There are few players in NBA history that stand out from the pack like Kobe Bryant. Michael Jordan was a more dominant player, but he needed Scottie Pippin, an all-time great in his own right, to land each of his six championship rings while Bryant proved he could succeed without O'Neal. LeBron James is perhaps the best all-around performer in NBA history, but he lacks Bryant’s championships and the Black Mamba’s reputation for being a game-over, ice in his veins cold stone killer on the court.
As Steph Curry has crashed to earth in recent weeks, Kevin Durant out indefinitely and in a (albeit slightly) reduced role from his Oklahoma City days when he returns, and James seemingly admitting to not being able to grab another title without abundant support (given his recent “we need a f—ing playmaker” type comments), now may be the time for a Kobe 2.0 to emerge from the pack of contenders as the next face of the NBA.
With that in mind… here are the 15 Players Who COULD Be The Next Kobe Bryant.
15 Tim Hardaway Jr.
What Tim Hardaway. Jr. lacks in all-around skill set, he may just make up for in opportunity to elevate his game to Kobe Bryant like levels. Featuring a nearly identical 6’ 6” 200 plus pound frame as the Laker great, Hardaway, son of the three-time Hall of Fame finalist point guard of the same name, has gone from a late first round pick of the New York Knicks in 2013 to the emerging star of the Atlanta Hawks in just four seasons.
He has rode better shot selection, an improved ability to create for himself (he has taken a career high 28.3 percent of field goals within three feet of the basket this), and a career high in assists to vie for a regular spot in the starting rotation this season. One recent stretch of five games saw Hardaway averaging 23 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.4 steals, including pouring in 36 against the Hawks recent playoff nemesis LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. A stretch to compare him to Bryant? Absolutely, but its possible with an Atlanta franchise badly in the need of a scorer capable of taking over a game, he may soon at least get an opportunity to prove us right on a night-in, night-out basis.
14 Gary Trent Jr. (High School)
It wouldn’t be a “next Kobe” article without a look at some high school seniors picking up buzz as potential NBA stars across the country. The #1 shooting guard in the Class of 2017 according to ESPN is incoming Duke freshman Gary Trent Jr. out of Prolific Prep in Napa, CA. Son of the “Shaq of the MAC” of the same name, Trent is not a banger on the inside like his father, but is capable of scoring from anywhere. Could "Shaq of the MAC" have given birth to "Kobe of the ACC"?
Its of course way too early to count on Gary Trent, Jr. being an all-time great or even just great NBA player. Besides, he may be more of a LeBron type anyway. “I am just trying to be an all-around player, not just a scorer,” he noted in his final high school season. “I am trying to rebound more and be more of a distributor.” Standing at 6’ 5” and with 6’ 8”, Trent Sr. providing genetic advantages, he may end up with more of a James style body and game, but for now, he will be relied upon at Duke for what he already does well, a guard who can score in bunches, a la Bryant.
13 Trevon Duval (High School)
The fourth overall rated prospect by ESPN stands at 6’ 3” and 183 pounds, putting him at the point for now, but it would be easy to see him grow into a Kobe Bryant-like build and embrace a role as a score first, pass second shooting guard. Trevon Duval hasn’t committed to a university yet, but it is thought he may join Gary Trent, Jr. at Duke.
Regardless, Duval hardly plays small as he is known for his highlight reel dunks, big time athleticism, and of course the ability to simply make baskets. So he may end up more Russell Westbrook than Kobe Bryant... but how far off of a comparison is that really? Today’s bigger point guards can dominate and take over a game in a pretty similar fashion to Black Mamba. Duval might just become the best of that new mold of NBA superstar and very soon too.
12 Malik Monk
The reigning SEC Player of the Year Malik Monk will likely follow the recent tradition of one-and-done University of Kentucky freshman and bolt for the NBA following the team’s March Madness run. Monk will bring Kobe-like credentials along with him to the show, leading the SEC in scoring at 21.2 points per game this season after previously being a top-10 amateur prospect and McDonald’s All-American.
He also demonstrates a Kobe-like confidence, whether in saying “it's bad news for every team coming up," after scoring a then-season-low 6 points in the SEC regular season finale or claiming “I didn’t feel out of sync. I was taking all my shots… just not making them”, after only managing 2 points in a SEC tournament quarterfinal win over Georgia shortly thereafter. Monk would go on to score 20 and 17 respectively on the way to leading Kentucky to the tournament championship. Not surprisingly, he is projected to be a lottery pick this summer.
11 Devin Booker
The next Kobe Bryant is someone who can beat any opponent, any time, in a one-on-one battle with the game hanging in the balance. On March 11, Devin Booker did just that, scoring points 35 and 36 after a slick move freed him for a game winning jumper, bringing victory for his Phoenix Suns over the Dallas Mavericks, his second such buzzer beater of the 2017 calendar year alone. Booker also passed LeBron James earlier this season to become the youngest player in history to score 20 or more points in at least 16 consecutive games.
A Kobe clone in size at 6’ 6” and 206lb, Booker was also drafted 13th overall in 2015 at just 18 years old, younger by a few months than even Bryant was when he was taken at the same slot in 1996. Compare their sophomore efforts in the NBA and adjusting for a higher scoring league giving Booker an advantage (averaging about five points per game more), and their counting stats are just about neck and neck.
10 Stephen Curry
Perhaps Stephen Curry feels a bit low on this list, but unlike so many of the men in front of him, its not that Steph doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Kobe Bryant, its simply that the two players are more unique than they are alike. The “Baby-Faced Assassin” shares the same on-court cockiness delivered by “Black Mamba” and Bryant paid him the compliment that he often heard from others of “toughest player to guard in the league” on his way out the door last season, but it would be an understatement to say Curry's game is built more on deadly shooting than an ability to get to the basket at will. In fact, in just his eighth season, Steph just passed Bryant for 11th all time in career three pointers, on his way to likely shattering the career record.
Curry says “there’s not a chance” he will ever equal Bryant’s 81 point game. We’ll see on that, but rest assured, if he does, he’ll do it his way.
9 Dion Waiters
Dion Waiters desire to be the next Kobe Bryant has gone so far that he literally speaks Black Mamba’s words as his own. “I’d rather go 0 for 30 than 0 for 9 because you go 0 for 9 that means you stopped shooting. That means you lost confidence,” the Miami Heat shooting guard said to defend his poor field goal percentage in a late January effort. Turns out that quote had been attributed to Bryant nearly word for word in a 2014 Sports Illustrated profile.
Waiters has also been outspoken in his belief he can dominate at a Kobe-like level since before he was even in the NBA, making his University of Syracuse teammates call him “Kobe Wade” and then saying Bryant “paved the way for a player like me” following being named a First Team NBA All-Rookie in 2013. The fourth overall pick of the 2012 draft has recently finally started to inspire confidence that he might live up to his own hype, pouring in 33 on back to back nights amidst Miami’s season high 13 game winning streak in January and February and sitting at a career high 16 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game as of this writing. A lot more to go for sure, but Waiters at least has one person who thinks he can do it. Himself.
8 D’Angelo Russell
“There’s freedom in Kobe not being around,” the Lakers best shot at having their own next Bryant, D’Angelo Russell, said towards the beginning of his first season without the star as a teammate this past October. “There's no one leader, no face of the Lakers.”
That may be about to change. Similarly touted young teammate Brandon Ingram recently told reporters that Russell was “head of the snake” for the Lakers (a pointed “Black Mamba” reference?) Fellow teammate Jordan Clarkson concurs. “He starts the game for us. He kind of sets the tone…so when he goes out & plays like that, everybody follows suit.” And if that doesn’t sound Bryant enough for you, how about this? Russell has averaged 23 points a game since Valentine’s Day. Could the next Kobe be already working his magic at Staples Center? Unfortunately, the Lakers are only 1-7 since D’Angelo started scoring in bunches. Not quite there yet.
7 Collin Sexton
Collin Sexton is a 6’ 3” high school senior guard from Mableton, GA, who has committed to play with the University of Alabama. He also has a Kobe-esque drive to improve his game, illustrated in his amazing journey from unranked to five-star basketball recruit over the course of one summer in 2016. A last minute invitee to try out for the USA Basketball U17 team, Sexton collapsed doing conditioning work only to continue on after being helped up by coaches, just days before making the squad and leading the team to the Gold Medal, winning MVP of the international competition in the process.
He's a trash talker like Bryant, both to opponents but also to himself. “He got T’d up in practice every day", his Pebblebrook High coach George Washington recalled. He’s now the #7 overall prospect in this year’s college recruiting class, and Alabama's head honcho Avery Johnson has already revealed how he feels about the biggest get in the highest ranked group of incoming freshman in school history. “He’s a stud,” Sexton’s coach-to-be raved.
6 DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan grew up about 15 miles south of Staples Center and recalls memories of being “7 years old and I wanted to cry” after viewing a particularly bad playoff performance early in Kobe Bryant’s NBA career. He first met his idol at age 16 while on a summer run at Loyola Marymount. and then chose to go to school at USC, in part to stay close to Bryant. “There’s nothing you can show me that Kobe has done on a court that I don’t know about or have tried. I practice almost all of them,” DeRozan gushes.
Today, donning the number 10 on the back of his jersey as a homage to Bryant’s Olympic number, DeRozan has gained notoriety for prolifically scoring while avoiding a league wide trend towards the three ball. Instead, he echoes his idol with mid-range step-backs and side steps, and averages a free throw attempt for every four minutes of play this season, better than Kobe’s career best. He has reached a career high 27 points per game in 2016-17, and with running mate Kyle Lowry injured and in his walk year, the reigns may be fully DeRozan’s soon to be the undisputed leader of the Toronto Raptors. We’ll see then how Kobe-like he can truly become.
5 Lonzo Ball
Lonzo Ball stands at 6’ 6” and regularly goes second overall in 2017 NBA mock drafts to, you guessed it, the Los Angeles Lakers. With the Boston Celtics having the best shot of winning the lottery (inheriting the current NBA doormat Brooklyn Nets’ pick), basketball’s greatest and oldest rivalry looks to receive a shot in the arm. Ball stars for UCLA as a freshman and grew up in the Los Angeles area, so the Lakers seem to be the destined place for him to land. He even speaks like Kobe, saying “you can’t make an excuse for your thumb” after a seemingly injury-related poor performance in a conference tournament semi-final loss to Arizona.
And then there’s his dad, who quickly backtracked after saying “my son will only play for the Lakers” earlier this year. No pressure, kid.
4 James Harden
After a 41-41 season and a first-round playoff exit last season, James Harden did something perhaps surprisingly Kobe Bryant like. “I had to look in the mirror at myself this summer. I had to get better,” Harden said, despite coming off career highs in 29 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.1 rebounds per game to join only Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James in reaching all those benchmarks in a single season.
So, he did the best thing one can do to ape Kobe Bryant’s approach to basketball; he turned to his childhood idol for advice. He's gotten to a point in his career he's had enough," Bryant said. "As players, we get to that point where this is the most important moment, this is the season. I want to win the championship now by any means necessary.” The Houston Rockets are vying for their best record in the Harden era as the season winds down (and likely a top-five finish in W-L among a 50 season franchise history), and “The Beard” is a bona fide MVP candidate. Still, until Harden can prove he can take a team to the NBA Finals on his back, he will continue to have a reputation of an offense only type player, without the killer instinct to truly follow in Bryant's footsteps.
3 Kahwi Leonard
It doesn’t seem coincidental that Kawhi Leonard and Kobe Bryant’s seem to be mentioned in the same sentence so much recently. First, late in his final season, Bryant was approached by Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich and “we talked about Kawhi a little bit,” Kobe relayed. “He wanted me to stay in his ear…. he has a tremendous amount of potential.” Then there were rumors the two had worked out together over this past summer (untrue.) Finally, NBA All Star DeMarcus Cousins said earlier this season he saw “flashes of Kobe” in Leonard’s performance and long time rival Reggie Miller pointedly compared him to both Bryant and Michael Jordan.
Leonard was already going toe to toe with Bryant in defensive brilliance, but with Tim Duncan retiring alongside Kobe at the end of the last season, Kawhi's penchant for fadeaway jumpers and slicing to the rim while leading his team in scoring on a nightly basis in 2017 to the tune of 26.2 points per game is starting to look very familiar. There is another word often associated with Bryant being mentioned this season for Kawhi: MVP.
2 Russell Westbrook
Perhaps we have been going about this all wrong. Maybe we should just let Kobe Bryant himself decide who is the player who deserves to be the recipient of his proverbial baton. “When I turn on the TV and I watch players play,” Bryant said before the 2016-17 season, “the player that plays with the same kind of emotion and grit and competitive intensity is Russell.” Westbrook, that is.
And he may just be right. For instance, Kobe Bryant set the NBA record for usage rate, ending 38.7% of the 2005-06 possessions (either making a basket, going to the free throw line, or turning the ball over.) Westbrook is above 40% of 2016-17 as of this writing. That same season, Bryant led the league in scoring at 35.4 points per game but found himself with a middling (for him) 45-37 record in between the Shaquille O’Neal and Pau Gasol eras. This should be good news to current NBA scoring leader Russell Westbrook, as his Thunder have stumbled to a similar winning percentage this season after losing Kevin Durant to free agency. If the comparison holds up, championship rings built around Westbrook's prolific scoring and will to win may be around the corner.
1 Markelle Fultz
It seems appropriate we end on a young lottery pick about to enter the league to truly find the next Bryant. Markelle Fultz's 23.2 scoring average is the highest in the Pac-12 in 20 years and is second in the history of the University of Washington, earning him a presumed #1 overall selection in the upcoming 2017 NBA Draft. Yet the 6’ 4” point guard’s team failed to make the NCAA tournament, stumbling to 22 losses and just 2-16 in conference play. With explosive athleticism, a long wingspan, and the ability to accelerate past defenders and sink an array of shots, Fultz lack of winning may be all that stands in the way of being the best candidate to eventually become the next Bryant.
Fultz showed a confidence that would make Kobe proud (and want to destroy him in a one-on-one) when he first watched video of the great with University of Washington assistant coach Raphael Chillious. “And it wasn't a cocky thing," Chillious said of Fultz' boast he could be better than Bryant. "He wants to do it in a humble way, not so he can walk around puffing his chest out, saying ‘I am the greatest.’ He wants to be the greatest. There’s a big difference there.”
Perhaps just enough of a desire to bring whatever team is lucky enough to win the NBA lottery the next Kobe Bryant.