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Large shadows loom over top NBA prospects

Celtics Hall of Famer Larry Bird, now leading the Pacers, is used as a comparison for many who are projecting draft prospect Doug McDermott’s future in the NBA.Brian Spurlock/USA Today

Kansas 7-footer Joel Embiid is mentioned in the same breath as Hakeem Olajuwon. Arizona big man Aaron Gordon draws comparisons to Blake Griffin. Creighton forward Doug McDermott reminds many of Larry Bird.

No pressure, kids.

But these prospects — all expected to be early selections in Thursday’s NBA Draft — aren’t the first players who will enter the league in the shadows of others whom some consider their so-called doppelganger.

Every year media, coaches, scouts, and executives compare prospects with current/former NBA players. The comparisons are a quick and easy way to sum up that prospect’s game, a perfect bite-size evaluation that provides a general idea of what that player can do.


Of course, that’s not to say that Embiid is being compared with what Olajuwon was at the end of a storied NBA career.

Rather, Embiid is being compared with Olajuwon at that stage, when both were young, and the comparison provides not only a point of reference, but it also offers a “ceiling” of just how good he might one day become.

These comparisons are popular among fans, especially when a tantalizing young prospect is linked to a dominant NBA player, such as a Hall of Famer.

And many of the comparisons come about because both players have similar builds, backgrounds, or playing styles.

But all too often, comparisons are too easy, outlandish, or inaccurate, which ultimately can create lofty and unrealistic expectations.

“It’s a terrible problem,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “And it’s unfair to the kids, but it’s the world that we live in. Everybody is trying to make comparisons.”

While some have turned out to be accurate, there are many that were laughable, such as comparisons between Adam Morrison and Bird, DeSagana Diop and Hall of Fame center Bob Lanier, Marcus Fizer and Hall of Fame forward Charles Barkley, Eddie Curry and future Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal, and Kwame Brown and future Hall of Fame forward Kevin Garnett.


The list is almost endless.

But Ainge said that in the current age of social media, when one piece of information can spread like wildfire, such comparisons are even more of an issue.

“I think it is worse now,” he said.

Ainge isn’t alone. Several scouts and executives described how rampant bad comparisons have become and how often many of them are created based on scant evidence at best.

“Every long kid with athleticism from the continent of Africa is now the next Serge Ibaka,” said one Eastern Conference scout. “Every white guy who can shoot finds a way to get compared — if you’re taller, Larry Bird, if you’re shorter J.J. Redick. I mean, there’s too much of that that goes on.”

It even can come down to something as simple as a player at the same position who also shoots with the same hand — for example, the scout referenced how often Kentucky forward Julius Randle is compared with Memphis Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph.

“To be honest, I just think guys saw a black lefthanded kid who’s a little undersized and said ‘Oh yeah, he’s Zach Randolph,’ ” the scout said.

Of the comparison between those players, a Western Conference scout said, “I don’t see it at all, but they’re lefthanded, so it makes sense.”

Another Eastern Conference scout agreed that comparisons between players who have little in common are a problem.


“Absolutely,” the scout said. “I’ve done that myself – ‘He’s like him because he looks like him.’ I totally agree.”

And scouts and executives cited Embiid, Gordon, and McDermott as examples of the trend.

Like Olajuwon, a Hall of Fame center with Houston, Embiid is a 7-footer who hails from Africa who also picked up basketball late in life. Like Olajuwon, Embiid has shown some nice footwork on the court.

“But he’s not Olajuwon,” an Eastern Conference executive said flatly.

Like Griffin, a star forward with the Los Angeles Clippers, Gordon is an athletic forward who dunks with force, but one Eastern Conference scout said the comparisons come about because “they look like cousins”.

Like Bird, a Hall of Famer with the Celtics, McDermott is a white, sharp-shooting forward who played at a mid-major school and racked up tons of points.

But the comparisons end there.

“It’s really not fair,” McDermott said after working out for the Celtics. “I don’t think you can compare anyone to Larry Bird. There’s not going to be another one. It’s good to have a guy like that for everyone to look up to, all these young guys, myself included, because it’s the best of the best right there — him, Magic [Johnson], Michael [Jordan]. You can’t compare guys to those three, I don’t think.”

McDermott added, “We’re each our own players. People get really caught up in the comparisons – your height, your weight, what you look like, stuff like that. I think people just need to focus on what this guy can bring to the table to our team to win, and those comparisons will be put aside.”


This year’s draft class was especially hyped early in the year, in part because several prospects – such as the ones mentioned above – received high-caliber comparisons.

As the season wore on, the class lost some of its luster, as many of the players — namely the freshmen — weren’t as dominant as forecast.

“I just feel like at the beginning of the season, I felt like the draft was hyped and I still think it’s being hyped with some of the comparisons I read,” Ainge said.

“Listen, I try to protect the kids. It’s unfair to compare Doug McDermott to Larry Bird and Joel Embiid to Hakeem Olajuwon.

“I just think that’s a little bit out of control.”

Baxter Holmes can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.