Sometime between Kevin Durant’s rookie season in Seattle and Anthony Davis’s breakout second season with the Pelicans, the term “unicorn” entered the NBA lexicon.
Majestic, revered and seldom seen according to folklore, the unicorn designation fit was an apt and accurate characterization for Durant 6-foot-9 designation seldom seen even in seen mythical beast At the time of their . But as the NBA has evolved into a style of play that emphasizes tempo, spacing the floor, outside shooting, and versatility, traditional big men have become few and far between. Rather than Shaq, Hakeem, Ewing, and the dominant Centers of the 90’s, kids of the 2000’s have grown up idolizing players like Kobe, Lebron, Dirk, Iverson, and Ray Allen among others. Instead of a dunk, a dream shake, or hook shot, aspiring NBA stars on driveways and playgrounds have been reenacting their favorite players crossing up defenders, shooting step-back threes, and pulling up from 28 feet in transition. The game’s evolution towards athleticism over size, combined with its increased global popularity has created a league full of multi-talented players with size and athleticism that would have made them once in a generation caliber players in any other era. Depending on who you ask, the current NBA has somewhere between eight and twelve “unicorns”.
Unicorn, presumably, caught on because of the rarity of players like Durant and Davis. Unicorns are supposed to be anomalies, mystical seldom seen creatures, shrouded in mystery. They’re mentioned in myths and folktales spanning centuries and continents and in almost every instance, there is only one unicorn. Nowhere will you find eight or more. Eight applies to Santa’s Reindeer and Budweiser Clydesdales but not unicorns. Once we reach the point of flirting with double digits and between a quarter and a third of 32 teams have one on their roster, it’s time to lay unicorn to rest.
This is just wishful (and logical) thinking on my part though. I realize that unicorn has become such a widely used and accepted term that we can’t un-ring this bell. No matter how inaccurate or even contradictory it may be, it is unfortunately but almost certainly here to stay. At least it will be a nice addition to my collection of phrases I’d be happy never to hear again. I’ll put it right between “Dilly Dilly” and the addition of “-gate” to any and all scandals or controversies.
If we’re sticking with unicorn, I do have one stipulation — Giannis Antetokounmpo needs his own designation and it needs to be something less common, more majestic, and having greater powers than a unicorn. Perhaps a giant Unicorn/Lock Ness Monster/Chupacabra hybrid that breathes fire and flies? Or maybe Pegasus since Pegasus also flies and requires less explanation.
The Giannis stipulation isn’t a knock on Porzingis, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid or any of the other handful of players who have been given the unicorn label. All of these players are incredible, versatile, franchise players who create mismatches and make highlight plays night in and night out but Giannis is on a different level. Watch five minutes of a Bucks game and it’s abundantly clear why he’s called the Greek Freak. But peal back the onion, look at the totality of the things he can do, his development year over year, and his path to the NBA. The more you look, the more impressive and otherworldly he is.
The list of guys with a 6’11 frame and 7’2 wingspan who have ever played the game is a short one. So are the lists of players with a 40” vertical and of players that can play all five positions at both ends of the floor. There’s been a only a handful of players in NBA history who had the combination of size and athleticism to make both the first two lists. Giannis Antetokuonmpo is the only person the NBA has ever seen that makes all three.
Even as he’s just standing in a huddle or going through warm ups, his physical size and length are astonishing. Then watch him go the length of the court in three dribbles and casually take off from just past the free line to throw down a one-handed jam and it absolutely boggles the mind. When you factor in his basketball IQ, vision with the ball, defensive instincts and timing, effort on both ends of the court, and his composure in pressure situations, we’re well past rarefied air.
While inherent (for the most part) traits like size, speed, and athleticism set Giannis apart from the majority of the NBA, the most significant and defining element to his game comes from a combination of nature and nurture. And it extends far beyond basketball. Everything Giannis has accomplished to this point has been a product of his mindset, perspective, and his drive. It’s more than an edge, a chip on his shoulder. It’s the kind of drive and sense of oneself and of the world that in infinitely more profound than anything in a game. It’s more deep seated than being undersized, overlooked, or told you weren’t good enough.
His drive comes from growing up as one of four children in a family of undocumented immigrants, from having to sell trinkets and souvenirs on a street corner so his family could eat, and from coming home empty-handed and having to go to bed hungry. It comes from a world of struggle and poverty, and not first world poverty. Giannis grew up in a country that has been racked with debt and inflation for the last 30 years and whose economic system reached total collapse around the time he was old enough to understand the reality of his surroundings. Even if Greece’s economy had been a stable one, government assistance like welfare, healthcare, and subsidized housing don’t exist for undocumented immigrants.
He grew up with nothing and he carries that experience with him in basketball and in the rest of his life. The life he once had drives him, in and out of season, as he plays in front of twenty thousand fans and during all the hours spent working when he’s the only one in the gym.
The hardships and uncertainty of his childhood have also given him an acute awareness of how fortunate he has been since and how much basketball has given him. Like the memories of his past, his gratitude and love for the game is never far from his mind. The appreciation for his life in the NBA is something that he also channels into basketball. He plays with a passion and a childlike joy that is about as uncommon in professional sports today as a 6'11 Point Guard.
The NBA and the life he has now were never dreams of his or anything he’d imagined in his adolescence. He grew up playing soccer and had never picked up a basketball before he was a teenager. He knew nothing about basketball and playing had never crossed his mind until a Greek club coach saw the tall but scrawny 13 year old playing soccer and introduced him to basketball. He couldn’t dribble or make a layup and wasn’t all that interested at first, but that coach saw something in him and persisted. Two years later, in 2009 at age 15, he started playing basketball competitively. He played on the youth squad for a club called Filathlitikos before eventually spending one season in 2012–2013 on the senior team that competed in Greece’s second tier league. His numbers were unremarkable but he quickly became a fan favorite putting on acrobatic dunking exhibitions every time he caught the ball on a fast break.
Murmurs about the 6’9 athletic freak from Athens started spreading and he caught the attention of a few NBA scouts. Following the season, he declared for the NBA Draft and despite skepticism from most NBA scouts and analysts, the Bucks saw enough potential to take a flyer on the anonymous Greek teenager.
In the span of four years, Giannis went from never having played basketball to becoming a first round pick and as a result, a millionaire.
As raw a talent with as little basketball experience as anyone ever drafted, he entered the NBA with other rookies who’d been playing a full decade longer than him. As intimidating as it may have been, he was unfazed. He was ecstatic to be playing basketball for a living rather than selling watches on the street corner and was determined to take advantage of the opportunity. He worked as hard as anyone in the NBA leading up to and during his rookie season and in spite of his infancy in basketball, he played just under 25 minutes a game averaging 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds for the season.
He also grew an inch and a half.
In each of his five seasons so far, Giannis has improved year over year in Points, Rebounds, Shooting Percentage, and Player Efficiency Rating (PER). As the 2017–2018 season is hitting the halfway point, he’s among the front runners for MVP and is the Buck’s team leader in Points (29/game), Rebounds (10/game), and Assists (4.7/gm). His also team-leading Player Efficiency Rating of 30.2, is the second highest in the NBA and more than double the standardized league average of 15.
To illustrate just how vastly Giannis has improved and how consistently he’s progressed throughout his career, the following graphs show his season averages year to year in eight key statistical categories. To help contextualize the absurdity and just how unprecedented a five year arc he’s had, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Dirk Nowitzki’s first five NBA seasons’ stats are given in comparison.
As impressive as the stats are, especially given his company, they still don’t do justice to how much he’s improved as a complete player and how many different ways he impacts the game and makes his team better.
Last season marked Giannis’ first All Star game as well as the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award and both 2nd Team All NBA and 2nd Team All Defense selections (the first Buck to make the All Defense team since Alvin Robertson in 1991). So far this season, he’s improved as a perimeter defender, typically matching up with opposing team’s best Guard or Small Forward and has also evolved into one of the league’s best rim protectors.
Offensively, in addition to careers highs in almost every major stat, he’s shooting a higher percentage from 10–16 feet and has been more aggressive slashing and finishing at the rim. He’s averaging 19 shots per game, up from 15.7 last year and his willingness to attack the rim has led to almost two more free throws attempts a game. And he’s not just taking more free throws but is also making more as his 77.5% from the stripe is another area of improvement compared to a year ago.
The scariest thing about Giannis though is that he’s not done and to this point, he’s shown no signs of slowing down. As much as he’s developed season to season, there’s still room to grow and there are still may be elements to his game that haven’t been uncovered.
As effective as he is on offense at this point, he’s still a fairly one dimensional scorer in a half court offense. Since he’s not much of a threat from outside, defenders can afford to play off him, sagging into the paint and making it easier to stop him from attacking the rim. He’s still putting up close to 30 points a game and is virtually unguardable as is but if he develops an 18–20 foot jumper that defenses are forced to respect, he could go to a whole new level. If he develops a three point shot, there might not be a more efficient and disruptive player, at that point or at any other point in the NBA’s history.
Given all he’s done so far, it’s easy to forget that he just turned 23 and has still only been playing basketball for 8 years. He’s made the most of those 8 years, taking no time away from basketball in the offseason and spending summers in Athens practicing and working out in the small neighborhood gym where he started playing. But it’s still only been eight years and he’s had to learn every element of the game from scratch during that time. Once he’s reached a point of feeling good enough about his fundamentals and has mastered all the things he already does, what’s to stop him from spending all summer shooting mid-range jumpers and threes?
Predicting what the ceiling might be for someone so unprecedented in so many aspects is near impossible. But if he continues improving at a pace anywhere close to what we’ve seen from him so far for another year or two and plays even until he’s 30, he’ll be at worst, a first ballot Hall of Famer. If he continues the updward trend for another couple years then levels off in his later 20’s and plays into his early to mid 30’s, he’ll go down as one of the best to ever play the game by the time it’s all said and done.
At 30 points, 10 boards, 5 assists, and defense that garners All NBA recognition, some might argue that he can’t possibly make much of a leap from here. It might be improbable. But no more improbable than an kid from Greece who’d never played organized basketball being drafted in the first round three years later.