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We Saw the Future of Basketball — and in It, Everyone Looks Like a Unicorn

When one of the top recruits in the nation — a giant from the Bahamas — compares himself to Kristaps Porzingis, it’s clear just how quickly the game’s parameters are changing. At the McDonald’s All American Game, the nation’s best young big men are learning how to adapt — but what does that look like?

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

We are entering a post-unicorn world. Young 7-footers are growing up comparing themselves to Kristaps Porzingis. During the week of practices leading up to Wednesday’s McDonald’s All American Game in Chicago, the centers in attendance were put through the types of drills that European coaches typically give their big men. In one, bigs were tasked with running out to the 3-point line as if they were shooting guards coming off of screens. In another, they were getting down in a defensive stance and defending point guards 25-plus feet from the basket. Training the future stars of tomorrow means taking them out of their comfort zones: the two teams combined to shoot 11-of-53 from 3 in the game on Wednesday. It wasn’t always pretty, but the practice of taking those shots in game situations was invaluable. The players who can harness what they are learning will have the tools to be fixtures in the NBA for a long time. The ones who can’t will be left behind.

The types of players who appear at high school All-Star games are changing.

Four years ago, current UNC senior Kennedy Meeks played in the McDonald’s All American Game weighing nearly 300 pounds. There wasn’t anyone who looked anything like him in Chicago this week. Wendell Carter Jr., a Duke commit currently ranked as the no. 3 player in the class, is the only All American who weighs more than 250 pounds. He’s a skilled low-post scorer who signed with Duke in part because of what the Blue Devils were able to accomplish with Jahlil Okafor two years ago, but he spent a lot of his time in drills this week launching fadeaway jumpers off the dribble. Carter, who seriously considered committing to Harvard during the recruiting process, can read the writing on the wall.

“The game of basketball is definitely evolving. You don’t see too many of the Shaqs or Hakeem Olajuwons anymore,” Carter told me at the media session for the McDonald’s game. “You see guys shooting from the 3 a lot more. That’s something I’m trying to incorporate into my game.”

In the world of smartphones and social media, top recruits are connected to the broader conversation about sports in ways their peers weren’t a generation ago. Mohamed Bamba, an impossibly long and mobile near-7-footer with a 7-foot-8 wingspan, booked his own flight to the Sloan Sports Conference this season and asked Rockets GM Daryl Morey a question about pick-and-roll defense.

“I went last year and it started off as a joke, like I would go to this really nerdy convention,” Bamba said. “But it turns out that the convention was very beneficial and I’m probably going to go next year if I can.”

Bamba weighs only 210 pounds, and he will need to get much stronger before he plays in the NBA, but he doesn’t want to get so big that it starts to compromise his lateral quickness. He already knows the type of player that he wants to be, spending hours in the gym each day trying to refine his 3-point shot.

“I’ve been working on [my 3-point shot] a ton over the last few weeks. Just getting my form up there and shooting quicker,” Bamba said. “The biggest thing is having a rhythm and not slowing up my shot when I get to the top of my release. I’m working a lot with my shooting coach.”

The shift in how NBA basketball is played has not gone unnoticed by the next generation, by point guards or by centers. “All these [big men] have been watching Steph Curry and Kevin Durant the last few years,” said one NBA executive who watched the practices all week. “These things go in cycles.” Point guard Trae Young, the Oklahoma commit widely considered the best shooter of his class, was launching pull-up 30 footers off the dribble.

But the player everyone in this class has been chasing is DeAndre Ayton, who, as a sophomore in 2015, was hailed by many observers as the best prospect in high school basketball, ahead of guys like Ben Simmons, Jaylen Brown, Josh Jackson, and a healthy Harry Giles. Ayton grew up in the Bahamas and moved to Southern California in middle school, and he combines the skill set of the best international players with the über-athleticism of the top Americans. He can run and jump with the best guards in this class, while also possessing an impossibly smooth jumper. At last year’s Nike Hoop Summit, he measured at 7 feet tall and 243 pounds with a 7-foot-6 wingspan — absurd proportions for any basketball player at any level of the game. Ayton can be completely unstoppable when he wants to be.

“The Nike Peach Jam in South Carolina is the best event of the AAU season. Ayton was matched up with three of the best big men in the country in consecutive games — Wendell Carter, Mitchell Robinson, and Marvin Bagley [currently the top recruit in next year’s class] — and none of them could handle him,” said Scott Phillips, a national college basketball writer and recruiting analyst for NBC Sports. “Robinson is the best shot blocker in the class, and he got the better of Ayton in the first half. Ayton came out in the second and absolutely dominated him.”

The concern most have with Ayton, and one I heard repeatedly over the last few days in Chicago, is that he’s content to coast on his natural ability; his effort level waxes and wanes. It’s as if someone combined the athleticism of Joel Embiid, the skill set of Karl-Anthony Towns, and the laissez-faire demeanor of Boris Diaw into one freakish and polarizing prospect. Ayton looked amazing in drills this week, but once the scrimmages began, it was easy to forget that he was even on the court. While part of the issue may have been the general lack of passing and playmaking from the guards on his team, Ayton did nothing to silence the whispers about his lack of effort that have been circling him.

Ayton has been in the spotlight since he was in middle school (one NBA scout told me he started tracking Ayton in eighth grade), and he has learned to embrace all of the media attention that comes with AAU stardom at such a young age. In the media session after the final day of practices, Ayton, who is committed to Arizona, was remarkably candid. He said one of the reasons for the Wildcats’ loss to Xavier in the Sweet 16 was that sophomore guard Allonzo Trier took too many shots. He also revealed that freshman Kobi Simmons is going to declare for the NBA draft, and freely admitted that he sometimes avoids challenging players at the rim if he thinks they can dunk on him.

“I think I need to work on my rim protection,” Ayton said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘That dude can jump, I don’t know if I should jump with him.’ I second-guess it. I got to be like Mo Bamba — he swats everything.”

Playing for Sean Miller at Arizona next season should reveal a lot about how Ayton responds to coaching. Miller is one of the most demanding coaches in the country, often sweating through his shirts while barking at his players from the sidelines. The Wildcats will almost certainly lose freshman 7-footer Lauri Markkanen to the NBA draft, but they will still return enough frontcourt players that Miller can afford to bench Ayton if he’s not giving full effort.

The best shooter among this group of big men is Michigan State commit Jaren Jackson Jr., the son of former NBA player Jaren Jackson, a 12-year veteran who won a championship with the Spurs in 1999. The older Jackson was a 6-foot-4 shooting specialist; his son is listed at 6-foot-11 and 225 pounds. But the younger Jackson kept a lot of his dad’s game. In 16 games on the Nike EYBL circuit last summer, the highest level of AAU basketball, he shot 28-of-64 (43.8 percent) from behind the arc and 84-of-117 (71.8 percent) from the charity stripe. Almost all of the big men in Chicago wanted to shoot 3s, but Jackson is the only one who’s shown that he can consistently do it in games.

The desire to expand their games can sometimes lead to comical results, like when Bamba air-balled a 3-pointer as the trail man on a fast break in the first half on Wednesday:

“I’m not used to missing 3s,” said Bamba to stifled laughter from the other players in the postgame press conference.

As you would expect from teenagers, a charming lack of self-awareness was a running theme during media day. The famously low-energy Ayton compared his demeanor on the court to that of Kevin Garnett. Billy Preston, a 6-foot-10 forward committed to Kansas who spent the entire week of practice launching an unending barrage of off-the-dribble jumpers, said he loves to pass the ball and that he models his game after LeBron James.

For most of these big men, the jumper aspect of being a unicorn is mostly theoretical at this stage in their careers, but the ability to slide their feet on the perimeter and play above the rim is not. Nick Richards, a Kentucky commit listed at 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, grabbed an offensive board in midair and tomahawk dunked it during practices this week, and he’s not even considered to be one of the best athletes among this year’s big men. Take a look at this tip dunk in 2016 from Ayton:

Or watch how quickly Robinson closes out on a shooter and blocks a 3-point attempt way behind the line:

“There are so many talented bigs who could develop in time,” one NBA front-office member texted me. “Last year’s group was heavy on point guards, but this year’s class is all about the big men.”

The player who has taken the no. 1 spot from Ayton is a guy who slides between both worlds. Missouri commit Michael Porter Jr., the MVP of the McDonald’s game, is a 6-foot-10 dynamo who combines the skill set of Jayson Tatum and the athleticism of Jonathan Isaac. Porter has been in the news a lot lately: He was committed to play at Washington before the Huskies fired head coach Lorenzo Romar, then wound up signing to play at Missouri under recently hired coach Cuonzo Martin. Porter was essentially a package deal with his father, who had been set to take a position on Romar’s coaching staff at Washington and after the recent shake-up caught on as an assistant coach with Martin.

Ayton and Porter played on the same team this week, and it was impossible to watch them in drills and not marvel at the fact that Porter is almost as big as the top big man in the class.

“I think he’s really 7 feet,” Ayton said. “He’s up there with me.”

Porter said he considers himself a small forward who can play as a power forward in small-ball lineups, and that’s likely where he would have been slotted in the NBA a decade ago. However, in the height of the pace-and-space era, it’s hard to see Porter as anything but a power forward, and even sliding up to center for stretches of time. In 2017, the line between guards with the size of big men and big men with the game of guards is thinner than ever. There’s no such thing as a unicorn if everyone can be one.

Due to a production error, an earlier version of this piece omitted the opening paragraph.