“Trading Baskets” is a weekly NBA column written by Reagan Griffin Jr. and Eddie Sun. The writers “hand off” each week’s installment, continuing an ongoing dialogue to challenge the way fans think about basketball. Click here to read last week’s edition.
There’s a decent chance that this column gets lost in the midst of “Barbie Princess Adventure” review articles. That’s a risk I’m willing to take.
The term unicorn is generally used to describe a mythological animal — a white, equine creature with a horn coming from its head. But, the word “unicorn” can also refer to something that is, “unusual, rare or unique,” according to good 'ole Merriam Webster.
In the hoops community, we’ve dubbed guys like Kevin Durant, Kristaps Porziņģis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis as worthy of being included in this elite fraternity of mythical creatures — and rightfully so. Each of these players is undeniably unique in their ability, and special because of it. However, after involving myself in a Twitter debate the other day over the term unicorn (we can save the Christian Wood conversation for another day), I began to question our narrow usage of the word.
Look at the players who we’ve deemed to be unicorns. They are all athletic bigs who can shoot, dribble or do both at a high level relative to their size. Don’t get it twisted, these are all unicorns — they are among the small but rising number of ballers who are tearing down stereotypes surrounding the traditional role of the NBA big.
However, I believe that all unicorns don’t necessarily have to be built in this mold. We can be a bit more fluid in our definition. The term simply implies rarity — and in today’s NBA, there are some exceptionally rare hoopers.
Take a player like Stephen Curry, for example. Is his skillset not unusual, rare and unique? Never before or since have we seen a player weaponize the 3-pointer to the extent that the two-time MVP has. That’s a unicorn.
How about his teammate, Draymond Green? While it remains to be seen whether or not the former Defensive Player of the Year still has the juice, in his prime, he was a player we quite literally had never seen. He had the defensive acumen to protect the rim and defend on the perimeter, combined with the basketball IQ to be an effective offensive initiator in both the half court and the break. That’s a unicorn.
Zion Williamson is the epitome of unique — hell, if you look the word “rare” up in the dictionary, I’ll bet you’ll find a picture of the dude executing a brutal 360-degree windmill on somebody’s head. Never in NBA history, possibly basketball history, have we seen someone of Williamson’s build and athleticism that hoops the way he does. That is a unicorn.
All of this isn’t to say that the NBA is loaded with unique and irreplicable talent — the point of calling a guy a unicorn is to highlight the fact that he is indeed rare. There might be 15 players worthy of the unicorn label in the league, if that. However, we don’t have to be so uncreative about who we choose to place that label upon. Guys like Marcus Smart, Trae Young and Russell Westbrook are all players whose rare skill sets are worthy of the unicorn designation.
“Trading Baskets” typically runs Fridays.