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The Great Unicorn Rankings

The NBA is flush with generational big men, but which is the very best? We ranked our six unicorns in seven categories, ranging from best passer to best overall, and forecasted the next wave of unicorns to come.

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Unicorns have roamed the NBA for years, stretching our imaginations with their unique blend of size, skill, and athleticism. But after waiting and wondering what Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, and Karl-Anthony Towns could become, the blessing is now ready to take over the league. As part of our 2019-20 NBA season preview, we’re taking a long, hard look at the impact of the six generational bigs. This is the Year of the Unicorn.


Which of the six in an already elite class of bigs is the very best? To get a better sense of where we are in the unicorn wars heading into the 2019-20 season, we asked our staff to rank the sixsome in seven different categories. Here are the results, as well as our outlook on the next wave of unicorns to come:

Best Passer

1. Nikola Jokic
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
T-3. Anthony Davis
T-3. Joel Embiid
5. Karl-Anthony Towns
6. Kristaps Porzingis

Justin Verrier: The 3-pointer was once the primary way to identify a unicorn in the wild, but with everyone from Ricky Rubio to Jonas Valanciunas hoisting from long range with regularity, playmaking may be the key difference between the game’s elite big men and every other large person on the court. In this regard, Jokic is a cut above not only his spiral-horned peers, but most of the NBA. The 7-foot Serbian anticipates openings at a genius level, and he flicks the ball to his teammates with the gusto of Jason Kidd wearing multiple ski jackets. His assist percentage in 2018-19 (37) is the best ever for a player 6-foot-11 or taller, and his numbers in 2017-18 (29.6) and 2016-17 (28.8) rank fourth and fifth on that list. Point Giannis isn’t too far behind (30.3), and Anthony Davis is primed to make a big leap handling the ball, but Jokic is likely to go down in history as the best big-man passer ever, if he isn’t already.

Best Shooter

1. Karl-Anthony Towns
2. Kristaps Porzingis
3. Nikola Jokic
4. Anthony Davis
5. Joel Embiid
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Zach Kram: The six unicorns split into three groups as shooters. At the top all by himself is Towns, who at 39.2 percent from 3 in his career is the most accurate long-range-shooting 7-footer in NBA history. He’s the one legitimate marksman in the group. Next are the cromulent shooters who hover in the vicinity of league average from deep: Porzingis (36.1 percent in his career), Jokic (34.5), and Davis (31.4, but better the past two seasons). They don’t necessarily warp defensive rotations when standing beyond the arc, but are at least viable from distance. And then come Embiid (31.5 percent in the regular season, and 29.4 percent in the playoffs) and Antetokounmpo (27.7 in his regular-season career), whose every clanked 3-pointer elicits a sigh of relief from opposing teams. These final two are dominant scorers inside but tend to bail out defenses when they let loose with a set jumper instead of attacking the rim. They thrive as unicorns, in other words, in spite of their long-range performance. Towns thrives as a unicorn because of it.

Best Scorer

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Anthony Davis
3. Joel Embiid
4. Karl-Anthony Towns
5. Nikola Jokic
6. Kristaps Porzingis

Dan Devine: Porzingis was the first to be dubbed a “unicorn,” but he trails the pack here. Per Basketball-Reference.com, 62 players have logged at least 4,500 minutes over the past five seasons and used more than 24 percent of their teams’ possessions. Towns, Jokic, Antetokounmpo, Davis, and Embiid all rank in the top 15 in true shooting percentage. Porzingis: 42nd.

The others are all more versatile, thanks to their superior ability to bulldoze opponents down low. (Though it remains to be seen whether that’s still true now that Kristaps is so swole.) Embiid and Towns are brutally effective inside, but not quite as deft at creating for themselves off the bounce. Jokic might be the most multifaceted of all, but doesn’t get to the line as much as the others/as you’d like. Davis is smooth off the dribble and deadly as a dive man, but his comfort from midrange can lead him to settle too often.

Giannis isn’t nearly the shooter the others are, but he’s still coming off a season in which he outscored them all on a per-minute and per-possession basis because he goes the other way. He hardly ever settles, repeatedly battering his way to the rim—in transition and in the half court, playing either part in the pick-and-roll, from the post or facing up—to generate and cash in on the highest-value shots in the game. They’re all great options when you need a bucket. But the MVP’s the best choice to create one.

Best Perimeter Defender

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Anthony Davis
3. Joel Embiid
4. Karl-Anthony Towns
5. Kristaps Porzingis
6. Nikola Jokic

Jonathan Tjarks: Perimeter defense is the one skill that even the most versatile big men struggle with. Forget about blocking shots and shooting 3s, the classic definition of a unicorn. A near-7-footer who can shoot 3s and get down in a defensive stance and stay in front of smaller guards on the perimeter is far more unusual. There’s a clear dividing line in this category between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis and the four more plodding big men who prefer to defend closer to the basket. The problem for those four is that, in recent years, getting stops at the highest levels of the playoffs has meant playing a lineup with five good perimeter defenders. Maybe the fall of the Warriors makes that less of an issue. Or maybe running pick-and-rolls at Towns, Embiid, Porzingis, and Jokic is an Achilles’ heel waiting to be exploited. In the modern NBA, even unicorns have to catch up to the evolution of the game.

Best Rim Protector

1. Joel Embiid
2. Anthony Davis
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
4. Kristaps Porzingis
5. Karl-Anthony Towns
6. Nikola Jokic

John Gonzalez: Embiid is in excellent company here. AD might not like playing near the rim, but he’s damn good at protecting it. The man had 10 blocks on his 25th birthday, which sure beats candles and sheet cake. And we’ve all seen the havoc Giannis’s pterodactyl wingspan can wreak in the service of chase-down blocks. Embiid has averaged two blocks per game since entering the NBA and has a 5.1 career block percentage (both of which actually trail Davis’s marks of 2.4 blocks per game and 5.6 career block percentage). But nuts to the numbers. As a great man once said, you can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true. To be a truly great rim protector, it has to be hardwired into your DNA. You must be absolutely ruthless about it at all times, regardless of the opponent. This is something Embiid understands in his newly ripped core.

Best Intangibles

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Nikola Jokic
3. Joel Embiid
4. Anthony Davis
5. Karl-Anthony Towns
6. Kristaps Porzingis

Danny Chau: Giannis, who finds himself the subject of countdowns ticking toward his supermax extension decision next summer, knows exactly what to say: “I think it’s disrespectful towards my teammates talking about my free agency and what I’m going to do,” he told reporters at Bucks media day. Of course, there is a script for these things nowadays. We’ve heard it all before. Yet, it’s hard not to take Giannis at his word. His once-trademark wide-eyed naivete has steeled into earnest conviction; his physical charisma was always evident, but now shares the stage with the aura of a seasoned leader. He is a global icon. His teammates still remark in awe of his talent and growth, six seasons into his career. The idea of a unicorn rests on the idea of being unique, and while there are no degrees to uniqueness, Antetokounmpo has nonetheless proved himself a cut above. He is tailor-made to symbolize the NBA’s next era, with a specific command of star power that none of his contemporaries has been able to consistently tap into, on or off the court.

Best Overall

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Anthony Davis
3. Joel Embiid
4. Nikola Jokic
5. Karl-Anthony Towns
6. Kristaps Porzingis

Paolo Uggetti: You know it’s a good time for unicorns when the fourth player on this list also finished fourth in MVP voting last season. Yet the king of Unicorn Hill can’t be anyone else but the reigning MVP. The more intriguing debate is at no. 2. Next to LeBron James, Davis has an opportunity this season to prove he’s the best player in the league; then again, we thought he was going to do that last season before everything spiraled out of control in New Orleans. Embiid is more proven—he was the best player on a team that was within a bounce of beating the eventual champions—but every time he falls on the court, the basketball world stops and grabs its knees. The great thing about the NBA, though, is that career arcs are unpredictable. There was once a time when we thought Porzingis and Towns were going to be where Giannis is now. And who knows, they still may get there.

The Next Best Unicorn

1. Zion Williamson
2. Jaren Jackson Jr.
3. Pascal Siakam

Kevin O’Connor: Ever since Porzingis sprouted to 7-foot-3 and grew a horn way back in 2015, the term “unicorn” has expanded to accommodate more and more players entering the league with guard skills. I admit, I don’t know what exactly a unicorn is anymore, but the league is certainly flooded with tall players who possess vibrant games. Zion, Jackson Jr., and Siakam are no exceptions.

Siakam’s coast-to-coast hustle plays helped the Raptors win a title, and a post-Kawhi expansion of his offense could see him soar into stardom. Jackson Jr. should arguably lead this list with his versatile defense and offense; playmaking is the only hole in his unicorn skill set. While I look forward to Zion’s first poster dunk, I’m stoked for fans to learn he’s much more than a leaper. Zion can be like Blake Griffin crossed with Draymond Green if everything breaks right for him.

Unicorns are supposed to be rare, mythical creatures, but these types of players are quickly becoming the norm. What a time to be a basketball fan.

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