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NBA ’90s Remakes: Is Zion Williamson a Modern Charles Barkley?

The new ‘Lion King’ may have been a dud, but several NBA rookies have a chance to reboot the games of stars from the not-too-distant past. We hand out player comps for Zion, Ja Morant, and other members of the class of 2019.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Lion King. Toy Story. Aladdin. You have to actively avoid nostalgia at the box office these days, but summer basketball isn’t all that different: You nestle into a throwback jersey of a long-retired role player, you swap Josh Selby and Anthony Randolph war stories with strangers, and you watch new stars in the hopes they remind you of someone familiar.

With that in mind, let’s cast the biggest names of the rookie class of 2019 in their own ’90s role.

Playing the Role of Charles Barkley: Zion Williamson

No one who watched Barkley in his prime thought they’d ever see a reprise, and the suggestion that Zion can play the role is offensive to some. That’s understandable—Barkley is one of the greatest players ever and did the impossible at his size. He led the league in rebounding when the paint was packed with 7-footers, all while beating guards up the floor and finishing above the rim through any and all contact. There was nobody like him … until now.

We use the term “gravity” to describe how a star can pull defenders toward him. Zion, like Barkley before him, is an anti-gravity star. Rebounds suddenly become uncontested the moment Zion enters the fray, thanks to his girth and leaping ability. Transition defenders are rendered matadors, quick to turn tail and avoid getting gored. Forcing Zion to take a jumper at least ensures no bruised sternums or egos for another possession. Barkley was a great player in part because he was feared; Zion’s combination of size, physical gifts, ball skills, and killer instinct will provoke much of the same pants-shitting.

It’s not a perfect comparison. Although the two look similar in transition, Barkley relied heavily on post isolations in the half court, while Zion will be used more as a playmaking roll man. There are elements of Shawn Kemp (ground covered on dunks), Larry Johnson (the skilled slashing), and even Rodney Rogers (nimble hefty lefties) in Zion, but no one at this size (6-foot-7, 285 pounds) with these skills has generated this kind of curiosity on this big of a scale since Barkley. We don’t know whether Zion can reach those same heights, but if he makes it to Team USA’s roster for this summer’s FIBA World Cup, we know Angola’s in trouble.

Playing the Role of Kevin Johnson: Ja Morant

If you’re lucky, you get to pick two out of three traits from your point guards: the ability to shoot with range, the ability to make every pass, and the ability to finish above the rim over help defenders. KJ could do all three at a high level. Morant might not be far behind.

Slender guards don’t usually attack with this much violence, but Morant’s preference to gather and elevate off two feet, much like KJ once did, enables him to absorb and finish through contact. In his last season at Murray State, Morant’s free throw rate was the same as KJ’s career rate (.512).

Johnson and Morant differ in how they get to the rim—KJ leaned on a lightning-quick first step in either direction, while Morant gets it done with his elite ballhandling—but the similarities become clear once the court gets tilted downhill. Even when it seems as though all daylight has been cut off, Morant will whip a last-second pass through multiple help defenders to find a wide-open corner shooter—the same kind of play that helped make Johnson’s teammate Dan Majerle an All-Star.

Johnson’s career deserves reconsideration. Injuries forced him to miss a chunk of his prime and play in only 126 games after his 30th birthday. His star was plenty bright while it shined, though; Johnson had one of the greatest playoff performances ever (46 points in Game 7 of a 1995 Western Conference semifinals series), little man dunks (his baptism of Hakeem is an all-timer), and lofty career averages of 18 points and nine assists a game. Morant will look a little different doing it, but it’s the role he was born to play.

Playing the Role of Jamal Mashburn: RJ Barrett

Barrett is probably more “Monster Mash” than “Maple Mamba” at this point. Despite his impressive athleticism in transition, Barrett is a little stiff in the half court, and relies on his strength to power his way to left-hand drives rather than his first step. The ability to bulldoze his way to his spots at age 19 is impressive, but Barrett’s decisions once he gets there leave a lot to be desired.

Not unlike Barrett, Mashburn was once a no. 1 option as a rookie on a terrible team, using his size over smaller wings to get off every shot he wanted. Turns out, he wanted them all. In his third season, Mashburn became the only player in the 3-point era to average at least 21 shots a game and shoot under 38 percent from the field. His chucking out of endless post-ups (and a possible love triangle between Jason Kidd, Jim Jackson, and R&B singer Toni Braxton) helped break up a promising young core in Dallas.

Mashburn figured it out at his next stop, taking a back seat and becoming more efficient in Miami, before ramping things up again in four seasons with the Hornets. He reached his first All-Star Game at the age of 30—which is unheard of in the NBA—but played in just 19 more games after that season, retiring at the age of 31 due to injury. It took time for Mashburn to find a scoring balance; there are signs that Barrett might have to travel the same path.

Playing the Role of Robert Horry: De’Andre Hunter

Horry was basketball’s Forrest Gump. He was born in Alabama, played for the Crimson Tide, and was tangentially involved in some of the biggest moments in history. There will probably never be a role player with a career this serendipitous again, but Hunter’s story isn’t half-bad: He was a member of the first 1-seed to ever lose to a 16-seed in NCAA history and then won the national championship the next year.

Like Horry in his prime, Hunter can offer additional rim protection and stifle isolation attempts; he has a habit of always being in the right place at the right time on both ends of the floor. Horry might be the gold standard for players who never took anything off the table, and it’s worth considering that Hunter is built—physically and mentally—in a similar way. Forrest Gump is a movie that can never be remade (you hear me, Hollywood? Never!) and Horry’s career couldn’t be duplicated in a thousand years, but Hunter is a pretty good choice for a spiritual spinoff as a big 3-and-D guy who will fit seamlessly next to virtually any star.

Playing the Role of Marcus Camby: Jaxson Hayes

If Hayes time-traveled back to the ’90s, the jig would be up in mere minutes. Big men aren’t supposed to be this fast. The closest thing the ’90s got was Camby, a rail-thin shot-blocker extraordinaire who got stuck slugging it out with behemoths on the block in games played at a snail’s pace. The next decade would be kinder to Camby—he won a Defensive Player of the Year award and led the league in blocks for three straight seasons with Denver.

The comparison of Camby to Hayes is important for a few reasons. Even the best center prospects (Camby was drafted ahead of Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant) can take time to blossom, especially when they aren’t allowed to play to their strengths. Hayes could develop into a nightmarish rim-runner and pick-and-roll finisher in open space, but whether that space can be properly provided or whether he’ll find enough playing time on a team with Derrick Favors, Brandon Ingram, and Williamson remains to be seen.

Playing the Role of Dana Barros: Darius Garland

Let’s put some respect on Barros’s name: He’s top 20 all time in career 3-point percentage (.411); he won Most Improved Player as a 27-year-old back when the award meant what it was supposed to; and he dropped 50 on the eventual champions, the Houston Rockets, in his only season as a full-time starter. Only two guards in NBA history have scored more points per game on a higher true shooting percentage than Barros did during the 1994-95 season: Reggie Miller and Stephen Curry. Dana Barros could go.

Garland (6-foot-2, 175 pounds) is bigger than Barros (5-foot-11, 163), and he can do more off the dribble and around the rim, but shooters of this quality get compared to other shooters, especially when the form on their jumper looks almost identical.

Playing the Role of Manute Bol: Bol Bol

Sometimes the remakes write themselves.

D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California