Several times over the last few weeks, I've heard various NBA players referred to as "unicorns." It caught me off guard initially. I don't remember when or how this became a trend among basketball fans. But the more you hear it, the more it makes sense. The descriptive virtues are obvious. In practical terms, relative to normal basketball players, Kristaps Porzingis is a unicorn. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a unicorn. Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid. All of them.
The dictionary defines unicorn as, "a mythical creature resembling a horse, with a single horn in the center of its forehead." Recently, I did some digging and found the official NBA definition of unicorn:
"He can shoot, he can make the right plays, he can defend, and he’s a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the three-point line. That’s rare. And block shots—that’s like a unicorn in this league."
That's Kevin Durant describing Kristaps Porzingis in January of last year. That's how the revolution got its name. Because it's not just Porzingis. This is a movement that's sweeping the league as the by-product of both enlightened basketball philosophies and space-age genetics. Any given night in the NBA, there's a good chance you'll watch a big man with a mind-boggling combination of skills. Some of them are younger, and some are older players who have added to their games to keep up. Either way, we are living in the NBA's unicorn era.
So let's survey the field and rank the NBA's best unicorns:
12. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
In case there is any confusion about the precise skills we're talking about here, here's Mike Malone describing Nikola Jokic from over the weekend:
"I've never coached one," Malone said. "DeMarcus Cousins was a very good ball handler and passer in Sacramento, been around some other talented bigs, but never a guy who has the playmaking ability that he has. In the open floor, the rebound, the push. The no-look in the halfcourt, facing the basket, back-to-the-basket." That's how we talk about unicorns.
Malone is talking about plays like this, a no-look pass to Kenneth Faried on the fast break. Or this, a no-look alley-oop to Faried in the half-court:
Jokic has the skills to be higher on this list. The biggest question is consistency. So far, he's struggled playing next to JusufNurkic this year, and he hasn't been totally healthy. He's averaging 11.6 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assists on the year. That should improve over the next few months. He's playing as the lone big man in five-man lineups now, and he looks like a different player while the Nuggets look like a different team. In Monday night's win over the Mavs, Jokic had 27, 15 rebounds, and nine assists.
As Malone elaborated this weekend, "He used to be a fat point guard. He was a point guard growing up." That's how we talk about unicorns.
11. Myles Turner, Pacers
Myles Turner is increasingly ridiculous. He can set screens and hit threes on the pick-and-pop, he scores down low, and he blocks 2.4 shots per game. In just about every Pacers game, he'll hit some kind of turnaround jumper that leaves you completely baffled. As Rob Mahoney detailed earlier this month, "Turner should be prominently featured in scouting reports for years based on the special attention that the strengths of his game demand. A typical close-out will not do. A casual drive in Turner's vicinity is doomed."
Speaking of doom:
Relative to his peers, Turner doesn't have quite as much hype. Maybe that's because he was drafted lower than guys like KAT or Porzingis, or maybe it's because he plays in Indiana, or maybe it's because everyone's carefully waiting to make sure this isn't a fluke. But the lack of nationwide anxiety about guarding Myles Turner for the next 10 years is not really a problem. Look at him draining step-back threes in Cody Zeller's eye and blowing by Anthony Davis in the lane. The hype will come.
10. Joel Embiid, 76ers
If he stays healthy he's should be the best pure center in the NBA, possibly within the next two years. He's currently shooting 47% from the floor and 44% from three, averaging 18.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks. This weekend he had 33 and 10 to beat the Nets. Defensively, among starting centers this season, he's behind only Rudy Gobert and Brook Lopez for the lowestfield goal percentage allowed at the rim (43.5% on 7.5 attempts per game). The Sixers' entire defense is much, much better with him in the game. All of which is to say, there are plenty of numbers that support all the Embiid hype. But the most useful Embiid analysis should always begin and end with the baseline truth: He is GIGANTIC.
Even among NBA players, and even among the big men on this list, Embiid just looks so much bigger than anyone else on the court. He seems unfair the way Shaq once seemed unfair. When he unfurls, he envelops people.
The only player in the league who's comparable is Rudy Gobert—not a unicorn, but arguably the best defensive player in the league—and Embiid's offensive game is already several steps beyond what Gobert can do, and he's just scratching the surface. As he learns to protect the ball on offense and the Sixers surround him with better supporting pieces, this could get much scarier. Right now he's near the bottom because he's not as consistent as the rest of this list, but his ceiling's as high as anyone.
9. Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks
The first time I ever saw him play was in Vegas Summer League against Jahlil Okafor and the Sixers. He was giving up at least 50 pounds to Okafor and getting thrown around the paint, but he just kept coming back at him. His shots weren't falling from the outside, and his limbs were flying all over the place in an attempt to approximate post moves, but that wasn't really the point. It was the fight that was impressive—along with length that bothered Okafor regardless of the difference in strength.
All of that's translated to the NBA. Porzingis is still putting the pieces together on offense, but he's already playing at a near All-Star level up front, thanks in large part to a scrappiness that's been there since Day 1. He's already unfairly skilled, and you will see flashes of the finished product during every Knicks game. But while we wait for his game to go full-on "Peak Dirk plus rim protection"—threes, post moves, playmaking, blocks—the most entertaining part of this experience is watching how hard he goes against the entire league.
Look at this quote about Draymond before they played the Warriors: "Both games [last year] he played really well defensively against me. So he’s one of the top defenders in the league. It’s going to be a challenge … but I’m really looking forward to it. We didn’t really talk about nothing. But after games like that, you don’t even need anybody to talk to you. I want to go out there. Last season, right after the game was over I was thinking when was the next time we were going to get a chance to play against them. I’m ready for him."
It doesn't even matter that Draymond pretty much dominated him later that night. That quote's great because that's how Kristaps actually plays, and he already wins more battles than he loses. Also, this article should be framed in Cox Pavillion as a warning to everyone who might take summer league seriously.
8. Boogie Cousins, Kings
7. Al Horford, Celtics
6. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
We'll group these three together as the most notable big men who have evolved to fit into the unicorn mold over the past few years. Boogie is shooting threes on a nightly basis now, and on the year he's putting up 28 and 10. Horford's year started slow in Boston, but over the past month he's averaging an extremely unicorn-ish line of 16 points, 6 rebounds, 5.6 assists, and 2.2 blocks.
Gasol's probably the most dramatic example of anyone: he's embraced three-point shooting this year, and he's also carried the Grizzlies through Mike Conley's injury and has them sitting at sixth in the West. He's averaging 20.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.7 blocks over the past month, shooting 41% from three on the year. He's been nothing short of MVP-worthy through Christmas.
Why aren't they higher? Particularly with Gasol, there's a good case to be made for placement among the top three. In Boogie's case, he's got top–three talent, but the continued misery in Sacramento makes it harder to appreciate the experience. In any case, the problem for all three is that a key element of this discussion is disbelief. We are talking about big men with a truly stupefying collection of skills, but also players that make you wonder about the future of basketball. One day, will everyone be seven feet tall, hitting threes, and throwing no-look passes?
Gasol and Horford don't quite get there, and Boogie might, but he's got too many other issues to rank above the rest of this list. While we're here, note that the original NBA unicorn was Kevin Garnett, with Dirk Nowitzki following close behind him. (Also note: Boris Diaw is slowing down in Utah and he's not 7 feet tall, but spiritually, he's more of a unicorn than almost anyone.)
5. Draymond Green, Warriors
Ah, the most ornery unicorn. Draymond's not even close to seven feet tall, but lest there be any doubt about his place on this list, his ability to play center on a night-to-night basis is every bit as baffling as Joel Embiid. Even at 6'7"(ish), he's the one guy who could stop every other big man on this list.
His response to the Porzinigis quotes earlier: “My Nike rep Adrian showed me something on the sidelines ... that kind of pissed me off and made me want to go a little harder this game and guard him. It was good. I appreciate him for showing me that because I think I was in la-la land before and that immediately pissed me off." Porzingis finished that night 4-of-13 for eight points.
Draymond's emergence almost single-handedly changed what the NBA wants in big men, while his playmaking and shooting helped supercharge the best offense we've ever seen. Is he the unicorn most likely to wield his horn as a weapon and attempt to impale his peers? Yes, definitely. But nobody can deny he's amazing.
4. Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
I'll keep this short, because plenty has been said about KAT over the past six months, and some of the hype looks a little bit ridiculous in light of the Wolves' slow start. None of it was wrong, though. KAT is still outrageous. He had 41 points, 15 rebounds, and five assists against the Rockets over the weekend, and then the Wolves blew that game despite leading by nine points with 60 seconds left. If you want to focus on the second half of that sentence, go for it. I will be over here staying patient, preparing for the revolution.
3. Anthony Davis, Pelicans
If the Pelicans never get healthy, never get help, and never get relevant, Anthony Davis works pretty great as an urban legend who's passed down among NBA fans. I'm enjoying it. While the Pelicans struggle, we talk about Brow like Milwaukee-era Kareem, or Moses Malone, or Wilt Chamberlain, or any other legend who existed before games were televised often enough to produce real highlights. I heard he had 46, 14, and eight with four blocks and six steals!
Does anyone actually watch Pelicans games night-to-night? Ehhhh, maybe not. But the legend of Anthony Davis is secure regardless. He's perpetually double-teamed and still putting up monster numbers every night. Anyway, it was very difficult to choose between Brow and Giannis on this list. But ...
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
For the past few years, most of the Giannis discussions attached a familiar qualifier to his superstar potential. "If he gets a jumper..." This note is applied to a dozen different players every year. But Giannis is the first player who doesn't really need a jumpshot. He's so big and so long, it's impossible to keep him out of the lane. Once he's there, he's either getting double teamed and finding a wide-open teammate, or he's getting himself a lay-up. This is how monsters are born.
A few weeks ago I wrote about him after the first month and said, "He's putting up 22, 8, and 6, plus 2 steals and 2 blocks per game, and he's carried the Bucks to within spitting distance of a playoff spot. ... If the Bucks can surround him with capable shooters he'll be twice as dangerous, but for now it's just as impressive to watch him make this work with Tony Snell."
Later that night, he went out and dominated LeBron James. The Bucks are now firmly in the playoff mix, and just got finished destroying the Bulls through a home-and-home last week. He should start in the All-Star Game. Of every freakishly talented young big man in the league, nobody is making a bigger impact than Giannis.
1. Kevin Durant, Warriors
We saw the beginning of this year's version of KD during last year's Warriors-Thunder series. That's when KD first played small–ball four, protected the rim and harassed Draymond into the worst series of his life—and nearly pulled off the upset. Durant is playing that role full time now, and he's doing it next to Draymond, just to make it a little more unfair for everyone else.
After getting torn to shreds on opening night, Golden State now has a top-five defense thanks in large part to Durant's emergence. On offense, he's averaging 25.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, and shooting 54%. He's the clear MVP, if we're being real.
In the past, Durant's been known to disguise his true height in an attempt to blend in with his less-magical peers, but nobody is fooled. If we're identifying unicorns, the conversation has to end with the man who started this with Porzingis a year ago: "He can shoot, he can make the right plays, he can defend, he’s a 7-footer that can shoot all the way out to the 3-point line. That’s rare. And block shots—that’s like a unicorn in this league." It takes one to know one, KD.