Ranking the Most Unique Players in the NBA Today
There are plenty of incredible talents in the NBA, but how many stand apart from the rest as truly unique players?
I'm not talking about those who are the best at a certain skill—Chris Paul is the league's best point guard, but he sure plays an awful lot like Isiah Thomas used to—but rather those who do things differently. They're the ridiculous athletic marvels, the players who make strange contributions for their positions and those who just won't ever be replicated.
When thinking about the NBA's most unique players, I can't help but think back to a passage from Bill Simmons' The Book of Basketball. Tangentially, I'm not sure if it's impressive or really sad that I can find this next excerpt within 10 seconds of laying hands on my copy:
Add everything up and here are your odds that we'll see another Hakeem Olajuwon: a kajillionpilliongazillionfrazillionfriggallionmillion to one. You will see fifty reasonably close replicas of Jordan (and we've already seen two: Kobe and Wade) before you see another Dream. So go on YouTube, watch his highlights and congratulate yourself for seeing the only Hall of Famer who would have made it had he been anywhere from five foot eleven to six foot ten (his actual height).
That's what we're talking about here.
How likely is it that we'll see these players again?
10. Sim Bhullar
The NBA has had plenty of massive human beings take the court.
In fact, there's been a surprisingly long list of players 7'3" and taller: Manute Bol, Shawn Bradley, Randy Breuer, Keith Closs, Mark Eaton, Swede Halbrook, Zydrunas Ilguaskas, Ha Seung-Jin, Priest Lauderdale, Yao Ming, Gheorghe Muresan, Chuck Nevitt, Pavel Podkolzin, Aleksandar Radojevic, Peter John Ramos, Arvydas Sabonis, Ralph Sampson, Rik Smits, Hasheem Thabeet and Slavko Vranes.
Well, even among that list, Sim Bhullar stands out.
Not only is he a 7'5" big man set to become the first player of Indian descent to play in the NBA after signing a training camp contract with the Sacramento Kings, but he's also 360 pounds. Of the few players to stand at least that tall and play in an NBA game, many are string beans.
Below, you can see the listed weights of each player who's at least 7'5", per Basketball-Reference.com:
- Manute Bol, 7'7" and 200 pounds
- Gheorghe Muresan, 7'7" and 303 pounds
- Shawn Bradley, 7'6" and 235 pounds
- Yao Ming, 7'6" and 310 pounds
- Chuck Nevitt, 7'5" and 217 pounds
- Pavel Podkolzin, 7'5" and 260 pounds
- Slavko Vranes, 7'5" and 275 pounds
Again, Bhullar is listed at 360 pounds on DraftExpress.com.
He's still going to have a fight on his hands if he wants to make the Kings rotation, or even find himself on the roster, but as soon as he steps onto the court, he'll be arguably the biggest player to do so throughout all of NBA history.
9. Rajon Rondo
How many point guards have become truly elite without boasting much of a scoring game?
Rajon Rondo can put up points, but he generally has to force the issue and excel around the basket. His mid-range game is improving but still not up to par, and his perimeter shooting isn't exactly something to write home about.
That's not what makes Rondo unique, though.
It's part of the equation, but there have been other floor generals who have thrived on the defensive end and showcased ridiculous passing skills while asserting themselves as elite players. The way Rondo plays—the flashy passes, ball fakes that make use of his oversized hands and transcendent passing skills—pushes him over the top.
Even with defenses sagging off him, Rondo manages to record double-digit assists. Even when defenders know he's not making much of an effort to score, he's able to find passing lanes and set his teammates up for scores. Even when coming back from an ACL tear, he can immediately fit in.
Plus, he's an incredible source of triple-doubles, thanks to his innate ability to track rebounds and get to them before the bigger players on the court. Rondo has 19 trip-dubs in his excellent career with the Boston Celtics, per Basketball-Reference.com, and he's not done racking them up quite yet.
8. Stephen Curry
It's easy to assume that Stephen Curry isn't unique.
He's just another score-first point guard who leads his team's offense by hitting an inordinate amount of three-pointers. Ho hum. We've seen players like him before, and we'll see more like him in the future.
Except we haven't, and we won't.
Curry is already one of the greatest shooters of all time, but there's one thing that separates him from all other elite snipers of the three-point era—he can create his own looks. Whether you're willing to put him above Reggie Miller and Ray Allen on your personal rankings of perimeter marksmen is one thing; it's impossible to deny his creating abilities, though.
Basketball-Reference.com began tracking the percentage of made three-pointers that were assisted during the 2000-01 season, which gives us five years of Miller's performances to look at. In those five seasons, the Indiana Pacers' gunner required assists on 90.5 percent of his makes from downtown, and he never created more than 11.8 percent of his looks.
Was he better at this earlier in his career? Sure, but not to the extent that Curry is now.
As for Allen, the best mark of the tracked portion of his career was 75.1 percent, and his career average is 84.6 percent.
Curry, meanwhile, has required assists on just 63.3 percent of his makes from beyond the three-point arc. Last season, that number dropped to 45.6 percent despite him leading the league in triples. Yes, that deserves a ridiculous amount of emphasis.
We've never seen a player capable of creating—and connecting on—this many good three-point looks off the bounce.
7. Joakim Noah
Why was the Chicago Bulls offense able to remain competent while Derrick Rose was rehabbing his injuries over the last few seasons?
Because Joakim Noah existed.
There have been plenty of great defensive big men throughout the annals of NBA history, even if none of them have borne a ponytail while often screaming so intensely it feels as though the veins in their neck are going to pop through the skin. There have been plenty of great passing big men as well.
But how many great defenders can actually run an offense? How many 6'11" centers are capable of playing point-center and leading the charge on a fast break, capably dishing out the rock to an open player by squeezing it through a tight window?
Noah actually averaged 5.4 assists per game this past season while winning Defensive Player of the Year, which makes him quite unique. With the exception of players like Vlade Divac, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Sam Lacey (Yes, Sam Lacey. Feel free to look him up), centers just don't do that first part.
Quite frankly, everything about Noah just screams that he's different. From his hairstyle to his play to his side-winding motion at the charity stripe, one that somehow leads to the ball going into the basket.
6. Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant is not fair at basketball.
Throughout all of NBA history, there have been just 64 individual seasons in which a qualified player has averaged at least 30 points per game. Meanwhile, only 117 individual seasons have produced a true shooting percentage greater than 63 percent.
Only three have qualified for both lists—Durant's 2013-14 campaign and two seasons from Adrian Dantley (1981-82 and 1983-84).
In many ways, Durant is the evolutionary Dantley, a lanky scorer who plays the forward positions with vigor.
Except he's so much better.
Not only is he capable of handling the ball on the perimeter, but he's a superior defender, a capable distributor who's looking to facilitate with increasing frequency and a perimeter marksman. Durant made 192 three-pointers last year; Dantley connected on a combined two during his pair of qualified seasons.
We've simply never seen an offensive player like the Durantula, and it'll be a long time before anyone comes close to matching his type of efficiency and scoring prowess, especially if we limit the field to lanky near-7-footers who enjoy playing on the perimeter.
5. Dirk Nowitzki
Quick, name all the German 7-footers you can think of who excel from the perimeter.
Dirk Nowitzki has carved out quite a niche for himself throughout his career with the Dallas Mavericks. Ever since coming over to the NBA with a hairstyle that made it seem as though he was trying to join the Backstreet Boys, he's dominated as a precociously talented perimeter shooter.
Few players have managed to join the 50/40/90 club. Fewer still have managed to do so while scoring 20 points per game or more, which Dirk did in 2006-07 and nearly did again this past season, despite Father Time doing his darnedest to force him into a decline.
And it's not just the numbers the Dallas legend has produced, but also the method.
The Mavs have never had to tell Dirk to quit playing games with their heart, and all the while, Nowitzki has developed an arsenal of unblockable shots, highlighted by the move I like to refer to as the flamingo fadeaway. Surely you've seen it by now—and players like Durant and LeBron James imitating it—as he falls back off one leg quite often.
If a player is going to shoot fadeaways, I want it that way—with the leg kicking out to clear space from defensive pressure.
According to Kevin Ferrigan of Nylon Calculus on Twitter, "Dirk had far and away the most made fadeaway shots last year. 104. Next closest was LeBron w/ 46. Dirk hit over 55% of them. Goodness."
It'll be a long time before we see another Dirk.
Note: If you're upset about the Backstreet Boys links, just be glad it wasn't this.
4. LeBron James
LeBron James is the man many of you were probably expecting to see as the last featured player in this countdown, and for good reason.
The man is a basketball powerhouse, capable of doing just about anything on the court.
Sure, the "he can guard 1 through 5" claims are largely overblown, as he can't stick with a Chris Paul or Dwight Howard over the course of a full game, but he can at least do it for one possession at a time. I'll never forget watching him last year during a game in which he guarded Al Jefferson and then ran the point on the other end.
LeBron has developed into a judicious jump-shooter, a devastating distributor, a prominent post-up player and one helluva high-flyer in his prime, and he's been the best player in the world for a while. Quite frankly, there haven't been many athletes like him in the history of the sport.
Or any sport, for that matter.
However, while his game and athleticism stand out, he doesn't have quite as much uniqueness as the three remaining players. There will eventually be another LeBron, even if it's only a poor man's imitation, just as there have been cheaper replicas of Michael Jordan (Kobe Bryant).
After all, there are plenty of basketball prodigies, prototype athletes who seem to have the skill necessary to become the next all-time great. Few pan out, but one eventually will, much like LeBron has done.
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
As Sean Highkin wrote for SportsonEarth.com, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the "Greek Freak," has received a new nickname this summer:
A new nickname has emerged during Summer League for Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 19-year-old Milwaukee Bucks forward who has been better known since his debut as the 'Greek Freak' unveiled a new point-forward playing style and earned a new moniker to go with his added length and playmaking: 'Magic Giannison.'
The 19-year-old forward for the Milwaukee Bucks is 6'11" and still growing, but Jason Kidd and the coaching staff have been having him line up as a point guard. Yes, a point guard. As in the position that dribbles the ball up the court in most sets and is generally the shortest player on the floor for the team in question.
"Could the Bucks figure out how to use him [Antetokounmpo] as a point guard on offense and a rim-protecting big on defense?" asks Bryan Mears for NumberFire.com. "Read that question again—a couple years ago, no one would have believed you if you had said we would ever see a guy like that."
It would be even harder to believe if the narrative also contained a story about a player who burst onto the international scene while playing low-level ball at Greece, shot up draft boards and then dramatically exceeded his expected developmental timetable.
Antetokounmpo admittedly didn't thrive during his first season with the Bucks, but no one expected him to. It was impressive enough that he played, much less started and held his own on the defensive end. Now, he's set to break out as a sophomore and prove that the hype exists for a reason.
Part of that reason is that there's never really been anyone like him.
2. Anthony Davis
Anthony Davis was supposed to be a point guard—one who didn't draw much recruiting attention—before a massive growth spurt left him in the body of a center. That allowed him to go on to great things at Kentucky, and his success has continued with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Already, "The Brow" is shaping up to be a player we've never seen before—some sort of ridiculous combination of Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Marcus Camby and pieces that have yet to be identified. He's a terror on the glass, a ridiculously gifted athlete, a standout defender who thrives when he's rejecting shots and a developing offensive player.
There are plenty of players with massive wingspans and leaping ability, even if they don't have the type of springiness that allows Davis to quickly rise for the second jump in quick succession. But none of them have this kind of skill as well.
Already, Davis is flashing a potent mid-range jumper, and he's been spending this season working on expanding his range to include corner threes.
"I'm definitely working on the corner three-pointer. (Also) more post moves, a consistent mid-range jump shot, ball-handling. Those are the things I'm working on right now to get better. But at the same time, touching up on the things I'm pretty good at," he told radio broadcaster Sean Kelley during an interview on Pelicans.com, as passed along by NBA.com.
Not even Tim Duncan can come up with a good historical comparison for him, as I relayed during an article attempting to find the legend he most resembles.
Hint: There's no easy answer.
"I think he's going to be his own type of player," Duncan explained to Jeff McDonald of MySanAntonio.com. "I didn't have that kind of athleticism. I didn't have the kind of speed that he does."
I was speaking with B/R's Dan Favale about Davis at the time, and he said something that still resonates, perhaps even more strongly after another few months of improvement from the NOLA big man:
I don't think you missed anyone, though if he starts developing a hook shot and passing like he did before Kentucky, Kareem might eke his way in there. Davis is like an amalgamation of all those guys, with the potential to become a Gasol brothers-esque passer and stretch 4/5. Is he the most unique big man in NBA history?
He very well may be, and he's only 21 years old.
1. Kevin Love
Surprised? Don't be.
Kevin Love, who will be teaming up with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2014-15 season, has always been a massive statistical anomaly. There's nothing as interesting in his backstory as that contained in the tales of Antetokounmpo or Davis, but he plays a completely unique brand of basketball.
How many big man have there been in NBA history who have managed to average 12 rebounds per game and made at least one triple during the average contest, as Love has done in each of his past four seasons?
That's not a rhetorical question. Go ahead and take a guess.
If you had two in your head, you're correct. Love has done so four times, and Charles Barkley managed the feat in 1996-97, though he did so over the course of 53 games and shot a putrid 28.3 percent from beyond the arc.
Love had an even worse percentage in 2012-13, but that was due primarily to the injuries he suffered during his shortened season. During his other three qualified seasons, he connected at rates of 37.2 percent (2011-12), 37.6 percent (2013-14) and 41.7 percent (2010-11), all while making at least as many three-pointers per game as Chuck did.
There's simply never been a dominant rebounder this good at shooting, and Love's uniqueness is only increased by his incredible passing skills, which include dominance while serving as a hub in the half-court set and his transcendently good work as an outlet passer.
As Zach Harper wrote for CBS Sports, "Six years later, Love is still a novelty. We've never seen a player like him before and most of us still aren't quite sure what we're even seeing."
This past season, Love averaged 26.1 points, 12.5 rebounds (which was actually his lowest mark in the past four seasons) and 4.4 assists per game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (four times), Elgin Baylor (three times) and Wilt Chamberlain (twice) are the only players to ever match or exceed those numbers, per Basketball-Reference.com.
The three-point arc didn't exist when they recorded those numbers, but none of those players were renowned perimeter specialists. Love is literally the first to make a three-pointer while putting up those figures, and his total of 190 would've blown Kareem (dependent on the sky-hook), Wilt (underrated shooter who didn't need to step outside) and Baylor (famous for the hanging jump shot, but never displaying this type of range) out of the water even if the arc did exist.
In fact, let's look at this one more way.
There have been 112 individual seasons in which a player has averaged 12 rebounds per game or more. If those seasons are sorted by three-pointers made, Love has the top three entries—190, 105 and 88. Chuck is next, with 67 and 58. No one else has topped 50.
If you summed the three-pointers of No. 6 through No. 12 on that list, they still wouldn't combine for as many threes as Love single-handedly made this past season.
So many players in the NBA are unique. None are this unique.