There’s no doubt about it–the league is getting big.
Over the last several years, a new wave of big men has swept across the NBA, altering basketball’s strategic landscape. Positional outliers, these new-age bigs have earned the “unicorn” moniker from scouts and fans alike in honor of their unique, nearly unprecedented combination of athleticism and skill.
The NBA’s unicorns are marvels–they’re capable shooters from range, adept passers, and can handle the ball like guards. On the defensive end, they’re able to switch onto smaller players, and hold their own as rim protectors and rebounders. Led by über-skilled young forwards and centers such as Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, and DeMarcus Cousins, the modern big has become the muse of every general manager in the league for his positional versatility and floor-tilting two-way prowess.
— Matt Scott (@KUTheShiver) November 8, 2016
Embiid is seven feet tall and 250 pounds with guard-like coordination and footwork–this is not normal.
Watch as DeMarcus Cousins shows off his savvy ball-handling and vision to find the cutting E’Twaun Moore:
This is the kind of play that really prompts me to marvel at DeMarcus Cousins's skills. Not once did he use his left hand as he collected the ball at the wing, drove to the basket, and rocketed the pass to E'Twaun Moore. pic.twitter.com/oNhSXdHcOr
— Positive Residual (@presidual) December 12, 2017
These unicorns unlock boundless potential on both ends of the floor, and are a coach’s dream. They force and exploit mismatches, and dominate a game in virtually any way they choose.
As Bulls’ execs Gar Forman and John Paxson scout this year’s draft class, they’re also likely eyeing big changes to the team’s front-court rotation. Nikola Mirotic will likely be moved before the February 8 trade deadline, and while Robin Lopez has been a model of consistency and professionalism for a young Bulls squad learning the ropes, he’ll be 30 in April and doesn’t fit into the team’s long-term plans.
With this in mind, GarPax will no doubt be on the prowl for the league’s next unicorn, able to anchor the Bulls defensively and compliment Lauri Markkanen‘s perimeter-oriented skill set. While Markkanen has displayed impressive lateral quickness and advanced defensive instincts for his age and size, he likely does not project as a future center or anchor on the defensive end. The ideal big to pair with Markkanen will be a defensive stalwart, capable of protecting the rim and cleaning the glass while maintaining offensive versatility.
That’s a lot to ask of a 19-year old rookie. But here’s the good news: this year’s draft class offers the best crop of young big men in recent memory, with plenty of prospects offering unicorn-level ceilings. Let’s take a look at some of the Bulls’ first-round options.
Deandre Ayton, 19, 7’1″, 260 lbs, University of Arizona
20.4 PTS, 11.6 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.6 BLK
Pros: Right now, Ayton is the front-runner to be selected first overall. He’s a physical specimen whose massive, sculpted frame belies his quickness, agility, and soft touch around the rim. At his size, his rumored 44″ vertical jump is just about unprecedented. His post game is advanced, and he’s demonstrated the ability to step out and knock shots down from distance.
Ayton gobbles up rebounds on both ends of the floor, and is virtually unstoppable in transition. He dominates games with his overwhelming length, strength and offensive polish, and has drawn comparisons to a young Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Arizona forward/part-time Avenger Deandre Ayton. pic.twitter.com/RFRRi1jATw
— Jordan Hamm (@JordyHamm) December 31, 2017
This cannot be coached.
Cons: Ayton has shown lapses in defensive intensity, and doesn’t block shots at quite the rate you’d like for someone so long and athletic. There are rumors his competitiveness leaves something to be desired as well. But make no mistake–if Ayton can put it all together and lands in the right situation, he’s a generational franchise cornerstone.
Projected range: 1-3
Marvin Bagley, 18, 6’11”, 234 lbs, Duke University
22.5 PTS, 11.5 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 BLK
Pros: The Tempe, Arizona native shook up the college basketball landscape when he announced he’d reclassify, immediately making him eligible to play Division I ball this season. He hasn’t looked the least bit out of place. Bagley’s motor runs about as hot as his play, which has been scorching all season.
He introduced himself to the country during the PK80 Tournament, where his dominating 34-point, 15-rebound performance in an overtime victory against Texas raised eyebrows as well as his draft stock. He’s an animal on the offensive glass, and is as explosive as they come. His footwork is excellent on both ends, and he’s more than capable of containing quicker guards:
Marvin Bagley mostrando su versatilidad defensiva y ofensiva en apenas 15 segundos: pic.twitter.com/b3zoqJOsLp
— Esperando Marzo 🏀 (@esperandomarzo) November 27, 2017
Bagley is firmly in the mix to be taken first overall.
Cons: Despite his dominance, Bagley is a bit of a tweener, without a defined position at either power forward or center. There is concern among pro scouts that his overwhelming athletic advantage over college defenders will not translate as well at the next level. His shot blocking isn’t quite where you’d like it to be due to his average wingspan, and he has some trouble defending the post as a result. Bagley’s jump shot is promising, but still has a ways to go.
Projected range: 1-4
Mohamed Bamba, 19, 6’11”, 235 lbs, University of Texas at Austin
11.9 PTS, 10.6 RPG, 0.3 APG, 4.9 BLK
Pros: Bamba’s physical tools are simply unmatched. His outrageous 7’8″ wingspan will be tied-for longest in the NBA next year, matched only by Rudy Gobert. While it’s no surprise, Bamba’s length translates to an elite rebounding and shot-blocking ability, where his near-five blocks per game is good for highest in the nation. He’s flashed the ability to step out and hit shots from distance, which will be a crucial narrative in his development. His length allows him to be an excellent finisher around the rim, too.
— Overtime (@overtime) December 6, 2017
(Also cannot be coached).
Cons: Like most players his age, Bamba’s post game needs work and he needs to add lower body strength to adequately defend NBA centers. But he’ll immediately impact the game with his rim protection, and his potential to space the floor and finish around the basket is undeniable.
Projected range: 3-7
Jaren Jackson Jr., 18, 6’11”, 243 lbs, Michigan State University
10.8 PTS, 6.5 RPG, 1.2 APG, 3.1 BLK
Pros: The son of a 13-year pro, Jaren Junior has quickly made a name for himself for his versatility, poise, and heady play as a Spartan. He’s an excellent defensive player already, with an impressive knack for rebounding, timing blocks, and switching onto guards. Jackson is also a terrific shooter at this stage–he’s more than capable from mid-range, and knocks down threes at an outstanding 43.5 percent clip. His 25.6 Player Efficiency Rating is elite at the college level–he simply makes his team better when he’s on the floor.
Cons: Jackson’s not the best athlete in the world, and there’s some concern as to what position he’ll guard at the next level. He has lapses in intensity, and will need to refine his post game and add strength to be effective at the next level.
Projected range: 6-13
Robert Williams, 20, 6’9″, 237 lbs, Texas A&M University
8.4 PTS, 10 RPG, 1.9 APG, 2.5 BLK
Pros: Williams surprised most scouts when he elected to stay in College Station for another year. Projected to go in the lottery, Williams cited a need for further development before he made the jump to the next level. Although he’s only 6’9″, his excellent 7’5″ wingspan makes him a defensive menace, with elite shot-blocking, mobility, and footwork for someone his size. He’ll immediately step in as a defensive anchor for whoever selects him in the first round.
Cons: Williams was correct in his self-assessment–despite his excellent athleticism and length, his offensive game leaves much to be desired at this stage. He needs to develop a stronger back-to-the-basket game, and would do well to expand his range. There’s also a bit of off-the-court noise, as he was suspended, along with two other teammates, for two games in November due to a violation of university policy.
Projected range: 12-20
Bonus: Mitchell Robinson, 7’0″, 223 lbs
Projected range: 13-30
Pros: Robinson is the true wildcard in this year’s draft. A five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American, the Louisiana native received raves from scouts for his outstanding athleticism, coordination, and defensive impact. His shot-blocking and finishing ability has drawn comparisons to Deandre Jordan and Tyson Chandler. He’s raw, but a blank canvas. In the right hands, Robinson easily has all-star upside.
Cons: After decommitting from Western Kentucky, Robinson elected to bypass the college route altogether to instead spend the year focusing on preparation for the Draft. Robinson’s decision troubled many pro scouts, who believe the odd circumstances surrounding his abrupt exit are red flags in his overall scouting profile. His evaluation and interviews at the combine will no doubt be crucial in determining his stock.