LAS VEGAS -- The NBA is often referred to as a copycat league, with teams mimicking the styles and strategies of the most successful teams. While it’s not always intentional, incoming prospects will similarly mimic the play of established stars, whether it be with a borrowed crossover move or something more.
Most of the big prospects in Las Vegas will change and develop into their own identities over time, but here are the players they remind us of for now:
D’Angelo Russell reminds me of ... James Harden in first gear
Russell seems to be the most polarizing prospect in Las Vegas, and the reasons for that are eerily similar to the ones Harden encountered when he entered the league.
The primary concern is that Russell may not have the athleticism and explosiveness to be a big-time scorer or a competent wing defender. The 19-year-old point guard hasn’t done much to dissuade anyone from believing that, as he has played almost exclusively at a turtle’s pace so far, rarely showing the type of burst that seems effortless among elite guards.
It is important to recognize, however, that Russell just isn’t a straight-line attacker off the bounce. He prefers to attack horizontally and zigzaggedly so he can create angles and keep the rim protector guessing and on his heels.
In that sense, Russell is quite a bit like Harden. Both are 6-foot-5 lefties who are “lead guards” more than anything else, but they’re also terrors for pick-and-roll defenders. Russell’s vision lends perfectly for that style, too, because he’s capable of exploiting scrambling defenses from the middle of the floor. Some of his turnovers in Vegas have been fantastic ideas, which is hard for some to reconcile, but risk-taking rookies often develop into the league’s very best players.
What might be the key for Russell, as it has become for Harden, is the ability to draw fouls. Harden may be the best guard we’ve ever seen at that, but his changes of pace also plays a big factor in that equation. Russell already moves like Harden and gets similar shots, but he’ll need to speed himself up as the game slows down for him.
Jahlil Okafor reminds me of ... Al Jefferson
This is another comparison that has made the rounds, but it’s pretty hard to unsee. Okafor’s post game is unusually polished, and he already has a stable of reliable moves when he catches it on the block. Chief among them is a nifty little baseline spin, which is something Jefferson has mastered against defenders who overplay his jump hook across the middle.
Jefferson is a relic from an NBA that’s long gone, but he’s so good at what he does that he manages to remain incredibly productive. Philadelphia will certainly hope that Okafor is of the same ilk, and the polish and smoothness he has displayed at 19 years old is certainly a good sign. It often takes a while for centers to figure things out, especially defensively, but Okafor’s size and skill on the block is a ready-made weapon.
When Okafor palms the ball with his giant mitts and surveys the defense in Jefferson’s old No. 8, it’s hard to shake the parallels. The main difference, however, is that Okafor seems to be a much more willing passer, hanging tough against double-teams instead of turning away from them. The best players in the NBA make you pick your poison nearly every time down the floor, and Okafor’s passing will be central to him developing into that kind of player and expanding into a better playmaker out of the pick-and-roll.
While Okafor has a lot of the same moves as Jefferson, the face-up threat isn’t nearly as deadly. Jefferson’s multiple pump fakes may be what he’s most known for, and smart defenders will just stay down on Okafor until he proves that’s a reliable weapon.
It’s not easy being an under-the-rim scorer, but Okafor could be a handful once he better learns to carve out deep post positioning and make clever little duck-ins. There’s so much nuance and skill already present, but when that’s your primary calling card, the details can’t be fussed over.
Karl-Anthony Towns reminds me of ... Al Horford
It’s difficult to describe what makes Towns such an exciting prospect, isn’t it? He may not be elite in any one area, but by no means does that dampen his potential. Horford, his former teammate on the Dominican Republic national team, is one of only a few players in the league with no real holes in their games. Towns is on track to becoming one of them.
Maybe the most impressive aspect of Towns’ summer league performance has been his play as a pick-and-pop big man around the elbows. The way Towns has knocked down that no-elevation 18-footer looks just like Horford when the Hawks big man goes to his bread-and-butter move.
Horford, of course, can do much more than that. He has recently brought the ball up the floor after a missed bucket, which Towns has done a few times for Minnesota already. He’s a skilled high-low passer and has a knack for finding cutters from the middle of the floor, and Towns has similarly shown flashes there as well.
Floors aren’t often this high for 19-year-old big men. Towns may never be the athletic freak Anthony Davis is, but what does a bigger, longer version of Horford with 3-point range look like in a league that’s championing versatility at all five spots? It’s scary to think about.
Jerian Grant reminds me of ... Jrue Holiday
Grant and Holiday ended up falling outside of the lottery after their collegiate careers, but it's not hard to envision a scenario where Grant is an immediate contributor like Holiday was as a rookie.
The two point guards are more similar in their skills than their style, but both are capable distributors out of the pick-and-roll and particularly adept at finding the balance between probing a defense and not getting stuck in the trees. Both are a little shy of 6-foot-5, and the height clearly helps with their court vision.
The outside shooting touch is almost as important, especially since Grant will be spending time in the triangle offense, which de-emphasizes dribbling. Holiday has made a seamless transition to being a spot-up threat next to a high-usage player like Anthony Davis, and Grant will need to do the same with Carmelo Anthony hogging possessions.
There might not be superstar potential present, but Grant’s nearly identical skill-set to Holiday should enable him to become a solid point guard who doesn’t take anything off the table.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson reminds me of ... Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Hyphenated and overcaffeinated, Hollis-Jefferson will face a similar plight to Kidd-Gilchrist, albeit under a smaller microscope. The question is a familiar one: Can you really thrive as a wing in today’s NBA without an even somewhat reliable jumper?
For MKG, a former No. 2 overall pick, a complete teardown of his shooting form was required. He essentially had to start from scratch, and only now are the benefits beginning to bubble up. The overhaul of Hollis-Jefferson’s jumper might not be so complete, but there’s no question it will require work. Lots of it.
For some guys, the jumper just never comes. Tony Allen has managed to have a nice long career without one, but only because he’s an elite defender. MKG seems to be heading down the same path. With his crazy athleticism, 7-foot-2 wingspan and hustle, RHJ could be a very similar type of specialist who will be tough to pull off the floor, despite all his warts offensively.
Kristaps Porzingis reminds me of ... a unicorn
There’s no one even remotely similar to Porzingis. The description of his game almost sounds like make-believe.
The Knicks rookie is 7-foot-2, but he’s capable of running off screens to fire up quick-release jumpers immediately after the catch. By way of his length, he’ll also protect the rim just by being there. It's a combination we’ve really never seen.
Many will say he resembles Dirk Nowitzki, or Andrea Bargnani, depending on what side of the fence they’re on when it comes to Porzingis, but those comparisons for the Latvian big man are far off. Nowitzki posts up and hits impossible off-balance fadeaways, but Porzingis looks more like a giant J.J. Redick, flashing to open areas, staying square and releasing a buttery jumper with near-perfect form.
Porzingis seriously lacks strength and will definitely get pushed around, but he’ll also outrun opposing big men and stress out the types who like to hang back in the paint and protect the rim. Nowitzki survived defensively by becoming great at stripping the ball from opponents, but Porzingis can have a much more substantial impact when it comes to altering shots. He’s a different animal.