5 min read

The Trap and Myth of the Next

Around draft time – or really around any time – whenever a young player’s name gets brought up, the inevitable happens. He gets compared to someone else. Oh yeah, I see a lot of Josh Smith in him … He’s got a bigger Brandon Roy written all over him … If he develops a jumper, he’s the next Dwyane Wade. It’s unavoidable.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s also not always fair to the player. Immediately, he’s got expectations placed on him. If the young prospect doesn’t at least reach the level of the player he’s being compared to, it’s almost like he’s failed. When in reality, he didn’t ask for the comparisons. He didn’t ask for the expectations.

FreeDarko’s Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac has a chapter titled “The Myth of the Next” where they look at who players were compared to early on in their career.

Some front offices rely on the hunches of grizzled intuitives, others on mountains of data. At times, out of weakness or frustration, these brave men and women turn toward a false idol: the Myth of the Next. Based, some say, on the Stoic notion of Eternal Return, the principal states that everything that has happened before in the NBA must happen again, and soon; in each year’s crop of fresh meat, they see reflected images of last season’s All-Star rosters. It’s effect is insidious, as what begins as an offhand comparison becomes hype, which is then all too easily transformed into regrettable action. Hopefully these recent examples can serve as a cautionary tale for organizations everywhere.

Brilliant stuff. A very recent and poignant example of an offhand comparison becoming snowballed hype can be found in Ricky Rubio and his Pete Maravich link. Some examples FreeDarko uses:

Myth of the Next Dirk Nowitzki – Pau Gasol, Darko Milicic, Nikoloz Tskitishvili
Myth of the Next Dwyane Wade – Brandon Roy, Rodney Stuckey, Randy Foye
Myth of the Next Magic Johnson – Penny Hardaway, Jalen Rose, Toni Kukoc
Myth of the Next Tracy McGrady – J.R. Smith, Dorell Wright, Gerald Green

There’s many more, but the point rings true – just because a player resembles another’s skillset and abilities, doesn’t mean he will turn out to be that same guy. And you have to be very careful tagging someone that way or you could end up looking like Dean Blevins on painkillers. In other words, stupid.

But in the same respect, comparing players is an easy way to put a player’s skillset in perspective. I’m guilty of it all the time. I see a guy and I say, “He reminds me a lot of Vince Carter.” Because the way he moves, the way he shoots, the way he jumps – it just looks like Vince Carter to me. And an easy way to describe that player’s abilities is just to say, “He’s a lot like Vince Carter.” That doesn’t mean he is the next Vince Carter, but more that his play resembles him. There’s a fine line there.

And while this Vince Carterish player, let’s call him “DeMar”, are completely different ballplayers, the comparison can ring true while all they may have in common are some similar skills. Again, to be clear, I’m not saying people should stop doing this. It’s an easy way to understand the skills of a specific player. But more than anything, the point of this is to show how wrong we can be sometimes in what we see.

For this year’s draft, Blake Griffin has been compared to Carlos Boozer, Amare Stoudemire and a worst-case-scenario David Lee. James Harden is seen as Manu Ginobili, Brandon Roy or a worst-case Jason Terry. Hasheem Thabeet has been tagged as the next Dikembe Mutombo, Samuel Dalembert or worst-case Desagana Diop. Jordan Hill is a better rebounding Chris Wilcox or a worst-case Ronny Turiaf according to Draft Express (are they saying that because he kind of resembles both, or because of their actual skill set?) Stephen Curry is seen as another Mike Bibby. The comparisons go on and on. Some I can see, some I can’t. Some, time will obviously tell.

But how spot on will those comparisons be in say five years? Two years? Next year? For fun, let’s look at a few from the past:

Kevin Durant was called a more athletic Dirk Nowitzki, a hybrid Kevin Garnett or a worst-case, Rashard Lewis. Do you see that? I actually see KD as his own player. He really doesn’t fit any mold. He has so many skills, you can’t nail him down. Not many 6’10 guys can shoot, dribble, jump and move like he does. I think the best comparison for Kevin Durant is that he’s the next Kevin Durant.

Jeff Green was tagged as Boris Diaw or a worst-case, Luke Walton. I definitely don’t see either of those. I see a slightly less gifted Lamar Odom. But even still, that’s not all that accurate.

Russell Westbrook was seen as Leandro Barbosa or worst-case, Shannon Brown. I don’t see that comparison to Barbosa at all and obviously he’s not Shannon Brown. If anything, I see a little Tony Parker, but without the floor command. The Barbosa comparison was really tossed around a ton this time last year, but Russ is far more athletic than Barbosa.

O.J. Mayo was tagged as another Chauncey Billups. Except for the running an offense, playing point guard, playing great defense, being an incredible leader and taking good shots, I totally see this.

Al Horford was compared to Emeka Okafor. Except at no point, did either resemble each other’s game. Okafor is offensively challenged. Horford has a nice, polished big man game. I feel like Okafor is the cop-out comparison. If a guy is at least 6’10, is long and can block a few shots but his offensive game is questionable, he’s another Emeka Okafor. Look through Draft Express’s comparisons. Like 30 players are either best-case Emeka Okafor or in some instances, worst-case Emeka Okafor.

Mike Conley was a best-case Chris Paul. (Spits water all over the computer.) I guess that one didn’t work out so well.

Greg Oden was compared to lots of great big men, including David Robinson and Bill Russell. Yeeeeeah.

Joakim Noah was tabbed “Marcus Camby meets Boris Diaw.” I have no idea what that means. Seriously, no clue.

Adam Morrison was seen as a shorter Dirk Nowitzki or even some called him the next Larry Bird. Really. They did. I think a taller Dirk Diggler or the next Larry David would have been closer than those two comparisons.

Chris Paul was compared to Kevin Johnson. Talk about selling somebody short. K.J. was a nice player, but Chris Paul is looking like a once in a long while point guard. I’m breaking the unwritten “Don’t compare black players to white players” rule here, but CP3 is a flashier John Stockton, but without the sexy, pale upper thighs.

Andrew Bogut was seen as a combo of Brad Miller and Vlade Divac or worst-case, Chris Kaman. I actually think the worst-case comparison is a better complement than the best-case. Maybe. Either way, that’s a pretty low comparison for the No. 1 overall pick.

More than anything, there’s really no point, except to look back on what people saw at the time some of these guys were drafted. And to be weary of getting caught up in the Myth of the Next. So when we say we see Manu Ginobili in James Harden, it’s probably unlikely we’ll see it three years from now. Maybe we will. But probably not. It’s easy to see similarities in their games – the left hand, the good dribble skills, a good mid-range game, smart player. It’s all there. But that doesn’t mean Harden will be as good as Ginobili. Heck, he may be better. And it also doesn’t mean Harden is the next Ginobili. It just means they are similar players. Does that make any sense at all?

If there’s anything to learn, it’s that each player is his own talent in his own regard. There’s no two Oscar Robertson’s. There’s no two David Robinson’s. There’s no two Michael Jordan’s. There’s just one LeBron James, one Greg Oden and one Kobe Bryant. And they’ll turn out how they turn out. It’s all a crapshoot and nobody really knows. Players can absolutely have similarities that remind you of someone else’s game, but they aren’t the next version of that person. Sometimes it’s hard to remember that.