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Battle of the Unicorns

Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are dominant, jaw-dropping, once-in-a-generation talents — and they’re still under 23. But who’s the most precious unicorn in the NBA?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

NBA fans will remember six things about 2016: Golden State’s quest for 73 wins, LeBron’s Cavs channeling the 2004 Red Sox, The Block, Durant going Hollywood Hogan on Westbrook, every decent free agent suddenly being worth $15 million to $20 million a year even with names like “Ian Mahinmi” and “Allen Crabbe,” and finally, unicorns. To be fair, the league has been churning out unicorns since Russell and Wilt. Isn’t that one of the single best things about following basketball? When someone shows up and you say to yourself, “Wow, I’ve never seen THAT”?

A great example: In 1984, Charles Barkley showed up in Philly looking like Ron Jaworski’s new right tackle, when he was really a 6-foot-4 runaway train who pounded the glass like he was using a trampoline. Nobody took a charge from Barkley in those days; you were better off hopping in front of a Greyhound. We never called him a “unicorn.” We just knew we hadn’t seen anything like him before.

On the flip side, I remember being blown away by Michael Jordan’s rookie season. Bought his posters and sneakers, stuck my tongue out on drives to the hoop, even stayed up late for his first Letterman appearance. But MJ was the next evolutionary step after Jordan’s childhood hero, David Thompson; we’d seen him before. That’s why we halfheartedly expected Young Kobe to blossom into the Evolutionary MJ. But you know what we’ll never see again? Barkley. Thank God for YouTube!

So maybe there are three versions of an NBA unicorn: the one we had/haven’t seen before but might be replicable (the traditional unicorn), the one we’ll probably never see again (the tweener unicorn), and the one we’ll definitely never see again (the true unicorn). Those lists look like this:

Traditional unicorns: Russell, Wilt, Thompson, Dominique, Ralph Sampson, Pippen, Spud Webb, Shaq, C-Webb, Penny, Sheed, T-Mac, Dirk, Yao, and young Blake.

Tweener unicorns: Jordan, Iverson, LeBron, Curry, and Harden.

(Quick explanation: Kobe’s relatively creepy Jordan impersonation opened the door for another MJ someday … I could imagine another 5-foot-11 scoring prodigy like Iverson who doubles as the league’s toughest m.f.’er … I could imagine another 6-foot-8 super-athlete like LeBron who never gets tired and plays basketball like he’s the queen on a chessboard … I could imagine another playmaking magician like Curry with 30-foot range … and I could imagine seeing the Sloan Conference lab create another lefty slash-and-kick playmaker like Harden who scores only on 3s, layups and free throws. But I wouldn’t wager on any of those things happening again. Would you?)

True unicorns: Kareem (impossibly coordinated/durable + the unicornish sky hook); Earl the Pearl (unlike … anything); Pistol Pete (same); Doctor J (mutant hands and moved like a ballerina); Adrian Dantley (a 6-foot-3 herky-jerky post-up specialist?); Gervin (unreplicable isn’t a word, but that was the Iceman); Bird (ditto); Magic (6-foot-9 point guard/genius/leader/never-happening-again); McHale (hold this thought); Hakeem (his backstory and how it helped his hoops game simply cannot be re-created); Barkley; Manute Bol (read page 340 of my paperback); Dennis Rodman (can’t be replicated — and maybe the world is safer that way); Durant (McAdoo crossed with Gervin crossed with Spider-Man crossed with Plastic Man with 25-foot range???); and Westbrook (part point guard, part striker, part running back, part Terminator).

That brings us to our current under-25 unicorn candidates: Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid and Giannis Antempokonokokoakkokookookoko (from now on, Giannis).

Sorry, Towns, we’re bumping you from the Unicorn Nightclub. I’ve seen you before. You’re the evolutionary Rasheed Wallace. That’s not a bad thing — unlike Rasheed, you play hard every game, you actually enjoy posting up, you’re considerably more coachable, and you don’t react to every unfavorable call like someone tried to tow your car. (If you can’t tell, I’m still bitter that Sheed wasn’t better.) But I’ve seen you before and I’m probably seeing you again.

As for Anthony Davis, check this out:

Player A: 26 and 10, 2.2 BPG, 24 PER, 60% FG, 84% FT, 17.0 FGA, 6.6 FTA, 24.1 usage
Player B: 30 and 11, 2.8 BPG, 28 PER, 49% FG, 81% FT, 21.2 FGA, 9.9 FTA, 33.2 usage

If Player A played for a shitty team and did more of everything, it’s safe to say he’d put up Player B’s numbers, right? (Just nod so we can keep going.) Well, Player A is Kevin McHale’s transcendent 1986–87 season (when he broke his foot near the end of the year); Player B is 2016–17 Davis. Stick Davis in a time machine, throw him on the ’87 Celtics as Larry Legend’s wingman in McHale’s place and give him the ball 28 percent less, only he’s getting significantly better chances on one of the most creative teams of all time. Guess what happens. He’s putting up 26 and 11 and shooting 60 percent. And if you threw Vintage McHale on any floundering team and bumped his usage, guess what happens. He’s putting up 30 and 11 and shooting somewhere around 50 percent.

Now, it feels goofy to compare McHale and the Brow when Davis is admittedly a better athlete. But Davis is the Evolutionary McHale. The Freddy Krueger arms, the soft hands constantly around the rim, the quick double jumps, the perfect footwork, the reliable 15-footer, the unstoppable one-handers … I’ve seen it before! They even have a signature body hair quirk: Davis’s unibrow and McHale’s bushy armpits that doubled as the Bird era’s victory cigar. And if you still don’t believe me, watch this.

So yeah, it hurts that McHale bumps Davis — one of the most important basketball players of the past 20 years — down to tweener unicorn status. But you know what hurts more as a McHale Kool-Aid drinker? (He’s still the best low-post scorer I’ve ever seen, by the way.) I just assumed that I would spend my life thinking McHale was a true basketball unicorn. When would I ever see him again? Now I’m seeing a more effective, more athletic version of him? Davis is six years YOUNGER than ’87 McHale? It just hurts. I’m in pain.

That leaves us with Giannis, Porzingis and Embiid. What kind of unicorns are they? Who’s the most unicorny? Which one would you want if you were starting a basketball team right now? Sounds like we need to dust off the old Dr. Jack breakdown for this one …

Most Unicornish Gimmick

This comes down to three questions you never imagined you’d ask at any point in your life (and if you claim that you did, you’re lying).

“What would have happened if Scottie Pippen would have grown to 6-foot-11 and played point guard?”

“What would have happened if Dirk Nowitzki grew to 7-foot-3, kept all of his offensive skills, protected the rim and had way more attitude?”

“What would have happened if Dikembe Mutombo would have sacrificed 25 percent of his defensive ceiling for an advanced offensive game with 25-foot range?”

Um, read that last sentence again.


(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Best Nickname

The Zinger? 6 Spot? Taps? Tapsy? It’s been a brutal start for Porzingis nicknames unless you count “the Lativian Gangbanger” (courtesy of Michael Rapaport, who thinks Porzingis is from “Lativia”) and “the Unicorn” (gaining momentum lately). He’ll end up being “KP” and that’s fine. Meanwhile, we’re disqualifying Embiid for nicknaming himself “The Process” and violating Rule 54B of the Jalen Rose NBA Handbook (“Never give yourself a nickname”).

Quick tangent on NBA nicknames: They aren’t a dying breed … but they’re just about dead. In the old days, we kept churning out beauties like the Iceman, Larry Legend, Magic, Doctor J, the Mailman, the Boston Strangler, Big Game James, the Chief and the Human Highlight Film. If you didn’t earn a nickname, either your name sounded unique enough (Moses, Kareem, Isiah), we hated your guts (Bill Laimbeer), or you were John Stockton (John Stockton). That started shifting in the mid-1990s with KG, AI, LJ, T-Mac and J-Kidd. Then “the Reign Man” flamed out and we settled on “Dirk” over the 240 possible nicknames that were sitting there. Then Kobe nicknamed himself “the Black Mamba” and everyone gave up.

A decade later, we connect with NBA stars through first names, initials and hyphens unless there’s a facial hair tie-in (“the Beard” or “the Brow,” basically) or unless they brought their college nickname with them (“Booooooooo-gieeeeeee!”). So I’m guessing “the Greek Freak” first gets chopped down to “Freak,” and eventually we’ll settle on “Giannis” just like we settled on “LeBron,” “Steph,” “Blake” and “Darko.” We suck.


Most Unexpectedly Innovative Skill

I never expected Porzingis’s sneaky-good rim protection, Embiid’s unexpectedly potent face-up game or Embiid’s 3-point prowess. Let’s not gloss over any of those things. But Giannis breaks ground in three different ways:

1. During LeBron’s athletic apex (2009–12), he’d jump a passing lane and turn on the jets, and suddenly it seemed like the steal-and-zoom-and-dunk sequence was happening in slow motion. When you watched it in person, it felt like he’d shrunk the court. Giannis emulates that in a different way; instead of doing a Usain Bolt impression, he takes such enormous steps that it almost feels like you’re looking at an optical illusion. Giannis drives to the basket like he’s stepping over land mines and bear traps. It’s flat-out incredible.

2. Speaking of LeBron, put it this way: When LeBron hands over the Chase-Down Block championship belt, he’s giving it right to Giannis.

3. Magic and Bird were the two best passers I’ve ever seen. You know what helped both of them, and especially Magic? They could see over everybody! If you have six minutes to kill, watch how easily Magic found cutters around the basket in this passing montage. That could be Giannis someday. We haven’t seen a point guard tower over defenders since Magic. I have a full-fledged basketball boner.


Most Freakish Physical Trait

LeBron’s hands measure 9.25 inches. Kawhi comes in at 11.25 inches. Jordan’s were 11.4 inches and Wilt’s were 11.5 inches. Giannis? 12 inches. HE HAS BIGGER HANDS THAN WILT CHAMBERLAIN DID.

(I bet Wilt didn’t have this type of picture with JFK, either.)


Night-to-Night YouTube/Meme/GIF/Fake Movie Clip Potential

Allow me to introduce you to my friends “Giannis Antetokounmpo insane Eurostep dunk,” “Giannis with a Eurostep Posterizer on Ibaka,” “Giannis 3-point line to dunk in two steps,” “Giannis Antetokounmpo with the Huge Block & Fastbreak Assist,” and “Giannis dunks with his dick” (fine, that clip doesn’t exist … yet).


Most Glaring but Fixable Weakness

Embiid can’t stay healthy (yet). Giannis can’t shoot (yet); he’s scoring 23 a night on dunks, layups and free throws, basically. And Porzingis can’t protect the glass yet — when the Mustache Brothers and Westbrook demolished him at MSG in November, let’s just say the Lativian wasn’t doing much gangbanging. I’d bet on Giannis learning to shoot 3s before I’d bet on Embiid being durable or Porzingis being a great rebounder.


Most Hyperbolic Description of a Unicorn Ceiling

Which of these quotes was actually said this month?

Jerry Colangelo on Embiid: “We almost had Kareem on the Suns in 1969; we lost the coin flip and ended up with Neal Walk. All these years later, I finally ended up with Kareem — it’s just that his name is Joel.”

Jason Kidd on Giannis: “Having been around some of the best in the world in LeBron and Dirk, wouldn’t it be cool to have those two combined as one player? Maybe that could happen.”

Phil Jackson on Porzingis: “Who? The tall white guy?”

(Answer: Kidd’s actually said his quote, and it wasn’t 100 percent ridiculous. I mean, it was NINETY percent ridiculous, but not 100 percent.)


Sheer Awesomeness of Their 2016–17 Numbers

We’re comparing them to historical doppelgängers so you can have a true sense of what’s brewing here:

KP, Year 2 (age 21): 20.1 and 7.6, 45–38–79, 18.9 PER, 1.8 BPG, 5.4 3FGA, 4.3 FTA, 34.6 MPG
Dirk, Year 2 (age 21): 17.5 and 6.5, 46–38–83, 17.5 PER, 0.8 BPG, 3.7 3FGA, 4.2 FTA, 35.8 MPG

(Bonus nugget: According to Basketball-Reference, Duncan, Shaq, and Anthony Davis were the only other 21-or-under players taller than 6-foot-10 to put up 20 points and 7.5 rebounds with 1.7 blocks and an 18-plus PER every night. The Zinger!)

Garnett (age 22) (per-36): 20 and 10, 46–29–70, 1.7 BPG, 22.4 PER, 4.2 FTA, 4.1 APG
Embiid (age 22) (per-36): 27 and 11, 47–44–75, 3.7 BPG, 23.5 PER, 9.2 FTA, 4.3 3FGA

(Two disclaimers: Embiid has played only 18 of 27 games so far, and he’s averaging only 24.2 minutes per game. Do a shot of settle-down juice with me … and then let’s stare at those per-36-minute numbers again. JESUS!)

Giannis (age 22): 22.6 and 9 (and 6 assists), 52–27–77, 4.1 stocks, 26.9 PER, 6.6 FTA
Magic (age 22): 19 and 9.6 (and 9.5 assists), 54–21–76, 3.1 stocks, 22.9 PER, 5.6 FTA

(Some context: I created “stocks” in my NBA book to show how ludicrously good Hakeem and David Robinson were. It’s steals per game plus blocks per game. In 1990, Hakeem averaged 24.3 points, 14 boards, and 6.7 stocks — 4.6 blocks, 2.1 steals — which seemed inconceivable until Robinson dropped 23.2 points, 12.2 boards, and 6.8 stocks two years later. Only Robinson, Hakeem and, strangely, GERALD WALLACE have topped 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals in the same season. Giannis is the first player to average 22–9–6 with 2 steals and 2 blocks. Don’t you wish someone told LeBron in, like, 2008 how rare this was? I feel like he would have banged out 30–9–9–2–2 just out of principle.)

(More context: Right now, the Freak’s 22–9–6–2–2 leads the Bucks in all five major statistical categories, something that’s happened only four other times: Dave Cowens, 1978; Pippen, 1995; Garnett, 2003; LeBron, 2009. Four top-40 Pyramid guys. Yeeesh.)

Anyway, when I created my all-time Wine Cellar in that same NBA book, I nearly used Magic’s 1982 season because he played four positions, threw up a triple-double every night and anchored a sneaky-devastating Lakers press that remains one of the NBA’s great “why-haven’t-more-people-copied that?” weapons. I just assumed we’d never see anything remotely approaching that version of Young Magic again. And yet … here’s Giannis. Seriously, where the F is this going????


(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Defensive Prowess

I compared Giannis to a 6-foot-11 Pippen about 2,000 words ago, but Scottie was the best perimeter defender I’ve ever seen, and Giannis isn’t close yet. (I know, I just disagreed with myself.) Still, a 22-year-old stud athlete with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Roy Munson–size hands and a chance to average six stocks one day clinches this category by default — it’s just one of my rules.


Guy You’d Most Want As Your Teammate

In October, Embiid replaced Rembert Browne as the most fun coworker in America. There was a ceremony and everything.


Social Media Savvy

Hmmmm, maybe it’s the guy who has already earned headlines such as “The King of NBA Twitter,”Joel Embiid’s Savvy Social Media Presence,” “Joel Embiid: Social Media Hall-of-Famer” and “The NBA’s King of Social Media”? Let’s hope this doesn’t lead to him dating a Kardashian.


Nastiest Competitive Side (aka, the MJ Gene)

With apologies to Embiid and the Lativian Gangbanger (who has steadfastly refused to be punked by anyone since day one — right, Marquese Chriss?), I love the chip on Giannis’s shoulder more than just about anything else about him. Have you ever seen anyone, in LeBron’s entire career, attack a LeBron team quite like this?

That’s when it became unacceptable to miss any Bucks-Cavs game. Giannis thinking that he’s every bit as good as LeBron is my third-favorite subplot of the season, trailing only KD playing on the unselfish Warriors and Knicks fans thinking anyone might trade for Joakim Noah. Tuesday night, LeBron (34, 12 and 7) took this Giannis thing personally and tried to blow Milwaukee off the court. Giannis (25 and 13) and Jabari (30 and 9) took that assault personally and rallied to send the game to overtime, which LeBron took even more personally by playing 47 minutes and making the game-winning 3. Wait, there’s a rematch tonight? Giddy-up.


Best Bet to Stay Healthy

I can reliably spot five things: toupees, dentures, implants, bad-karma blackjack dealers and NBA big men cursed with wrong gaits. Greg Oden, Andrew Bynum, Yao Ming, Rik Smits, Bill Walton, Shawn Bradley, even Andrew Bogut to some degree … God didn’t intend them to spend their lives running up and down a hardwood court.

And so I’m keeping my guard up with Porzingis and Embiid. Three weeks ago, I caught Porzingis in person and was pleasantly surprised by his fluidity; he’s like the “after” picture to Alex Len’s “before” picture. We should be OK even if anyone over 7-foot-2 makes me nervous. Keeping super-tall basketball players healthy into their late 20s is like keeping child actors healthy.

That’s what shocked me about watching Embiid work out in person in 2014 when he was, for lack of a better word, unfuckingforgettable. He looked like a 7-foot-3 Hakeem. Two injury-ruined seasons later, he’s dealing with a minutes limit and frightening fans every time he hobbles for even one second. You wouldn’t call him an unsafe bet, but you wouldn’t call him safe, either — as opposed to the Greek Freak, who wreaks havoc on four games per month like he’s one of the Game of Thrones dragons. Easy category.


Highest Swagger Ceiling for Walking Down a Hallway Before an ESPN Game With a Cameraman Filming Him

Look out for Giannis circa 2022 or 2023 after he’s spent a couple of summers at Russell Westbrook’s Swagger Camp. And yet … I don’t know if we can sleep on the Lativian Gangbanger here. He’s already worn a leather jacket that earned a GQ blog post! The Zinger!

ADVANTAGE: Incomplete

Seeing-Them-in-Person Factor

I haven’t seen Embiid in person yet. Porzingis was a blast and Giannis made my eyes cross.

ADVANTAGE: Incomplete

Best “What If?” Backstory

Have we ever figured out why Sam Hinkie, the creator of The Process — best described as the accumulation of high-ceiling future assets who will blossom well down the road while murdering the current team, which leads to more lottery picks, which leads to more high-ceiling future assets — passed on the biggest high-ceiling lottery gambles of 2013 and 2015? Philly took Michael Carter-Williams four spots ahead of Giannis, then Jahlil Okafor one spot ahead of Porzingis. I continue to think Hinkie half-assed The Process. The Triple Unicorn was sitting there.

ADVANTAGE: Everybody

Worst Basketball Situation That Could Undermine Everything

You know who’s really good? Jabari Parker. That’s a potential Pippen to the Freak’s Jordan, even if the Freak is a 6-foot-11 Pippen … wait, I’m confused. But we’re crossing Giannis off. This category comes down to Philly (and the no-plan-whatsoever Colangelos, who seem content watching the trade values of Okafor and Nerlens Noel get obliterated) and the Knicks (owned by the immortal James Dolan and run by the once-immortal Phil Jackson, who still thinks the triangle can work in 2016 when the Rockets are shooting 39 3-pointers a game). Break out the checkers board!

So, who loses? Even the Curse of Dolan (it’s Year 17, by the way) can’t screw up a Porzingis-Carmelo nucleus. Not only does Melo have a no-trade clause, but KP is completely, 100 percent untradable unless it’s for Anthony Davis OR Dolan loses a bet and the bet is “I bet you can’t get your fans to riot.” Philly’s basketball situation makes me WAAAAAAAAAAAAY more nervous. They have too many big men, too much cap space and too many draft picks, which would be fine except I wouldn’t trust the Colangelos to order me an Uber.


(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Local Popularity

Oh, man. Embiid saved The Process, Giannis made basketball matter in Milwaukee again, and Porzingis is the unexpectedly beautiful, doting, lovable 21-year-old girlfriend who taught the bitter, brokenhearted, emotionally scarred divorcee (in this case, every Knicks fan) how to feel basic human emotions like happiness and love again. He’s probably going to get run over by a cab next month. Just kidding. Seriously, I’m kidding.

All three fan bases love their dude equally, but America’s biggest city happens to be New York and the Knicks happen to have been around since 1946. We’re talking like five or six generations of Knicks fans. There’s just more of them. You can’t argue with math.

ADVANTAGE: Porzingis

Most Realistically Ridiculous Statistical Ceiling in 2022

We’re using historical doppelgängers again. Porzingis is easy; he’ll have the same offensive arc as Dirk did, only with a faster pace and way more 3-pointers. (The 2006 Mavs averaged 99.1 points, 77.7 field goal attempts and 13.6 3-point attempts; the 2017 Knicks average 104.8 points, 89 field goal attempts and 25.3 3-point attempts.) Anyway, I grabbed Dirk’s peak offensive season (2006), then played off those numbers for the Zinger.

Dirk in 2006: 26.6 and 9.0, 48–41–90, 3.3 3FGA, 7.4 FTA, 1.0 BPG, 28.1 PER
KP in 2022: 32.1 and 9.5, 46–44–80, 8.3 3FGA, 6.2 FTA, 3.2 BPG, 30.1 PER

(Hold on, we have to wait for the Knicks fans to start breathing again.)

Even though Embiid hasn’t played 500 career minutes yet, I’m morphing some of my favorite Garnett/Hakeem/Rashard Lewis seasons into his projection while also assuming that Embiid can play 33–35 minutes a game. Don’t try this at home. I’m a professional.

Embiid in 2022: 26.2 and 14.9, 52–42–75, 6.2 3FGA, 8.8 FTA, 4.1 BPG, 31.3 PER

(Let’s be clear: If that actually becomes an Embiid season, Philly might replace the Rocky statue with a Hinkie statue. This is ridiculous. Wait, it gets crazier.)

Giannis in 2022: 29–10–12, 2.1 BPG, 2.9 SPG, 55–35–79, 4.1 3FGA, 11.1 FTA, 33.4 PER

Here’s why Giannis wins: I’m not sure I made those fake numbers preposterous enough.


Highest Trade Value Right Now

I’m sure the Sixers love Embiid, but if New Orleans offered Anthony Davis for him, The Process would be abruptly terminated. Same for the Knicks and Porzingis — they might agonize over it for a few hours longer, but they’re flipping him into Davis every time.

OK, let’s say New Orleans offered Davis to Milwaukee for Giannis. What happens? I think the Bucks hang up, have a four-hour meeting, print out the list of every Anthony Davis injury (major or minor) since 2012, then call the Pelicans back and say, “We just can’t.” In other words, we have a new no. 1 spot for my next Trade Value list. I need a cigarette.


Most Deserving of the Unicorn Title

First of all, do you know how many BAD Stretch 5s we had to endure to get to Porzingis? He’s gigantic, he nails 3s and he protects the rim. What else do you want? Congratulations, Knicks fans. Now you don’t have to find a church.

Meanwhile, Embiid needs to reach 1,200 minutes before we have our first serious conversation about his unicorn ceiling. He hasn’t even played 500 minutes total in three seasons. As far as sample sizes go, that’s like one of those tiny muffin cups that Starbucks hands out. Could he play 35 minutes a game? Could he play four nights a week? Could he last 70 games in any season? He’s like a self-driving car: I know it’s coming, but I want to see it zipping around for two years before I believe.

That leaves the Freak. Do you realize Giannis and his brother were selling hats and DVDs on the streets of Greece only six years before he got drafted? Or that, when he started playing basketball, he had to share shoes with his brother? Or that his family never lived in Greece legally and lived in fear of being deported back to Nigeria for 20 years? When I announced the 2013 draft with Jalen Rose, we scouted Giannis using YouTube clips and genuinely thought he was playing in the Athens YMCA with a bunch of ninth-graders. He goes to Milwaukee, improbably grows 2 more inches, finds a wingman in Parker, finds a coach with the balls to play him at point center, lands a $100 million extension, and earns pole position in the next Trade Value column. All in 42 months. What an amazing basketball story. Congratulations, Milwaukee.

My final verdicts:

EMBIID: Stay tuned
PORZINGIS: Traditional unicorn
GIANNIS: True unicorn

(Welcome to the club, Mr. Freak.)

All statistics are current as of Tuesday.

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