NBA Mirror Images

Superstars Then And Now

By Yaron Weitzman | Illustration by Bram Vanhaeren

December 12, 2016

The next generation has already arrived. The only proof you need is an NBA League Pass account. There’s a unicorn in New York, a Freak in Milwaukee and dozens of other kids filling up stat sheets every night.

We like to spend lots of time talking about these up-and-coming players and focusing on the evolution they’re triggering. Basketball, after all, doesn’t look the way it used to. But this budding crop of studs isn’t the first to change things. The game is always progressing; look closely and you can see how yesterday’s stars paved the path for tomorrow’s.

Our first B/R Mirror Images project juxtaposed the game’s incumbent superstars and their legendary counterparts. This time around, we consider the ceilings of 10 of the best and most exciting under-23 players in the league, compared to players they might actually remember themselves. Each is paired with his “mirror,” the player his game or style of play most resembles.

How does the saying go? You can’t know where you’re going until knowing where you’ve been? That’s what this is: a map of where we’ve been so we can all see where we’re going.

Karl-Anthony Towns x Kevin Garnett

Seven feet tall? Check. Runs like a gazelle? Yep. Comfortable raining jumpers from deep and also banging with the trees down low? Yes, sir. Towns even has an acronym for a nickname, too. KAT may not breathe fire the way KG did, but he’s injected a life into Timberwolves basketball that hasn’t been seen around Minnesota since the man he refers to as his “brother on the court” left town. Garnett is the greatest player to ever put on a Timberwolves uniform. Could his second coming one day steal that title? It’s not an unfair question.

Kristaps Porzingis x Dirk Nowitzki

Yeah, KP is another tall, white European with a sweet stroke, so he automatically garnered the Dirk comparisons. Dirk even took the narrative a step further, with a touch of overzealous humility. “He's way better than I was at 20,” Nowitzki told reporters in December 2015. “The comparison is probably unfair to him.” We won’t go that far, but their skillsets sure look familiar. Earlier this season Dirk witnessed Porzingis steal his signature one-legged fadeaway in a game against the Mavs, and KP continues to use the move to his benefit. Nowitzki changed the NBA game. Porzingis, with his similarly rare combination of size, skill and confidence, could validate Nowitzki’s status as a trailblazer for those to come.


Giannis Antetokounmpo x Lamar Odom

There’s something about the phrase “point forward,” right? Because in no way could someone claim that Lamar Odom and the man dubbed the Greek Freak share similar physical attributes. Odom was a crafty lefty whose greatest attribute might have been his guile; Giannis is a one-of-a-kind, relentless physical force who makes the rest of the league’s uber-athletes look clunky and slow. What Antetokounmpo and Odom do share, though, is the title of “point forward,” that special moniker reserved for the rarest of the rare: tall men who can also handle the ball. Point forwards are a special breed. We’ve only seen a few throughout the years, and Odom was one of them. It’s time to add Antetokounmpo to that list.

D’Angelo Russell x Stephen Curry

There’s only one Steph. We can all agree on that. But that doesn’t mean players who mirror the two-time reigning MVP can’t come along. Take D’Angelo Russell. He has the wicked handle and the ability to stop and pop from deep. He’s shown flashes, back during his days as a stud at Ohio State and now as the up-and-coming cornerstone of the post-Kobe Bryant Lakers, of the wizard-like vision that Curry puts on display every night. Russell is now even being coached by a Curry mentor, former Warriors assistant Luke Walton. Walton was brought in over the summer to help the Lakers close the gap between themselves and his former team. To do so, he’ll need Russell to take on Steph’s role.

Brandon Ingram x Kevin Durant

Just as every white European draws Dirk comparisons, every tall and skinny American who can shoot gets equated to Kevin Durant. It’s unfair. Durant, after all, is one of the greatest scorers to ever pick up a basketball. Ingram, on the other hand, is a raw rookie seeing just 25.5 minutes a night. And yet the resemblance is there. It’s not just that Ingram is a rail-thin 6’9”. He has a silky jumper and in college demonstrated an uncanny ability for finding the rim. He was even drafted in the same slot (No. 2) as KD. It’s unlikely he ever matches Durant’s greatness. Few ever will. Then again, you never know.

Kris Dunn x John Wall

What’s so awesome about John Wall is that he’s the rare super-athlete to leverage his powers into a pass-first style. Wall might be the fastest player in the NBA, and at 6’4”, he’s bigger than most point guards, too. But unlike the other mutants who have entered the league—think Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose—Wall’s elected to be an orchestrator over a scorer. Kris Dunn is the same way. Like Wall, Dunn prefers dishing to swishing, despite his speed and size (6’4”, 205 lbs). And he relishes mucking things up on the other end of the floor. Defense and distribution have turned Wall into an All-Star. Perhaps one day they could do the same for Dunn.

Myles Turner x Chris Bosh

Like Chris Bosh, Turner is tall, rangy and quick-footed. Like Bosh, he can also stroke it from deep. In his second NBA season, Bosh averaged 16.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and shot 47.1 percent from the field. Turner, at 14.9 points and 7.8 rebounds, is nearly there, only he’s drilling more than half his shots. Forwards who are 6’11” and can protect the paint and carry an offense from multiple spots on the floor don’t come around often. That’s what made Bosh so unique. It’s why Turner’s future is so bright.

Justise Winslow x Andre Iguodala

Can Winslow do what Iggy did and learn how to be an impact player despite possessing a crooked jumper? He’s going to have to if he plans on justifying all the faith the Heat put into him. The talent is there, though. Winslow, like Iguodala, can guard positions 1-4, a coveted trait in today’s switch-happy league. On offense, he has a long way to go, but you have to love his unselfish nature and ability to attack the rim. Iguodala made a career out of that combination of skills. He’s now a champ and Finals MVP. The blueprint is there for Winslow. It’s up to him to follow it.

Nikola Jokic x Pau Gasol

There’s something about a skilled big man. It’s a beauty that’s hard to describe. Even in his prime, Gasol was far from a perfect player. But, man, could he do all sorts of awesome things. Baby hooks, drop-steps, jumpers, and don’t forget the brilliant no-look, over-the-shoulder passes. Jokic is just 21 and in his second year in the league. But he’s already shown that he can do all this and also confidently step out behind the arc. “I see a lot of the Gasol brothers [in him],” Nuggets teammate Mike Miller said on The Ringer in November (h/t Christian Clark of Denverite). Are we sure that Nikola isn’t actually the long-lost brother of Marc and Pau?


Devin Booker x Jason Kidd

This is a funhouse mirror comparison, but follow us. Kidd entered the NBA with a preternatural ability for running the show but struggled with some of basketball's more simple acts, such as making open shots. Booker, on the other hand, has a lights-out stroke but has trouble orchestrating for others. What's the connection? By the end of his career, Kidd had morphed into a threat from deep and eventually became a triple-double machine. If Booker can address his weaknesses in the same way, his all-around ceiling should be right where Kidd found his.