B/R NBA Staff: Who Would Be the Best Modern-Day Guard from the '96 Draft Class?

Bleacher Report NBA StaffFeatured ColumnistApril 11, 2021

Photo by Steve Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Allen Iverson.

Steve Nash.

Ray Allen.

Kobe. Bean. Bryant. 

The 1996 draft didn't just give the NBA a group of future All-Stars (11 to be exact)—it introduced the world to arguably the greatest, most iconic class of all time.

On Sunday, NBA TV will pay respect to the class in a one-night, two-part documentary, Ready or Not: The 96 Draft, beginning at 8 p.m. ET. 

In advance of the premiere, Bleacher Report asked five writers to break down how the most legendary guards from the group would have thrived in today's game, and we asked them to vote at the end on who would be the best modern-day guard from the celebrated class. 

               

Allen Iverson (No. 1 Pick)

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Allen Iverson danced around defenders who had a lot more freedom to be physical than contemporary perimeter stoppers. Give him today's quick whistle and superior spacing, and he'd be crossing over defenders into oblivion.

He was physically overmatched on a near-nightly basis—the 6'0", 165-pounder spent 42 percent of his career minutes at the 2—and still got wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted. He might give James Harden a run for his money in drawing fouls, having averaged double-digit free-throw attempts in three different seasons.

Iverson won four scoring titles in his legendary career. With the right amount of opportunity, he might've added to that total if he landed in this era.

There are two giant question marks, though.

The first are his shooting inefficiencies (42.5 percent career from the field, 31.3 from long range) and what they might mean for his minutes allotment from today's more analytically inclined coaches. Modern training could have helped his jumper—he did sink 78.0 percent of his career free throws—but if his percentages didn't improve, he would've had a much shorter leash.

The second is his lack of size and how that would limit him defensively. Small-ball might be a buzzword, but the league hasn't devalued size so much as it has prioritized skill. Iverson might be a one-position defender in the modern game, and those players aren't the easiest to build around.

Plugged into the right role with a roster properly constructed around him, though, A.I. could be just as dynamic offensively today, if not more efficient.

Zach Buckley 

          

Stephon Marbury (No. 4 Pick)

Stephon Marbury was a high-usage starter for most of his career, which probably wouldn't be his role today given his lack of a reliable three-point shot (he connected on 32.5 percent from deep on his career and never higher than 35.7 percent in a full season). But he'd be ideally suited to fill the role of a Jordan Clarkson/Lou Williams-type bench scorer.

His lack of an outside shot would be mitigated somewhat by his ability to get to the rim and the foul line—he was good for at least five free-throw attempts most seasons, and he was an elite finisher who would still give defenses problems.

Marbury isn't the ideal guard for today, but he has skills that would translate on the offensive end, and I have no doubt he'd carve out a long career in this era just as he did in the '90s and '00s.

Sean Highkin

                

Ray Allen (No. 5 Pick) 

A better question than how Ray Allen might thrive in today's game: In what way wouldn't he thrive?

His heyday seems uniquely tailored to excel during this era. So many remember the version of Ray Allen who spent a great deal of his time away from the ball, a glorified specialist in Boston and actual specialist in Miami. Prime Ray Allen was so much more, a disarmingly explosive wing who could score at every level. Though his ability to finish above the rim was somewhat recognized in real time, it feels underrated in hindsight. Some of that vertical pop endured into his twilight; he busted out the occasional jam during his time with the Celtics and Heat.

Now, imagine Allen going to work amid today's spacing. Four-out is essentially the standard, and five-out is increasingly common. His on-ball scoring would shine, and he'd certainly be a cornerstone of functional three-point volume. 

The latter is terrifying. Despite being remembered as one of the greatest shooters ever, Allen only once averaged more than 7.5 long-range attempts per 36 minutes. Forty-two players are clearing that benchmark this season. The range and scope of Allen's threes would also broaden. He was no stranger to flying around off the ball, but now more than ever, he'd have carte blanche to pull-up in transition and launch super-deep triples. His assist totals might even climb by virtue of having more willing and lethal jump shooters around him.

Imagining Allen's peak in today's game is almost unfair—to him. This doesn't feel like a situation in which we should put limitations on his best result. Envisioning a couple of seasons in which he averages 30-plus points per game on pristine shooting slashes isn't hard. 

Put another way: The skills that made him a star back then seem like they could be parlayed into annual MVP candidacy now.

Dan Favale 

          

Kobe Bryant (No. 13 Pick)

We should probably start by stating the obvious here: Kobe Bryant would have dominated in any era of basketball.

Retiring in 2016, Bryant got a taste of the modern space-and-pace play we see today, but teams have moved their shot chart even farther out past the three-point line over the last five years.

Why would Bryant, by all accounts a below-average three-point shooter throughout his time in the league (32.9 career percentage), thrive in today's game? Spacing.

Consider this: Bryant took home MVP honors in both the 2009 and 2010 NBA Finals, putting up 32.4 points per game and 28.6 points per game, respectively, while leading the Los Angeles Lakers to back-to-back championships. He continually carried the scoring load for L.A. despite playing alongside two starters (Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol) who offered very little spacing.

Bynum and Gasol combined for zero three-point makes and just two total attempts in those 12 Finals games, meaning Bryant didn't have nearly the driving lanes he would be blessed with in today's game.

Just imagine Bryant sharing the floor with big men like Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns or Kristaps Porzingis, keeping the floor open and spacing out to the corners as needed. Bryant would be given far more isolation opportunities, as defenders would have to stay honest on the power forwards and centers to whom they were assigned.

As far as Bryant's own three-point shooting, is there any doubt he would have worked to improve his accuracy if that's where the league was going? With nearly every present-day superstar increasing their three-point attempts and success rate, Bryant had the maniacal work ethic to drastically improve in that area as well.

Greg Swartz 

          

Steve Nash (No. 15 Pick)

Steve Nash was the most productive offensive force of his era, as evidenced by the fact that he led the league's top-ranked attack eight out of nine years from 2001-02 to 2009-10. Considering the tactical trends he was instrumental in advancing with the Phoenix Suns—increased pace, higher-volume three-point shooting, relentless pick-and-roll playmaking—are the pillars of today's game, it stands to reason that, if anything, Nash would be even more effective now.

Imagine the brilliantly creative two-time MVP operating in the wide-open spaces of today's offenses. And try to envision how much more effective he'd be in an era that encourages point guards with three-point range to fire away from as deep as they can. In Nash's early days with the Dallas Mavericks, legendary head coach Don Nelson threatened to fine him if he didn't start shooting more often, and Nash has admitted he should have been more aggressive.

Considering he ranks third all-time (among shooters who attempted at least 3,000 career triples) with a 42.8 percent success rate, it's not hard to see how added volume would have made him even more effective.

Oh, and as an aside, Nash led the league in assists five times and earned the following superlative from Ben Taylor, who's spent years studying past greats: "Nash delivered more quality passes, per possession, than anyone I've ever studied on film."

That seems good.

The best mix of passing skill and shooting efficiency in league history and a style that seemed, at the time, like it was pulled from some futuristic version of the game? Yeah, he'd probably be just fine if he were playing today.

Grant Hughes 

             

Poll: Who Would Be the Best Modern-Day Guard?

Steve Nash: 4

Ray Allen: 1

This was an easy call for the B/R staff.

Nash was built to play basketball in the 2020s, an ultra-efficient shooter and wizard of a playmaker who would destroy opponents in the pick-and-roll today.

The two-time MVP would likely resemble some sort of a Stephen Curry-Trae Young hybrid, perhaps one who didn't put up as many shots per game but combined Young's playmaking with Curry's ability to pull up and cash in jumpers from all over the court.

Allen, the only other player here to receive a vote, would have been brilliant as well. Think: a taller, more efficient Bradley Beal, one who could drop 40 points without breaking a sweat.

This isn't to take anything away from Bryant, Iverson or Marbury, all of whom would have been even more offensively impressive given the spacing of today's game. Nash was just already the perfect embodiment of the modern NBA player and would have to make zero adjustments to playing in this era.