|Just to be clear, Chet Holmgren doesn’t look anything like a horse and doesn’t have a horn sticking out the top of his head.|
Neither does Kevin Durant. Giannis Antetokounmpo either. And no horns on Anthony Davis, none on Nikola Jokic, nor Karl-Anthony Towns.
Yet here we are a few weeks ahead of the NBA Draft and Holmgren, like so many really tall guys with exceptional basketball skills before him, is getting labelled with the NBA’s most mysterious and increasingly confusing term.
In hoops, the mythical creature written about in fantastical literature pieces such as the “Chronicles of Narnia” and “Harry Potter” refers to a big man with the skills typically reserved for someone much smaller. In the case of Holmgren, it is because he is a 7-foot center with the handles of a point guard and who can drain it with consistency from downtown.
His size and varied skill set creates a multitude of opposition challenges. His length means he can strongly protect the rim, and despite his slight frame, he has repeatedly shown willingness to stand in the line of fire. He averaged 14.1 points and 9.9 rebounds at Gonzaga, and there is a strong chance he sees off the rival challenges of Paolo Banchero and Jabari Smith to claim the No. 1 draft spot, held by lottery winner Orlando.
It is easy to see how a little bulk over the coming years and some general improvement could give Holmgren a chance of being a player in the Giannis mold, if not quite as dominant as the Greek Freak. That enhanced upside is the factor perhaps most likely to sneak him past Banchero and Smith on the Magic’s whiteboard.
Yet maybe the very principle of assuming that small guys are there to shoot and pass, and big guys exist to rebound and block, is becoming so severely outdated that the sight of a Holmgren-type player shouldn’t be a shock anymore.
Jokic is an other-worldly passer and two-time MVP, despite being 7-foot and possessing a non-spectacular frame. Towns won the 3-point contest and made a career-high 150 triples this season, at a 41% clip. Antetokounmpo continues to show the best of every skill set. Durant is Durant – difficult enough to contain if he was 6-foot-4 – nightmarish at 6-foot-10.
It was Durant himself who appears to have created the use of the word unicorn in basketball, using it to refer to the difficulties in trying to deal with Kristaps Porzingis a few years ago. But as the list above shows – and you could easily add Joel Embiid to it – basketball unicorns are still special, yet hardly so rare anymore, which kind of impinges upon the whole unicorn idea.
In the world of a three-year-old girl, unicorns are something to adorn bedroom posters, party favors, play tents and T-shirts, which I know because I have a three-year-old girl.
In business, a unicorn is a privately-owned startup that grows to a valuation above a billion dollars, which I know because I occasionally flick through the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
And, in certain sections of society, a unicorn refers to a single female who, ahem, becomes friends with a couple, which I know about because, well, I have some friends who live more interesting lives than I do.
Next, let’s talk about speed, if only to move away from the embarrassment of that last sentence as quickly as possible. Holmgren isn’t lightning quick, but he positions himself well, and you can bet that he’s already working to ensure he’s not repeatedly bullied around under the basket.
He developed well under Mark Few at Gonzaga, added 3.7 blocks per game to his stat line, and comes across with plenty of natural confidence, mixed in with some humorous bluster.
Asked recently who he believed the best player in the NBA was, his reply was a winner. “Me in two months,” he said.
That’s a stretch, but there’s truly no precise answer on how this stretched out skill machine is going to fare. Being cast as a unicorn puts him in fine company, but there are still a ton of unknowns.
Among them is the unavoidable problem for hoops aficionados – one which doesn’t need to occupy Holmgren’s thoughts for a second. As more and more big men with guard traits arrive into the league, are the NBA’s unicorns really still unicorns at all?