Giannis Antetokounmpo didn’t always look like a Greek god. Stephen Curry used to be even more baby-faced than he is now. James Harden’s beard wasn’t always so magnificent.
On the week of the 2020 Draft, we take a look back at today’s NBA superstars when they were first-year novices, long before they solidified their respective places among the all-time greats.
(Note: Players listed in order of their Draft class.)
Dubbed ‘The Chosen One” on a Sports Illustrated cover while still in high school, James has somehow managed to exceed all expectations in his 17 years in the league since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2003. His tomahawk dunks, chase-down blocks and no-look assists are as potent as ever, though all now come from slightly bulked-up frame compared to his rookie season.
He wasn’t drafted by the first team that needed a point guard, nor was he the first point guard drafted in 2005. Yet it was Paul who earned Kia Rookie of the Year honors, after which followed 10 All-Star appearances, four assist crowns, six steals crowns and an All-Star MVP award in 2013. Now entering his 16th season (and first in Phoenix), it’s easy to forget that Paul was once a bouncy young point guard capable of printing the occasional dunk poster on an unprepared defender.
The long-limbed Longhorn seemed skin-and-bones coming out of Texas in 2007, but Durant has since added just enough muscle to thrive without compromising the otherwordly talents that make him unique. From his early days with Oklahoma City through his championship years with the Warriors and into his next chapter in Brooklyn, Durant has remained as advertised: a nearly unstoppable scorer from anywhere on the floor.
It’s hard to decide what’s grown more since his early NBA years: Harden’s beard or his role. From former Kia Sixth Man of the Year to Kia MVP, Harden has transformed into an offense unto himself. Before all that, however, he was the No. 3 pick in the 2009 draft and an off-ball luxury for a young contender in Oklahoma City. It’s hard to believe that the league’s reigning three-time scoring champ averaged 9.9 points per game as a rookie.
In college, Curry was often double and sometimes even triple-teamed due to his lethal jump shot. Now, Curry is… well, often double and sometimes even triple-teamed due to his lethal jump shot. But doing the same thing at the NBA level required Curry to add muscle to a body that needed it after being drafted No. 7 overall in 2009. The two-time Kia MVP and three-time NBA champion is now a household name, but even he needed several years to become the superstar he is now.
Like Antetokounmpo, Leonard lasted all the way to 15th in his Draft class (back in 2011). Unlike Antetokounmpo, he was traded on Draft day. That was the first of many things Leonard has taken in stride since, as he has stoically added two championship rings, two Finals MVPs, and a pair of Kia Defensive Player of the Year awards to his resume. Not bad for a guy whose career began averaging less than 25 minutes and 8 points per game.
The Unibrow’s potential was obvious as the No. 1 pick in 2012. Since then, his game and frame have grown by leaps and bounds. Now a crowned NBA champion and the other half of a one-two Laker punch featuring LeBron, Davis has cemented his place as one of the dominant two-way big men in the league’s history.
Heading into the 2012-13 season, the most career NBA minutes logged by a Weber State University product was the 2,033 by 2000s journeyman Eddie Gill. Then Portland drafted Damian Lillard sixth overall in 2012, setting the stage for a former Big Sky Player of the Year to become one of the best guards of the decade. Lillard has become synonymous with the Blazers while making five All-Star teams, five All-NBA teams and the conference finals in 2019.
The 2013 draft wasn’t predictable in the moment, but no one could have foreseen the 15th overall pick becoming one of the most physically gifted athletes in NBA history. Antetokounmpo was a scrawny prospect that survived and thrived despite a trying upbringing in Athens. Now, “The Greek Freak” is the face of a Bucks franchise harboring its best championship hopes since the early 1970s.
It’s been just six years since Jokic was drafted 41st overall in 2014, but the change since then has been nothing short of dramatic. The Serbian superstar has gone from all but unknown to a staple among the league’s brightest superstars. Now a two-time All-NBA center and arguably the best passing big man in NBA history, Jokic is proof that nothing is out of reach no matter where you start.
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