6 NBA Players with the Most Michael Jordan in Their Games Today

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 2, 2020

6 NBA Players with the Most Michael Jordan in Their Games Today

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    Michael Jordan's impact on the modern NBA is everywhere. Even if many of today's brightest stars didn't form their love of the game by watching MJ achieve global superstardom in the '80s and '90s, the players they did fixate on as kids drew their inspiration from Jordan.

    For every 20-something All-Star who'd say Kobe Bryant or LeBron James had a larger impact on their approach and style, well...who do you think Kobe and LeBron idolized? Jordan's influence is total; the only variable is whether it's direct or separated by a single generational degree.

    The focus here is on aesthetics: Who operates in a way that reminds us of Jordan?

    Because we're talking about arguably the most complete basketball player to ever lace 'em up, and because Jordan's career featured several evolutionary phases, we'll need to pull elements from a handful active stars.

    If you combined them all, you might get someone with a game nearly as good as the GOAT's.

Mid-Range Mastery: DeMar DeRozan

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    There's really no opportunity in the modern game for a wing to operate in the mid-range area like late-'90s Jordan did

    He'd frequently receive the ball with his defender pinned behind him, lean his upper body backward to feel for potential vulnerabilities his eyes couldn't see and then go to work with surgical precision that produced a perfect fadeaway jumper. If he had a live dribble and no second defender nearby, MJ would work into position before turning his back and initiating the same process.

    Nowadays, not only are such stagnant possessions out of favor, but shots from MJ's preferred areas are too. Closely guarded mid-range jump shots are last resorts, not top options for a league-leading scorer.

    Physical strength and grueling practice repetition were key to Jordan's mid-range game. But his footwork and body control made him a master.

    DeMar DeRozan comes as close to emulating this particular Jordan skill as anyone.

    DeRozan's affinity for mid-range shots is where it starts. A true throwback, he took more attempts outside the paint but inside the arc than any guard or wing in 2019-20. And 2018-19. In fact, he hasn't ranked outside the top three in that grouping in total mid-range attempts since 2010-11.

    Capable of pivoting in either direction, happy to pump-fake as many times as it takes to exhaust his defender's patience and able to exude some of the same unquantifiable comfort that Jordan displayed in his favorite spots, DeRozan has an in-between game that's as good as it gets.

    He's made modern additions, of course, even if the shot locations are outdated. DeRozan typically dribbles into his pseudo post-ups, while Jordan often got position before snaring a pass. In addition to the old-school turnarounds and up-and-unders, DeRozan also goes to a nasty sidestep when he needs space.

    It's a testament to DeRozan's skill that he's even allowed to play in ways that resemble Jordan in the "threes and dunks" era. But when Kevin Durant professes admiration for a particular aspect of your game, it means you're doing something right.

Wanton Disregard for Personal Safety...and Improvisation: Ja Morant

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    You don't get the word "air" tacked onto your name for all eternity by staying planted on the ground, though younger fans might not remember that the early Jordan years were defined by relentless attacks on the rim and not fadeaway jumpers.

    A youthful MJ had a first step that turned defenders to dust and the springs to levitate over and around the tallest Patrick Ewing-shaped obstructions. Scour the older subset of MJ highlights, and you'll most commonly see him catapulting himself toward the basket, often with only the vaguest idea of what to do next. 

    It usually worked out.

    Ja Morant is also a fan of leaving the earth and figuring the rest out later. That competitive recklessness defined the first couple of months of his rookie season.

    This approach produces some spectacular highlights...and spectacular falls.

    Jordan was no stranger to being grounded by opponents, though the guys blasting him out of the air often had ill intentions. The Pistons basically made punishing an airborne MJ the top priority in their defensive playbook.

    Morant isn't subject to the same level of malice; the rules now wisely punish the sorts of fouls Jordan used to absorb. But something about the Memphis Grizzlies guard hurling himself at larger bodies without clear evidence of a plan makes one think he'd have been just as reckless in an earlier, more dangerous NBA era.

Physical Transformation: Giannis Antetokounmpo

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    Giannis Antetokounmpo's metamorphosis from teenaged string bean to mid-20s Adonis is a little different from Jordan's midcareer embrace of weight training, but there's still a clear parallel.

    Both players realized getting stronger—significantly stronger—would help them dominate.

    The body types in today's NBA are, on balance, more consistently shredded than they were in Jordan's era. Advances in nutrition and exercise science, more robust training staffs and the ballooning salaries available to players who can keep their bodies in top shape longer are all factors in the league's improved fitness. It's normal for players to pile on muscle now.

    But when Jordan teamed up with trainer Tim Grover and later started the Breakfast Club, it was news.

    Rod Thorn was the Bulls GM when they selected Jordan in 1984, and he was concerned about the guard's lack of physical heft—particularly since early MJ's game was about launching himself at the rim and taking contact.

    Nobody would ever label mid- to late-career Jordan frail. He changed his body in ways that kept him healthy and prolonged his effectiveness. Those late-'90s turnarounds would have been tougher without the heft to first bump a defender off balance. And that's to say nothing of how extra brawn helped Jordan stand up to hard fouls.

    Antetokounmpo's cartoonish biceps and bulging shoulders serve a similar purpose. If anything, it's scarier that his bulk-up phase came at the outset of his physical prime and not as it began to ebb. He's still capable of running past most players, but now there's almost no one in the league who can match his power.

    Most players get stronger as they age, but Antetokounmpo and Jordan are similar in their weaponization of weights.

Like, 15 Different Things: Kawhi Leonard

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    If we'd undertaken this exercise 10 (or even five) years ago, we could have just picked out every aspect of Kobe's game, speech patterns, mannerisms, mentality and general existence and said, "Yes, Jordan trait X is most obviously visible in him."

    Bryant was effectively a clone.

    Kawhi Leonard isn't at the same unsettling doppelganger level as Kobe was, but he's easily the active player with the most resemblance to Jordan.

    He casually palms the ball the same way.

    He shoulders off defenders and elevates for difficult mid-range shots.

    He terrorizes ball-handlers with similar ruthlessness.

    He elevates his play in the biggest moments.

    Footwork, economy of movement, overwhelming strength on both ends. It's all there.

Tough Love as Motivation: Jimmy Butler

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    Jordan punched Steve Kerr. And Will Perdue. He was brutal toward Bill Cartwright.

    As much as on-court dominance, Jordan is famous for being tough on teammates.

    "Look, winning has a price," Jordan says in The Last Dance, via Richard Deitsch of The Athletic. "And leadership has a price. So I pulled people along when they didn't want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn't want to be challenged. ... Once you joined the team, you lived at a certain standard that I played the game. And I wasn't going to take any less."

    He demanded a level of competitive drive and commitment that existed almost nowhere outside himself. It ultimately worked (six rings), but it can't come as a surprise that it fractured relationships and proved too much for some teammates.

    Kwame Brown comes to mind.

    So far as we know, Jimmy Butler never slugged anyone in practice. But his exacting standards of professional intensity conjure memories of MJ.

    He infamously ran the Timberwolves' first unit off the floor while playing with backups, chirping all the while. And the bridges between him and the 76ers are still smoking, as his departure resulted partly from what he viewed as a failure of teammates to match his drive.

    Now paired with the Miami Heat, whose hard-nosed, demanding approach to preparation square with his own, Butler seems to be in the right place. He did some Jordan-esque things and cycled through three teams before finding a home at NBA stop No. 4.

Off-Arm Genius: James Harden

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    Several NBA players could occupy this spot, as the weaponized off arm is now commonplace in every scorer's repertoire. Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are all experts. But in addition to being on Jordan's level as a subtle shoving genius, James Harden also shares MJ's ability to...how to put this delicately?...get away with stuff others don't.

    Jordan wasn't a foul-baiter like Harden, and he didn't necessarily invent moves that forced viewers to ask themselves, "Wait, is that legal?" but Harden, like MJ, has long understood how to manipulate defenders' bodies with hard-to-catch nudges and bumps.

    He sends Paul George reeling here in a modern reinterpretation of Jordan's title-winning shot over Bryon Russell in 1998. Harden also sent Wesley Johnson to the floor with a devastating pull-back crossover—aided by a forearm shiver to the chest.

    There may be a second similarity underneath the off-arm stuff. Jordan was a constant edge-seeker, and clandestine shoves were just one such example. Harden seems similarly obsessed, adding tricky elements to his game that not only give him advantages against defenders but also challenge officials and the rules themselves.

    Harden's tactics rub many the wrong way, but Jordan would surely recognize the competitive hunger from which they stem.