the toughest matchup in the Big 12 next season. The 6’9”, 240-pound Chicagoan is immensely strong in the low post, but he’s also a high-flyer who lives off his dunking and shot-blocking skills.
The last time the conference saw this kind of athletic specimen, Blake Griffin was still at Oklahoma. The Clippers star is quicker and a better shot than Alexander, but his game is founded on the same blend of power and leaping ability.
2. Myles Turner, Texas: Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
Myles Turner rocketed up recruiting boards faster than any player in the country in the last year. The sweet-shooting 7-footer has blossomed into a legitimate all-around star, complete with a solid post game and outstanding defense.
Chris Bosh has some experience with sudden notoriety himself after going from Toronto anonymity to the NBA-title spotlight in Miami.
Like Turner, he’s a deadly inside-outside offensive weapon, but unlike the Texan youngster, he’ll never be considered a defensive stopper.
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
At 6’11” and 270 pounds, DeMarcus Cousins is a daunting sight even for other NBA centers. His maturity is still a question mark, but he’s developed into a scoring and rebounding weapon commensurate with his titanic frame.
Jahlil Okafor, for his part, has a great deal more polish to his offensive game than the Kings got when they drafted Cousins.
Both players run the floor strikingly well—especially considering the freshman’s 6’10", 265-pound build—but neither is quite as towering a defensive presence as his coaches would like.
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