Historical Comparisons for NBA's Top Superstars 22 and Under
The NBA comparison game is an inexact science, but it has value in contextualizing what we're seeing now with what we know from history.
Granted, no two players are exactly the same. Even the identical twins who have passed through the league's ranks bring something different to the table.
That's why this exercise isn't about searching for a mirror-image match. Instead, it's about finding players who fit the same fuzzy outline.
From the stats to the play styles, here's who the Association's best 22-and-under players resemble from the history books.
Luka Doncic: Larry Bird
Luka Doncic has already zipped past the point of hyperbolic language. No matter how grandiose the praise might sound, there's a decent chance the stat sheet backs it up.
Case in point: He's probably engineering the greatest age-20 season in NBA history. Again, that probably sounds impossible, but when you examine the numbers...well, they don't lie.
It won't be long before this conversation changes to finding the Next Luka, but if we sort through the breadcrumbs from basketball's past, maybe we can find the First.
Compared to his contemporaries, he has Chris Paul's floor command, LeBron James' monstrous impact and James Harden's step-back. Dig deeper into the memory books, and there's Oscar Robertson's overstuffed stats, Magic Johnson's flair (and vision) and even Dirk Nowitzki's ceiling-scraping shooting arc.
Taken in totality, though, Doncic best compares to Larry Bird.
Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, who played with and later worked for Bird, already made the link in terms of how he and Doncic elevate everyone around them. ESPN's Tim Legler, who debuted in Bird's third-to-last NBA season, took the comparison further.
"I'm seeing a Larry Bird type with his pace and the way you can't speed him up, his shooting ability from deep," Legler said on SportsCenter in November. "But if Larry Bird had a tighter handle and a better first step, that's really what Luka Doncic is."
A souped-up Bird sounds too good to be true, right? Again, we'll go back to the numbers.
In Bird's most efficient season (1987-88), he averaged 29.9 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists. Doncic is already bumping into those marks—28.7, 9.3 and 8.7, respectively—less than three months removed from his 21st birthday.
Ja Morant: Healthy Kevin Johnson
Before Ja Morant was blowing by defenders and hammering dunks on someone's head, Kevin Johnson was doing the same.
A blur in the open court, Johnson could usually get anywhere he wanted—even if that meant climbing the ladder to boom on Hakeem Olajuwon.
Once Johnson snagged a starting spot after a mid-rookie-year trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Phoenix Suns, he flashed the same transformative talent Morant has displayed with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Suns won 28 games in Johnson's freshman season (he was only there for the final 28), before erupting for 55 wins the following year. The Grizzlies won 33 games last year and were predicted for even fewer this year, but they were 32-33 prior to the league's COVID-19 hiatus.
Like Morant, Johnson packed a lethal scoring punch, but he was equally (if not more) effective as a table-setter. In his sophomore season, he averaged 20.4 points and 12.2 assists, starting a four-year run with at least 19 points and 10 dimes per night. Morant is already at 17.6 points and 6.9 assists as a 20-year-old rookie, making him only the sixth freshman to hit those marks.
Injuries unfortunately became a prominent part of Johnson's career, as he went from averaging 78 appearances through his first five seasons to never playing more than 70 games after. He retired after 11 seasons, returned just ahead of the Suns' 2000 playoff run and walked away for good that August.
Morant isn't quite a mirror image of Johnson. He's already a more dangerous outside shooter than Johnson ever was (although that's at least in part due to their respective eras), and Johnson was a superior defender.
But for cross-era comparisons, Johnson's peak could be where Morant's career is headed.
Jayson Tatum: More Athletic Paul Pierce
But likening Tatum to Bryant is too ambitious right now. Maybe it's the green and whites of the Boston Celtics iconic look, but it's easy to watch Tatum's calculated, purposeful movements on offense and get reminded of a young Paul Pierce.
Like Tatum, Pierce was never rushed. His first step put defenders off-balance, and he never let them recover. With a wicked combination of footwork and body control, he could get his own looks at any time and against any type of defender. That's what made Pierce such a lethal late-game scorer, and Tatum has already orchestrated his own crunch-time fireworks.
In his third NBA season, Pierce averaged 25.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists while shooting 45.4 percent overall and 38.3 percent from deep. Tatum averaged 23.6 points, 7.1 boards and 2.9 dimes this season while shooting 44.8 percent overall and 39.8 percent from distance. Pierce had a 22.3 player efficiency rating; Tatum's is 20.3. Pierce, a 10-time All-Star, debuted at the event in his fourth season; Tatum secured his first trip in February.
Kendrick Perkins, who spent seven-plus seasons alongside Pierce, sees "a lot" of his former teammate in Tatum. Pierce can see it, too, albeit a more explosive version of himself.
"He has a lot of craftiness to his game, and that probably reminds a lot of people of me," Pierce told Boston.com's Chad Finn in May 2018. "I see it, I definitely do. I wasn't the most athletic guy. Tatum is a lot more athletic than I was. ... He's a superstar in the making. You can compare a kid like that to me anytime you want."
Zion Williamson: Charles Barkley/Shawn Kemp Hybrid
Zion Williamson made the comparison game tricky before he even arrived at this level. It's not every day that a 6'6", 285-pounder shows up and turns the hardwood into his personal anti-gravity machine.
The force and ferocity of Williamson's athleticism conjures up visions of Shawn Kemp at his high-flying best. Like Williamson, there was more to Kemp's game than unreal explosiveness—slams alone wouldn't have netted him six All-Star trips—but if you think of the Reign Man, you start with his rim-rockers. The NBA put together a compilation of Kemp's 50 best dunks and had to tack on an honorable mention to fit in his best flushes.
Move away from the aerial exploits, though, and Williamson isn't exactly a Kemp clone. Williamson already has flashed a more complete floor game and a higher defensive upside. His extra heft—Kemp was listed at only 230 pounds—makes Williamson a much more punishing player in the post.
That's where Charles Barkley joins the conversation. Another thick player (listed at 252 pounds) who played bigger than his 6'6" frame, he was equally effective bullying players on the block, taking them off the bounce or setting the table for others. His relentless glass-cleaning—he won a rebounding title as a 6'6" player in a league packed with 7-footers—is another model for Williamson to follow.
Moreover, defenders feared a hard-charging Barkley the same way stoppers tremble against a steamrolling Williamson now. Add Kemp's moon boots to the mix, and you get a sense of just how special Williamson could become.
"His size, his athleticism, his power is visible," Hall of Famer Chris Mullin said of Williamson, per NBA.com's Steve Aschburner. "But to me his speed is really incredible from end to end. I would morph Charles Barkley and Shawn Kemp and put them together [as a comparison]."
Trae Young: Higher-Scoring Steve Nash
Trae Young looks as close to a Stephen Curry reboot as we've seen. Between the absurdly deep shooting range to the killer combination of handles and pull-up shooting, he seems like he's traveling down the path Curry created.
But Young never fashioned himself as a long-lost Splash Brother. He was too busy watching, idolizing and ultimately mimicking a different floor general known for piloting potent offenses with tempo, shooting efficiency and below-the-rim sorcery.
"Steve Nash is may favorite player of all time," Young told reporters in 2018. "With his size and my size, we're very similar. He's very cerebral, he can score from all three levels, he knows how to get his teammates involved and he's a winner. I feel like a lot of his characteristics are similar to mine."
Young's commitment to table-setting is where you can see Nash's influence (and where the Curry comparison loses some steam). Nash won five assists titles and sits third all-time in total dimes dropped. His career 41.5 assist percentage is the fifth-highest ever recorded.
Young obviously isn't on that level yet, but he appears to be headed in that direction. Last season, his 8.1 assists were the 14th-most ever by an NBA rookie. Tack on the 9.3 from this season, and he has more assists than anyone over the past two campaigns.
Once scoring enters the equation, Young blows past Nash. The latter never averaged more than 18.8 points; the former debuted with 19.1 and skyrocketed that number to 29.6 as a sophomore. With that said, Nash's ability to be more selective on offense spiked his efficiency levels to areas Young's shooting rates are nowhere near.
But the blueprint is all the same, from the three-level scoring and close-range creativity to the court vision and even the defensive deficiencies.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.