Barnstorming: Unicorns, griffons, centaurs and a new NBA mythic menagerie

So many NBA players have been labeled as unicorns that the title no longer has any meaning. So let's redefine the term and find a new collection of mythic NBA creatures.


Unicorn has become an indelible entry in the NBA lexicon, even if it is barely defined. The origin story of the term is Kevin Durant, expressing his awe of Kristaps Porzingis shooting and moving as well as did at his size.

But I'm not sure Durant's explanation actually maps that well onto a unicorn — players that size with that skill set are exceedingly rare as are unicorns, but if we're making a mythological comparison based on outlier size and skill we should probably be looking for some sort of giant adept with a bow, or perhaps an agile dragon with exceptional fire-breathing aim. (If one had been really into Dragonlance as a middle-schooler and was so motivated, they could make a strong argument that Kristaps Porzingis is not a unicorn but rather the blue dragon ridden by Kitiara Uth Matar).

Regardless of the intention, any value in the term has been thoroughly eroded with the way it's been haphazardly applied to dozens of players including Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr., Ben Simmons, Evan Mobley, Wilt Chamberlain, Ralph Sampson, Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowitzki, Myles Turner, DeMarcus Cousins, Al Horford, Marc Gasol, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich, Julius Erving, Adrian Dantley, George Gervin, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale, Hakeem Olajuwon, Manute Bol, Dennis Rodman, Russell Westbrook, Chris Webber, Spud Webb, Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Kevin Durant himself.

It took me less than five minutes of Googling to find references, implied or explicit, to everyone of those players as unicorns, with the only real connection between them being that something about the combination of their skills, physical attributes and style of play made them unique. That's all true but why do we have to use one label for all these different basketball creatures?

Unicorns are part of a rich menagerie of mythical creatures and we can dig deeper to find comparisons that don't just set these starts apart from the average player, but also capture the specific ways in which they are unique and special. Here's how I see some of the mythic creatures around today's NBA.

Barnstorming is an irregular column series, willing to go anywhere and take on anything. Check out the entire project at A Unified Theory of Basketball.

Victor Wembanyama is an NBA unicorn

Aesthetically, a unicorn is just a horse with a horn — a fairly generic and thoroughly familiar creature with a single outlier characteristic that makes it completely unique. And unlike a pegasus (a horse with wings) that outlier characteristic serves no specific purpose. But functionally, a unicorn is much than a horse with a head decoration.

A unicorn is purity incarnate, supposedly vulnerable to capture only by a virgin, and possessing mystical healing powers. It is almost impossible to catch a glimpse of and anyone, pure of heart, who sees one is in store for great blessings from the universe.

You could argue that Kristaps Porzingis or Karl-Anthony Towns fit the bill — fairly familiar and archetypal big men with outlier shooting ability. Although, in Porzingis' case, I'm not sure the shooting is enough of an outlier to put him in this pantheon. In Towns' case, his height is normal enough to feel disqualifying.

Wembanyama is still mostly a hypothetical at this point but all the elements are there. He is a very big man with potentially outlier shooting ability. It's not hard to imagine him passing Porzingis for the most 3-pointers in NBA history by a player 7-foot-3 or taller (Porzingis is the only one in NBA history that height with more than 200).

But the real differentiator for Wembanyama is the virginal presentation of his once-in-a-generation package of skills and physical tools. He can make the most vicious of basketball plays seem gentle and chaste, wide-eyed and virtuous. Wembanyama is learning the league and its dangers, while simultaneously learning the limits of his own body and skills. He is uniquely powerful and uniquely innocent, projecting not just rarity but righteousness.

Anthony Edwards is an NBA centaur

A centaur is a creature with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse. In some popular representations like Harry Potter and the Percy Jackson series, centaurs are characterized by wisdom and nobility. But in Greek mythology, they were often used as an allegory for the struggle between civilization and disorder, structure and chaos, the more educated and refined characteristics of humankind and its more base, animal nature.

In practical terms, a centaur also has the facility and manual dexterity of a person built on the devastatingly powerful platform of a horse, with all the speed and power that implies. In mythological terms, centaurs are far more common than unicorns and there are more than a few NBA players who fit the bill. But Anthony Edwards may be the most apt exemplar.

The raw power and force of Edwards were on full display during the FIBA World Cup this summer, as he trampled over and through a wide array of European defenders. In an athletic context, he is a thoroughbred and very few players in the modern NBA can match his combination of speed, power and explosion.

It was widely assumed this would be a breakout season for Edwards, establishing him as a potential MVP candidate and one of the best players in the NBA. He has not disappointed, helping lead the Timberwolves to the best record in the Western Conference destroying opponents with violent force and preternatural control. He appears to have addressed his biggest weakness, finding the balance his game had been lacking, between the ways in which his physical attributes can create chaos and the ways in which his awareness and decision-making can bend that chaos to his will. Fully inhabiting the duality of his potential and his identity as an NBA centaur.

Zion Williamson is an NBA griffon

The griffon has the body of a lion with the head and wings of an eagle (and the occasionally the front legs and talons of an eagle as well, depending on the permutation). They appear in, but are not limited to, Greek, Latin, Egyptian, Armenian and Persian mythic menageries.

There is an implied nobility in a griffon, inherent in anthropomorphism of both lions and eagles, but the essential elements are the strength and power of a lion with the ability to fly.

I am setting aside the issue of nobility and durability in this comparison because I don't think there is another player, perhaps in the entire history of basketball, who embodies the power of flight and power in flight as much as Zion Williamson.

His vertical leap has been estimated at 45 inches, and he's doing that with the body of a defensive lineman. He leaps out of the gym and defenders literally bounce off him. He may be, simultaneously, the strongest player in the NBA and still the player most capable of defying gravity. If that's not the stuff of myth and legend, I'm not sure what is.


Ben Simmons is an NBA ouroboros

You may not know the name but you've probably seen it before — a serpent coiled in a circle, devouring it's own tail. It's a symbol found in Egyptian and Greek iconography and is related to similar tail-baiting serpents in Norse and several South American traditions.

I think it's an apt framework for understanding Ben Simmons. A powerful creature slowly devouring itself. A creature that appears more often today as an abstract symbol than as a tangible character in any particular story or mythic narrative. An icon of the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

You may have already forgotten but Ben Simmons began this season healthy, in the best shape of his life and ready to reclaim his NBA legacy. He played six of the Nets first seven games before a nagging back injury began nipping at his heels, holding him out for the next 35 (as of this writing). At some point, his return will become imminent and the cycle of optimism and disappointment will begin again, in ever-tightening revolutions.

Jordan Poole is an NBA werewolf

Everyone knows the werewolf story — a normal human who once a month is transformed, by forces completely outside their own power, into a vicious, ravenous predator. In basketball terms, it's a player who mostly presents as utterly average and unremarkable who is occasionally — by seemingly random cycles of the calendar — transformed into a ferocious and unstoppable scorer.

To me, that sounds a lot like Jordan Poole but especially if you wrap in the werewolf origin story.

Werewolves aren't born, they're made — the condition is passed from person to person by the bite of another werewolf. I would argue that you can't really separate our current understanding of Poole from his origin with the Warriors. That system and the dynamism of Steph Curry infected him, showed him the power of unshakeable confidence in your jumper (even if he doesn't quite have a jumper that's worthy of such confidence).

If Jordan Poole hadn't started his career with the Warriors, I think there's a strong possibility he would have never been given the chance to shine, to develop, to hunt shots like an insatiable predator. If he had started his career with any other NBA team, it seems likely that career might already be over. He's no longer part of that pack, but roughly once a month he still gets to howl at the moon in Washington, D.C.

Kyrie Irving is an NBA siren

The siren is a symbol of temptation, women with voices so beautiful they could literally lure sailors to their death, driving them mad, banishing all logic from their minds and baiting them into sailing their ships into rocks, whirlpools and utter destruction.

Watch Kyrie Irving drain enough off-balance jumpers and destroy defenders with enough Shammgods and you can almost forget that you already know how it's going to end for his team.

LeBron James is an NBA chimera

In Greek mythology, a chimera had a defined (if utterly bizarre form) — a fire-breathing lion, goat, snake hybrid. But alternate versions exist in other cultures, different amalgamations of seemingly unrelated animals into a uniquely fearsome and destructive beast. In practical terms, it's a euphemism for a Franken-monster, the terrifying attributes stitched together into a new whole.

What could be more a more apt comparison for a seemingly immortal creature that has been laying waste to the NBA landscape for more than two decades? The body of Karl Malone with the vision of Magic Johnson, the raw speed and athleticism of Michael Jordan, the control and awareness of John Stockton, the strength of Shaquille O'Neal, the timing and hubris of Larry Bird, and the ability to adapt, evolve and shapeshift as the moment demands.

There may be a bit of everything in a chimera but it is one-of-a-kind. There may be a bit of every NBA great in LeBron James, but he is one-of-a-kind.

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