If you were given the task to design the perfect NBA player then each of us would come up with our own model for what we think is the perfect mix, but undoubtedly we would all agree on some things. The player needs to be tall, strong, fast and agile and with great passing and shooting abilities.
Many players in the NBA have some of these; LeBron is extremely strong, fast and is an amazing passer. Steph Curry isn’t tall but he is the greatest shooter of all time. Kawhi Leonard isn’t a great passer but he is the best defender in the NBA and is very fast. To succeed at the top level you need some of the skills listed above.
We usually associated different positions in basketball with different traits; point guards need to be great passers with speed and agility, centers need to be tall and strong with a great touch around the rim and small forwards need to be a mix of all positions.
There are however huge exceptions to these stereotypes, players that don’t fit the usual mould of their position and yet still have been effective in the NBA. They are known as Unicorns because of the scarcity of the combination of their size and skillset, here are my top five.
5. Nikola Jokic - Denver Nuggets
Unicorns are so fascinating because as viewers we’ve never seen anything quite like them before. They are new and shiny and we just can’t help ourselves but be fascinated by their very existence.
Jokic is a unicorn because in my lifetime I’ve never seen a big man with passing skills like this guy. His vision is on par with the best in the NBA and he’s now my favorite player to watch. He can make the fancy bounce pass through the defense to find an open teammate, he confuses the opposition with his no look dimes and really brings crowds to their feet when he finds cutters slashing to the rim with just the most eloquent over the head passes that you’ll ever see.
These passes are the most impressive because the timing and weighting of the throw has to absolutely perfect or it will get stolen or it won’t end up with a basket.
4. Rajon Rondo - New Orleans Pelicans
I think that we as an NBA community have given Rondo a very hard time. He’s on his 4th team in 4 years and he’s never been able to settle with a franchise. There are reports that he is a bad locker room presence and that he argues a lot with head coaches, but for me that’s because he isn’t being used in the right way.
Rondo is bad outside shooter with a career 3 point percentage of 30.4%, but he is a great passer, a terrific defender and a prolific rebounder. Normally you expect your centres and power forwards to be battling for the boards, but Rondo was getting triple double before Russell Westbrook made it cool.
Rondo was so good with Boston because both Doc Rivers and Rondo’s teammates trusted him with the keys to the offense. He was the one dictating which plays to run and then he would find his scoring opportunities accordingly. He made the Celtics ‘Big Three’ so much more effective and I have no doubt that if he was given the opportunity again that he could become an All-Star once more.
3. Russell Westbrook - Oklahoma City Thunder
When somebody averages a triple double, then that makes them a unicorn without question. It’s only happened twice in NBA history and many legends of the game said it would never happen again.
Russell Westbrook didn’t give a damn about what other people thought he could do, they didn’t know what happens when you combine the most athletic player in the NBA, an attacking mentality the likes of which we’ve never seen and the anger of the betrayal by your closest teammate.
I daren’t predict that Russ doesn’t average a triple double again next year even though the addition of Paul George will certainly take some of the spotlights away from him because time and time again Westbrook has shown that if you put limits of what you think he can achieve then he will smash through them with the same fire and rage that made him this year’s MVP.
2. Kristaps Porzingis - New York Knicks
Three pointers and blocks; not two stats you regularly see hand in hand. Blocks usually come from big men with long arms and it’s usually guards that are able to shoot from deep. Enter Kristaps Porzingis.
Only two players in NBA history have had a season with over 100 made three pointers, averaged over 1.7 blocks per game and grabbed at least 7 rebounds a game. As you can probably guess our man KP is one of them.
The other guy was Raef LaFrentz who was 6 foot 11, Porzingis is 7 foot 3 and is currently the third tallest player in the NBA. He should not be able to do what he can do, the laws of how humans are made must’ve made a mistake. He’s so agile and quick as well which only adds to the mystery of how good he can become.
He’s spent a lot of this offseason putting on muscle which will only sharpen that unicorn’s horn and create even bigger mismatches in the years to come.
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo - Milwaukee Bucks
When your nickname is the Greek Freak, there’s something different about you. When you average 22 points, 5 assists, 9 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 2 blocks and shoot better than 52% from the field then there’s something different about you.
Giannis is 6 foot 11 with a wingspan of 7 foot 4. He has incredible handles and has the defensive prowess of Kawhi Leonard mixed with Anthony Davis. He is so long and athletic that nobody has any idea of how to guard him.
Giannis has improved his outside game every year so far and there’s nothing to indicate that won’t continue. If he can get his three point percentage to the high 30s in a few years then the 2020s could well be the decade of the incredible talent.