Past Meets Present: Comparing Current NBA Players With Retired Counterparts

Anthony DavisAll NBA players are unique and have been created differently. There are always going to be certain factors that separate even the most similar of players.

That said, there’s a reason why pundits always love to come up with player comparisons for draft prospects when they enter the NBA. As fans, we want to understand what an unfamiliar player will be able to bring to the table and it is easier to understand that when we have another player as a reference point.

Today, USAbetting looks at six NBA player pairs that have some of the most similar games that you can imagine. One player from each pair is retired, and the other is a current player.

  • Past: F/C Kevin Garnett – 1995-2016 (Minnesota Timberwolves, Boston Celtics, Brooklyn Nets)
  • Present: F/C Anthony Davis – 2012-present (New Orleans Pelicans, Los Angeles Lakers)

What happens when a lanky 6’11” big man is also blessed with elite athleticism, guard-level ball skills and a great sense for the game of basketball? You get players like Garnett and Davis.

Garnett was one of the NBA’s most dominant forces of the 2000s, making the All-Star Game every year in the decade and peaking as MVP in 2003-04. Davis is also a perennial All-Star and frequent MVP dark horse, though he hasn’t actually won the award yet.

One area where Garnett has a distinct advantage on AD is durability. Garnett didn’t miss more than six games in a season until his 13th NBA campaign, while AD has missed seven or more contests every year since entering the league.

Both Garnett and Davis spent many years as the clear best player on teams that just didn’t have enough talent to contend seriously in a top-heavy Western Conference. Garnett finally got his championship ring once he formed a Big Three in Boston with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. Will Davis finally get over the hump now that he has joined LeBron James in Los Angeles?

  • Past: G/F Shane Battier – 2001-2014 (Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets, Miami Heat)
  • Present: G/F Mikal Bridges – 2018-present (Phoenix Suns)

Both Battier and Bridges embody the cliché of “impact that goes beyond the highlights and stat sheet.” Neither player is the type to throw down jaw-dropping dunks or rack up huge stat lines, but you know how much they help their teams if you carefully watch them play.

There is a reason both guys have played big minutes on their squads since entering the league. They are wings who can shoot the ball pretty well from the outside and defend multiple positions at an extremely high level due to their length and knowledge of the game. They hardly ever make negative plays, such as ill-advised turnovers, poorly chosen shots or lapses in concentration on defense.

Like Battier eventually did, Bridges is going to be a big-minute role player on a championship-contending team at some point in his career. We will see if it happens for him in Phoenix or with another team.

  • Past: G/F Joe Johnson – 2001-2018 (Boston Celtics, Phoenix Suns, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat, Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets)
  • Present: G/F Khris Middleton – 2012-present (Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks)

Interestingly enough, Middleton’s nickname on his Basketball Reference profile page is “Baby Joe Johnson.” I thought of this comparison before seeing that nickname, but it’s definitely very appropriate that these two players’ games have previously been linked together on the internet.

Middleton and Johnson are versatile scorers, first and foremost. The two swingmen are effective ball-handlers who can create and make their own shots from three-point range, in the midrange areas and at the rim. Both standing 6’7”, they have high enough release points to avoid being bothered by closeouts from defenders.

Neither guy is explosive or particularly jerky in their movements. Instead, they utilize smooth movements on the court and remain even-keeled in their temperament. Johnson and Middleton aren’t quite talented enough to lead a championship contender as a No. 1 offensive option but you are in great shape if you have a quality All-Star caliber player like them as your No. 2 option.

  • Past: F Charles Barkley – 1984-2000 (Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Houston Rockets)
  • Present: F Zion Williamson – 2019-present (New Orleans Pelicans)

Speaking of players who aren’t explosive, Barkley and Williamson also both fit that mold. Not!

It takes some special traits to succeed in the paint as an undersized big man. For this pair of 6’6” power forwards, they both combine an extremely thick body with levels of aggressiveness and athleticism around the basket that defy their frames. Attempting to block a dunk by either of these guys is not advised, because they will get off the ground very powerfully and come back down to the rim with all sorts of force. Opponents often have no choice but to foul them.

In terms of overall skill set, Barkley and Williamson share some other things in common. They are forces in transition with their speed and leaping ability and they have the ball-handling ability to create openings for themselves at the rim and find teammates for easy shots.

Barkley’s key advantage here is rebounding. He averaged 15.9 rebounds per 100 possessions throughout his career, while Zion was at 10.5 in his rookie season. However, Zion still has not yet turned 20 years old, so there is plenty of time for him to improve in a variety of areas.

  • Past: G Kevin Johnson – 1988-2000 (Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns)
  • Present: G Ja Morant – 2019-present (Memphis Grizzlies)

Johnson was a rarity in his day as a point guard who consistently attacked the basket and finished strong above the rim with elite explosiveness. He also was an excellent passer who had a great sense of where and when to set up his teammates. For a four-season stretch between 1988 and 1992, he averaged a combined 21.1 points and 11.1 assists per game while leading a Phoenix Suns team that consistently won more than 50 games per season.

Although we have seen just one NBA season from him, Morant looks like a player with very similar strengths and weaknesses. He is a little bit taller and thinner than Johnson (6’3 and 175 pounds to Johnson’s 6’1” and 180 pounds), but he also specializes in thunderous dunks and is even more athletic than Johnson was. Morant is also a good distributor, averaging 10 assists per game in his final college season and 6.9 as an NBA rookie.

In the area of weaknesses, neither guy possesses much of a three-point shot, but they are decent from the midrange. Both Johnson and Morant also struggle with somewhat high turnover numbers and are mediocre on defense.

One area in which Morant would love to surpass Johnson is durability. KJ has missed an average of only four games in his first five seasons but he missed an average of 33 contests per season in his last seven campaigns. Morant may need to tone down his aggressive playing style slightly and learn how to land more carefully on the ground to avoid future injuries.

  • Past: C Dikembe Mutombo – 1991-2009 (Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, Houston Rockets)
  • Present: C Rudy Gobert – 2013-present (Utah Jazz)

Mutombo himself has called Gobert a “young Mutombo” multiple times in interviews throughout the past few years. I can see why.

Both guys are taller than 7 feet tall (7’2” for Mutombo, 7’1 for Gobert) with well-built frames that aren’t too bulky that they hinder the players’ ability to move. Rim protection is the top strength for both guys. Mutombo was a three-time blocks per game leader and four-time Defensive Player of the Year. Gobert is a one-time blocks per game leader and two-time Defensive Player of the Year before hitting his 28th birthday.

It is not a good idea to run lots of offense through either guy, but they do possess enough skill down low to take advantage of solid looks and finish at a high percentage. The lack of elite skill and versatility is what keeps Gobert from moving up to the true superstar tier of the NBA. It is also what kept Mutombo from reaching the elite tier of centers occupied by Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal in the mid-1990s.