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Giannis, Kristaps, And Co.: Welcome To The NBA Unicorn Era

The future of the league is unfolding right before our very eyes
by Kirby Garlitos | Nov 26, 2017
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Being a fan of today’s NBA means that you’ve probably heard the term “unicorn” thrown around to describe a specific group of players. We don’t know how that trend started, but in describing these freaks as “multi-faceted players with a vast array of skills that are uncommon for their physical makeup,” we’ve developed well-justified obsessions with their games. Part of it is because the league is so loaded with talent these days that those who are bestowed the label earn it because of the things they can do on a basketball court.

It’s not enough to be an “evolution-type” player anymore, at least as far as skills are concerned. Chris Paul (all-world point god) is an evolution of Isiah Thomas. Russell Westbrook (all-everything force of nature) is an evolution of Oscar Robertson. Even Stephen Curry isn’t considered a unicorn because we’ve seen his skill-set before from some of history’s greatest shooters. He just happens to be better than all of them.

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By contrast, a unicorn is a player whose physical stature blends with a specific set of skills that we’ve never seen before in the league. It’s easy to look at Kristaps Porzingis, label him the “next Dirk,” and call it a day. But that doesn’t do justice to the fact that Porzingis is also 7’3” (three inches shorter than Yao Ming!), runs like a gazelle, puts the ball on the floor, and defends the post with unusual ferocity. If Ralph Sampson’s career wasn’t derailed by injuries, we can look at him as the OG version of Porzingis. But we never got that out of Sampson so it’s hard to tell what his true ceiling really was.

Porzingis is the one player we most associate the term “unicorn” with. But he’s far from the only one in the league today. Depending on who you ask, the Denver Nuggets and the Minnesota Timberwolves have one on their teams. The Milwaukee Bucks definitely has one. So do the New Orleans Pelicans. As for the Philadelphia 76ers? They have two.

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Before we dive into these mythological creatures terrorizing the NBA today, a qualification needs to be addressed.

A player must be under 25 years of age to qualify for unicorn status. This qualification is debatable, but we're only putting players here who have yet to realize their full potential. That means that they could still develop skills we don’t know they have. Isn’t that the most exciting part about this whole discussion? What if Giannis Antetokounmpo develops a reliable three-point shot? What if Anthony Davis becomes a more evolved playmaker? What happens when Joel Embiid polishes what’s already a polished offensive game? While we’re at it, what if Ben Simmons develops a reliable shot outside of 10 feet? The possibilities of what’s to come is the biggest driving force of this whole unicorn discussion because as tantalizing as these players already are today, the potential of what they could turn into is the reason why we’re obsessing about their labels.

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Karl-Anthony Towns

We thought long and hard about putting KAT on this list. In some ways, he fits the bill of a unicorn. He’s a 7-foot, 250-pound center who’s as adept as playing in the post as he is in hoisting up threes. He’s got a well-rounded offensive game and he’s nimble enough to put the ball on the floor if the defense gives him enough space. A guy his size shouldn’t be able to do that, but he does it naturally.

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But here’s the thing. Towns doesn’t do it regularly enough for us to really go crazy over his skills. Part of it isn’t his own fault because he’s on a team that already has three guys (Andrew Wiggins, Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague) who need the ball in their hands when they’re on the court. The lack of touches is a by-product of the Wolves’ makeup, but Towns isn’t forceful enough to demand his touches, even though he really should be the team’s first option. If he really wants to cash in on on his unicorn status, he needs the opportunity to showcase the full breadth of skills. That only happens if the Wolves revolve around him, as opposed to him being just one piece of the puzzle.

Nikola Jokic

He’s on the same boat as KAT. His unselfishness is probably the biggest detriment to him achieving full-blown unicorn status. There’s also the possibility that the unicorn version of Jokic already existed in the past. We just never saw it because he entered the league in 1996 as a gimpy 31-year-old, and still had a stellar career with the Portland Trailblazers.

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His name? Arvydas Sabonis.

Ben Simmons

Ben Simmons has played a total of 17 games in the NBA so there may be some recency bias in play here. We don’t care. We're sold on Simmons having the potential to be the evolved version of Magic Johnson. Notice though that we included the words “potential” and “evolved” in the last sentence?

As far as Simmons goes, we're still not prepared to call him a full-blown unicorn because we’ve already seen a 6’9” point guard that can do just about anything on the floor. And that same player happens to be one of the seven best players in NBA history. So as good as Simmons has been, he needs to really add another facet into his game that even Magic didn’t have. That goes back to my earlier point of what these guys can turn into once they realize their full potential. At 21 years old, Simmons is the youngest player on this list so we’re really just starting the opening act of his career. What happens then when he starts to develop a jump shot? More incredibly, what happens if he develops range?

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Imagine what a Simmons-Embiid pick-and-roll could look like if the former's defender has to make a decision between going over the latter's screen and giving him a path to the basket with his height, creativity, and vision; or going under the same screen and giving Simmons an open look from three. If he can develop a jump shot to complement his passing, physicality, and the incredible variety of well-developed shots around the basket that he already has (the skyhook is back!), he’s vaulting himself to full unicorn eligibility.

Kristaps Porzingis

Now we’re reaching into the territory of actualized unicorns in the NBA. For the reasons we mentioned earlier, Porzingis fits the mold of a unicorn because the prototype that we we’re supposed to see—Ralph Sampson—never really became the player he was destined to be. Part of it was due to the accumulation of injuries he sustained early in his career and another part of was that Sampson was never really invested into becoming as great as he should have been.

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Porzingis is a different story. Beyond the physical skills—the balance and coordination, the nimble feet, the 30-foot touch, the sneaky-good shot-blocking—there’s been no known record of Porzingis ever wanting to be anything other than becoming the best version of himself. He’s even developed the kind of New York swag that has made him the city's most beloved athlete since Derek Jeter. Put KP in a five-year time machine and, barring injury, we can finally lay to rest any and all debate on what Ralph Sampson could’ve been if his body held up and he gave a damn about playing the game.

Joel Embiid

Close your eyes and imagine what kind of player would come out if Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo had a child. Oh, wait. You don’t have to. Just watch a Philadelphia 76ers game and look for “21.”

That’s Joel Embiid.

Now go pray to the injury gods that we get to see 12 more years of JoJo. We want to see this unicorn in full flight, horn sparkling, and showering us with pixie dust.

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Anthony Davis

Speaking of fake NBA marriages, Anthony Davis is the love-child of two Kevins: McHale and Garnett. Throw in an injection of point guard skills and you have the Brow.

It seems sacrilegious to even think about Davis as an evolution of two of the greatest power forwards to ever play the game, but the comparisons fit, especially if you’ve seen Davis play for long stretches of time. He arguably has the most refined set of post-up skills in the league today. Jump hooks, turnarounds, up-and-unders—you name it, he has it in his arsenal. He’s also quick on his jump that he can either swallow up rebounds with the Plastic Man arms or rise up above everybody to make those odd-angled tip-ins. He also has point guard skills, the product of actually having to play that position in high school.

Defensively, Davis is probably one of four guys in the league that can defend all five positions. He can swarm point guards from the top-of-the-key, switch quickly when need be, and those same long arms help him guard both the point and the screener in any pick and roll situation at the same time. And those are just his abilities on the perimeter. Put him in the post and he’s stature as one of the best shot blockers in the game comes to the forefront.

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Oh, and he’s now shooting 38 percent from three, the same percentage as...Curry.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

We're summarizing my case for Giannis Antetokounmpo as the unicorn of all unicorns in the five videos below. If you’re not convinced after seeing all of them, then we don’t know what to tell you.


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