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Larry Johnson’s NBA career was full of “what ifs.” What if he and Alonzo Mourning had just sat down and worked things out? What if he hadn’t been traded to the New York Knicks? And, of course, what if he hadn’t hurt his back?

Following a highly successful two-year run at UNLV, where he won a national championship and was a two-time Big West Player of the Year and a two-time Consensus First-Team All-American, Johnson was taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1991 NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets.

Larry Johnson was a two-time All-Star with the Hornets, but injuries hindered his five-year run with the Knicks

Johnson came out of the gate strong at the pro level, averaging 19.2 points, 11 rebounds, and 3.6 assists to easily win Rookie of the Year honors. He was even better in his second year, averaging 22.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 4.3 assists, earning his first NBA All-Star Game appearance, a spot on the All-NBA Second Team, and his first trip to the postseason, where the Hornets knocked off the Boston Celtics in four games before falling to the Knicks in the second round.

Ahead of his third season, the Texas native signed a seven-year/$84 million contract, at the time the most lucrative deal in NBA history. But that was the year his back problems began, and he missed 31 games as Charlotte missed the playoffs. Johnson came back strong the following year, earning his second All-Star Game appearance and leading the Hornets to their first 50-win season before losing to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs.

Friction between Johnson and Mourning led the Hornets to deal the latter to the Miami Heat following that season, and Johnson was shipped to New York a year later, where he was never quite the same player he was in Charlotte. In five seasons with the Knicks, he averaged 12.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 3.7 assists before retiring in October 2001 due to the chronic back issues that hindered the second half of his career.

Johnson says he would ‘make a living in the paint’ in today’s NBA

Larry Johnson with the Charlotte Hornets in 1995
Larry Johnson | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

In a recent appearance on Open Court Basketball’s Sidelines podcast, Johnson delved into another “what if” scenario, one that put him in today’s NBA. Many have likened his game to that of Zion Williamson over the last few years, and the two-time All-Star seems to agree.

Johnson says Williamson is one of the only players in the league today to spend the majority of his time in the paint and stated he would do precisely the same thing if he were in the NBA today — and that he would do it quite well.

“I don’t see a lot of guys posting up. Zion and maybe one or two other guys make their living posting up in the NBA. Even seven-footers now in the NBA — they all want to shoot the basketball on the outside, dribble the basketball, play point guard, do all this stuff from outside.

“I’m looking at today, and I go, ‘man, I can make a living in the paint,’ because when I was playing, everybody was in the paint. It was all about black and blue in the paint — Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone — it was all about getting down and banging. These guys don’t do that as much.

“So I think I would’ve had an advantage. I just see myself kind of like being a force down low if I was playing today.”

Larry Johnson

So what do you think, folks? Could 6-foot-6 Larry Johnson live in the paint in today’s NBA?

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