Finding the Next: 2018-19 College Basketball Stars' NBA Player Comparisons
Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish might make Duke the first school to ever produce the top three picks in the same NBA draft, but who will those freshmen phenoms most resemble in the pros?
It's a delicate balance, this game of player comps. We need to respect the ceilings for these young stars, but we also must respect how hard the pros had to work to get to where they are today. Not everyone can be the next Paul George or Kawhi Leonard, but several of these players likely will be NBA All-Stars before too long.
Just know that when we make these comparisons, it's not what we're expecting these players to be as rookies, but rather what they could become by their third or fourth season in the league.
With one exception, all comparisons are of projected lottery picks to current NBA players—though this will only cover 10 of those projected 14 picks.
Players are listed in alphabetical order by last name.
RJ Barrett, Duke
The Comparison: Tracy McGrady or James Harden
We're coming in hot with a comparison to either a Hall of Famer or the reigning MVP of the league, but that ceiling is why RJ Barrett is a stone-cold lock to be a top-three pick in June.
One thing Barrett, Harden and McGrady all have in common is they've never met a shot they didn't like. And yet, they're so well-coordinated and athletically gifted that even the heat checks and forced attempts feel like they're going to fall.
In terms of physical build, the 6'7", 202-pounder is more like T-Mac—a little taller than a traditional combo guard and a little lanky. But Barrett is left-handed and he doesn't shy away from contact, which are traits he shares with the Beard.
Also like Harden, Barrett can be a ball hog at times, but he is a willing and gifted passer. We'll see what type of roster situation he ultimately lands in, but Barrett could play the 1, 2 or 3 in the NBA.
One area where Barrett will likely be better than both Harden and McGrady is on defense. Not saying he'll be an All-Defensive first-teamer or anything, but he'll at least be competent on that end of the floor. Barrett can and does guard multiple positions, and he doesn't view defense as an opportunity to relax and regain energy for offense.
He's going to be overlooked all season long because of Zion Williamson, but Barrett is the player in this year's class most likely to become the building block for an NBA franchise.
Bol Bol, Oregon
The Comparison: Mohamed Bamba or a taller John Henson
Through Henson's first six years in the NBA, this comparison wouldn't have made any sense. In nearly 8,000 minutes of action, he only attempted 13 three-pointers. But the deep ball has suddenly become a big part of the shot-blocker's game this season, so it might work now.
Bamba is probably the better comp despite this is only his first year in the league, so it's hard to say yet.
Either way, Bol Bol is a big man with three-point range and a wingspan that makes him one of the best shot-blockers in the NCAA. When he's engaged, he should be getting double-doubles in his sleep. And it's probably just a matter of time before he explodes for a jaw-dropping line like 33 points, 19 rebounds and eight blocks in a game.
As was the case with both Henson and Bamba, though, most of the concerns heading into the draft will be due to his rail-thin frame.
Bol is listed at 7'2" and 235 pounds. That's one inch taller than Shaquille O'Neal, but 90 pounds lighter than Diesel's listed playing weight. Or, for a different, more recent comparison, Bol is the same weight as Keita Bates-Diop, but he's seven inches taller.
Whether that makes him an injury risk is up for debate, but get ready for five months of marveling at his length and athleticism, followed by several months of everyone raising red flags about his need to add muscle and mass.
Quentin Grimes, Kansas
The Comparison: Somewhere between D'Angelo Russell and Tyreke Evans
This is a tough one, because there aren't too many streaky-shooting 6'5" combo guards who do a little bit of everything.
Quentin Grimes is a rare breed of true combo guard. We call just about everyone a combo guard nowadays, because most point guards can shoot and most shooting guards can pass. But there aren't many who you could lock in at either position and feel comfortable.
Grimes is an exception to that rule, as already proven in his first two games of this season. Against Michigan State and Vermont, he had a combined 14 assists and 14 three-point attempts (making eight of them).
Trae Young was like that for Oklahoma last year, albeit with a higher volume in both categories. But the 6'5" Grimes has three inches—and about 30 pounds—on Young and is much more of a rebounding presence than the former Sooner. (The boards probably won't show up this season, though, because Kansas has a bunch of solid big men to handle that job.)
Because of that, he'll probably be a more perimeter-oriented version of Evans—the 2010 NBA Rookie of the Year who averaged better than 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game in his first season.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
The Comparison: Aaron Gordon
Rui Hachimura is lightning in a bottle. He has the quick first step of a guard, the body of a forward, the wingspan of a center and more than enough athleticism to spare.
He's a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type of combo forward who has the potential for greatness. The 6'8", 225-pounder is going to dominate this season simply because he's more physically gifted than anyone on the opposing team—especially in the West Coast Conference.
As was the case with Aaron Gordon, the key is going to be harnessing Hachimura's abilities within an offensive system—and hoping that his mid-range jumper and three-point range continue to develop. You know he's going to be a menace on the glass and a force of nature in transition, but time will tell how he fares in the half-court offense and as an on-ball defender.
Hachimura's ceiling is so high, though, that someone in the back half of the lottery is going to happily take him. Hopefully it's a team that doesn't mind if it takes three or four years for him to approach that ceiling, though.
De'Andre Hunter, Virginia
The Comparison: Jayson Tatum
Don't let last year's mediocre per-game numbers (9.2 PPG, 3.5 RPG) fool you. De'Andre Hunter is a baller who played fewer than 20 minutes per game on a snail-paced team. On a per-100 possessions basis, he averaged 21.4 field-goal attempts, 30.5 points, 11.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.3 blocks—all of which are about on par with what Jayson Tatum did during his lone season at Duke.
And both the points and rebounds are way up thus far in his sophomore season.
Both Hunter and Tatum are tenacious defenders, although it doesn't often show up in the form of steals or blocks. But there aren't many 6'7"/6'8" wing-forwards who are better at sliding their feet, staying in front of their man and making opponents work for every bucket.
Tatum is a more explosive driver, but Hunter is no slouch in that department. He can get to the bucket when he wants to, and there's more than enough range on his jumper to keep his defender honest at all times.
Hunter probably isn't ever going to be the foundation of a franchise, but he can play one hell of a second fiddle. Expect him to be the first non-freshman off the board in June, and try not to be surprised when he ends up as one of the top candidates for Rookie of the Year.
Keldon Johnson, Kentucky
The Comparison: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Keldon Johnson plays with a chip on his shoulder. He's a slasher who not only finishes through contact but seems to seek it out. He rebounds well for his size (6'6", 211 lbs). And he gives more than a darn on the defensive end of the floor.
The only real question mark in his repertoire is the range on his jumper.
That all sounds a lot like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, doesn't it?
I do believe Johnson will be a better shooter than RHJ ever was, though that isn't saying much, since Hollis-Jefferson made a total of 40 three-pointers between his two seasons at Arizona and his first three seasons in the NBA.
Johnson has a smooth stroke and looks the part of a playmaking wing. It just doesn't fall with much consistency. If he does eventually develop enough NBA three-point range for the opposition to respect his shot, Johnson could be a slightly smaller version of Kawhi Leonard or a more offensive-minded version of Andre Roberson.
Of all the players on this list, though, Johnson is arguably the one whose stock most depends on what happens this season. We more or less already know what to expect from the other nine guys, but Johnson could either be a top-five pick or barely a first-rounder based on how well he shoots and how well he leads Kentucky for the next four months.
Romeo Langford, Indiana
The Comparison: Eric Gordon
This has to be one of the easiest comparisons ever made between a college phenom and an NBA player.
Physically, Romeo Langford is a little taller than Gordon at 6'6". Stylistically, the latter is a bit more of a distributor than the former. But both guys have almost limitless range on top of the ability to draw contact and score in traffic.
However, it's the geography and the history that will tie these two shooting guards together indefinitely.
Both Gordon and Langford grew up in Indiana, dominated high school basketball in the state and then played college ball for the Hoosiers. And there's a no chance that they won't be forever linked in Indiana lore if Langford can join Gordon as the only Hoosiers since 1997 to average at least 20 points per game in a season.
For the sake of Indiana fans, here's hoping the latter halves of their (presumed) one-year college careers aren't too similar. Indiana started out 17-1 with Gordon running the show in 2007-08, but it lost seven of its final 15 games, including getting blown out in the first round of the NCAA tournament thanks in no small part to a disastrous performance from future No. 7 overall pick (eight points on 15 shots).
Nassir Little, North Carolina
The Comparison: Kawhi Leonard or a bigger Victor Oladipo
Like the aforementioned Keldon Johnson and like Josh Jackson a couple of years ago, Nassir Little is the rare 5-star recruit who is most prized for his commitment to defense. With his combination of footwork and wingspan, Little can guard any position 1 through 4, and he can be an elite defender against opposing wings and forwards.
Unlike Johnson and Jackson, though, Little made a major leap as a shooter before he even got to college. He has been a great dunker and an OK jump shooter for quite some time, but over the past year or so, he developed into a legitimate threat to score at all three levels. He's already averaging 22 points per 40 minutes off the bench at UNC.
Little could average around 20 points per game in the NBA while landing on a few All-Defensive teams, which limits the pool of potential comparisons to about half a dozen.
Leonard is the most obvious candidate, but a bigger Oladipo is a fun comp, now that he has emerged into a beast with the Indiana Pacers. Little probably doesn't pass enough for it to be a perfect match, but the defense, the three-pointers and the leaping ability on dunks are enough to at least have that conversation.
Cam Reddish, Duke
The Comparison: Paul George
Duke's forgotten superstar—is that an oxymoron?—might be the best pro of the bunch.
If he wants to get there.
Cam Reddish is a silky smooth 6'8" athlete with next-level three-point range and the quickness and wingspan to cause problems on defense. In his first 67 minutes of college basketball, he already has 11 triples and eight steals.
In an NBA era when everyone is looking for elite three-and-D wings, Reddish could easily be the No. 1 pick in June.
But while scouts have seen that potential for years, there have always been questions about his motor. In high school and AAU, Reddish would absolutely destroy opponents in one quarter and then vanish in the next. It's a common problem for guys who simply have no equal at that level of competition, but it's something to monitor this year at Duke.
If he wants to come anywhere close to becoming the next Paul George, he has got to drop the disappearing act. If not, perhaps Robert Covington, Trevor Ariza or Otto Porter Jr. would be a more fitting comp, considering those 6'8"/6'9" wings have yet to play in an All-Star Game in their careers.
Zion Williamson, Duke
The Comparison: 95 percent of LeBron James
Saying an 18-year-old kid could be the next LeBron James, Steph Curry or Kevin Durant is the cardinal sin of NBA player comps. Just about anyone else is fair game, but this is when people start to get mad and demand that we pump the brakes.
But if not LeBron, who can we possibly compare Zion Williamson to? And if Golden State Warriors head coach is already comparing the two, who am I to say otherwise?
Physically speaking, the only other basketball player in the past decade that I can think of is Royce White—Iowa State's 6'8", 270-pound point forward during the 2011-12 season who averaged 13.4 points, 9.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game before becoming a first-round draft pick. But while White did have the occasional impressive slam dunk in transition, he was never anything close to the might-break-a-tooth-on-the-rim leaper that Williamson is.
So, rather than saying Williamson is the next LeBron James and having everyone lose his or her mind about it, let's just say there are flashes of James in Williamson's game, and he has more potential than anyone else in this year's draft class.
Both guys were internet sensations long before they finished playing high school basketball. At the age of 17, both James and Williamson were making other 17-year-olds look like helpless toddlers on the court.
We'll never know what kind of havoc James would have wreaked in college, but it seems safe to assume he would have been the singular talking point of the 2003-04 season like Williamson already is for this year—taking the world by storm with his otherworldly athleticism and thunderous dunks.
One thing they don't have in common, though: Skip Bayless already loves Zion Williamson.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.