Forgotten Names Who Would've Starred in Today's NBA
Timing is an underrated aspect of NBA success.
Interior-only centers once ruled the game of basketball, but now they seem like dinosaurs from a different time. Meanwhile, in the not-so-distant past, things like 'tweeners and jump-shooting teams were used as pejorative terms.
Not all players land in the right time, which forever warps their perception. Imagine, for instance, Jahlil Okafor surfaced two decades back. With his size and post skills, he might be writing his own paychecks and not surviving off partially guaranteed, minimum pacts.
But we're looking in a different direction and finding players from the past who would've better fit the modern game.
These players—all from the three-point era, since nearly everyone in today's NBA has an outside shot—displayed ahead-of-their-time skill sets and abilities that would've been much better featured in this environment.
In keeping with the theme of forgotten names, we're only considering players who made no more than one All-Star appearance.
Phil Jackson once likened Stephen Curry to a modern-day version of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf. Perhaps that comparison isn't goink the greatest, but on a micro level, Curry and Abdul-Rauf fit the same rough outline of a score-first, pull-up shooting point guard.
Abdul-Rauf, born Chris Jackson, could put on dazzling scoring displays. Over two seasons at LSU, he averaged 29.0 points and 2.7 triples. For context, Curry's three-year averages at Davidson were 25.3 and 4.0, respectively.
Abdul-Rauf proved nearly just as potent at the NBA level. The third overall pick in 1990, he averaged 19.2 points, 4.2 assists and 0.9 threes in 33.5 minutes by his third season. He once dropped 51 points on the Jerry Sloan-led Utah Jazz, and he helped deliver one of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls' 10 losses with team highs of 32 points, nine assists and four threes.
But his career only spanned nine seasons, due in no small part to the backlash he received for protesting during the national anthem.
Inside the lines, though, he had everything to excel in today's game. He could ditch defenders off the bounce, shred nets from anywhere or create shots for his teammates. He's one of only five players to shoot 90-plus percent from the line over 10,000-plus career minutes, and at his peak, he averaged 1.5 triples on 38.7 percent shooting over a three-year stretch.
Admittedly, Robert Horry is hard for NBA fans to forget. If he played for one of your favorite teams, he probably helped it win multiple rings. If he didn't, he might've dashed your favorite clubs' championship hopes with a back-breaking, clutch dagger.
But his career has been boiled down to postseason heroics. He's known for his absurd collection of rings (seven) and big-time buckets (felt like a billion). That's not a bad way to live. Had he arrived in the Association two decades later, though, modern coaches could've made more of the 6'9" forward's do-it-all skill set.
He had a little of everything in his bag. His three-ball was there when he needed it most. He had the wiggle and first step to skate around overzealous closeouts. When he didn't have a shot or an attack lane, he moved the ball to open teammates. In his younger days, he was a ferocious defender on the perimeter and a reliable one around the rim.
He basically checked every box—or at least proved that he could if the stakes were high enough.
"As funny as it seems, it's how it is," Tim Duncan told reporters in 2005. "He doesn't show up, doesn't feel like playing until it's a big game."
Maybe consistency could've come Horry's way if he had been properly featured. Today, he'd be seen as a difference-making big who could play the 3, 4 and 5 spots while impacting the paint, the perimeter and everywhere in between.
The Chicago Bulls saw Toni Kukoc as one of their keys to extending their dynasty. The 29th pick in 1990, he didn't come stateside until 1993, right after Chicago had completed one of its two three-peats in the decade. The Bulls had no reservations about throwing the 25-year-old into the deep end.
"He is a consummate team player and a proven winner at each level he has played since turning professional at 17," then-general manager Jerry Krause raved.
Kukoc oozed modern appeal. He was a 6'10" combo forward who could shoot, pass and drive. That's a unicorn skill set, only no one seemed to know at the time. A 1995 Associated Press article referred to him as "a small forward or shooting guard in a power forward's body," as if that was a bad thing and not a way to evolve the game.
His career never really took flight—"Europe's Magic Johnson" was never an American All-Star—but his ahead-of-their-time skills stood out. He had vision, touch, intelligence, mobility and a sure shooting stroke, all packaged together in an arsenal that yielded career per-36-minute averages of 15.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.1 assists.
Plug him into today's game, and he'd be some amalgamation of Danilo Gallinari, Draymond Green, Kevin Love and Paul Millsap.
Donyell Marshall helped usher in the NBA's modern era.
The fourth overall pick in 1994, he flashed enough comfort away from the basket for teams to try him first as a jumbo-sized perimeter player. Despite standing 6'9" and weighing 218 pounds—nearly identical dimensions to Aaron Gordon, Kyle Kuzma and Kevon Looney—Marshall predominantly played small forward during the first half of his career and even dabbled at shooting guard.
But by his final three years, the sweet-shooting big man was deployed solely at the 4 and 5 spots. This was also the period in which his three-point rate skyrocketed—54-plus percent in each of his final five seasons—highlighting how positional thinking had changed by the end of his career.
While not quite great in either area, he offered an interesting mix of shooting and shot-blocking. He's one of only eight players to ever average at least 1.5 blocks and 1.5 triples while logging 2,000-plus minutes. His single-game accomplishments included tying Kobe Bryant's then-record for most threes in a game with 12 and snatching a then-Toronto Raptors franchise record with 24 rebounds.
Armed with a fiery three-point stroke, a tenacity on the glass and a hawkish wingspan to erase shots at the basket, his skills could've found a sweet spot in today's game.
Jamal Mashburn should have been a soul-crushing, small-ball big man. Instead, he arrived a couple of decades too early and had to settle for being a volume-scoring, perimeter swingman.
To be clear, he made the assignment work and then some. The fourth overall pick in 1993, he immediately claimed an All-Rookie first-team spot along the likes of Penny Hardaway and Chris Webber by supplying 19.2 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists on a nightly basis. He would go on to tally six seasons of 20-plus-point scoring over an 11-year career that was disjointed and finally derailed by injuries.
He almost exclusively played the 3 spot, which seems wild for a 6'8", 240-pounder. That's the same listed weight as Tyson Chandler, Mitchell Robinson, Kelly Olynyk and Ivica Zubac. They are the identical dimensions of James Johnson, Lance Thomas and Montrezl Harrell, modern power forwards or small-ball centers.
In today's game, Mashburn would've had the heft to separate defenders with on-ball screens and then the handles, vision and scoring punch to be a versatile roller or popper. He could finish at the rim, shred nets from distance (three seasons of 38-plus-percent three-point shooting) and find open teammates. Defensively, he had the size, strength and mobility to effectively cycle through switches.
He made just one All-Star trip during his career, but give him a time machine, and he may have made five or more. His 2000-01 production looks reminiscent of Blake Griffin—20.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists—and Mashburn could have thrived in the same role of go-to scorer and secondary playmaker.
In a 1993 Sports Illustrated article, Clyde Drexler praised his then-teammate Clifford Robinson as "our best defensive big man off the ball and on the ball" with "unlimited" offensive potential. Drexler also dubbed Robinson "a '90s-type player."
Well, read the article's author, Richard Hoffer, describing Robinson and see if this sounds like the '90s players you remember:
"Here's Robinson slipping on his signature black or red or white headband and going in for [Jerome] Kersey at small forward and overpowering a smaller player; or going in for [Buck] Williams and presenting a stronger offensive threat at power forward; or even going in for center Kevin Duckworth and outquicking a bigger opponent."
That type of versatility is the backbone of modern NBA defense. Robinson was also a trailblazer for reasons beyond spending the first eight seasons of his career in Portland. He helped build the mold of the multidimensional big man. He was the first player 6'10" or taller with 1,000 career threes and only the ninth that height to record 3,000 assists.
He had a little of everything in his bag, and it showed. He averaged 20-plus points three different times. He had a season with over two triples per game and six in which he cleared 37 percent from range. He was the 1992-93 Sixth Man of the Year, an All-Star the following season and a two-time All-Defensive selection. He even had three different positional designations over his first five years, playing the 3, 4 and 5 spots.
While Uncle Cliffy remains revered in the Pacific Northwest, he might've been a household name if he was hooping today.
Dennis Scott wasn't simply made for today's NBA; he got the ball rolling on its evolution.
Scott explained to Orlando Magic Daily's Philip Rossman-Reich in 2014:
"Rick Kamla, who I work with over at NBATV, calls me 'The Pioneer.' At the time, I was saying, 'I didn't want that over my head. I wasn't the first person to make a 3-point shot.'
"He said, 'No you weren't, but you were the first person to make the 3-point shot relevant.' After I thought about it, I was like, 'You were kind of right. When you put it that way, I didn't think of it that way.'"
The Association's obsession with the three-point arc arguably started with Scott. His 125 triples in 1990-91 were the most ever by a rookie, and he held that title for five seasons. In 1995-96, he made a then-record 267 threes—17 more than the New Jersey Nets team—including a record-setting 11 on April 18. His season-long mark would stand until 2005-06, while his single-game high wasn't topped until 2003.
He shot 39.7 percent from distance over his 10-year career and finished three seasons north of 40. His outside stroke played a pivotal part of Orlando's high-powered transition attack, and he was comfortable firing from multiple steps behind the three-point line. While largely a sniping specialist, it's worth noting he was a capable passer who unleashed a lob or two to Shaquille O'Neal on most nights.
Scott might need to expand his game to truly star in this NBA, but his lethal long-range shot would make him highly sought-after and beneficial to every player around him.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.