The fascination with “unicorn” players in the NBA is no secret to anyone. With Dallas Mavericks’ Kristaps Porzingis earning the nickname a few seasons ago, teams have been searching for their own version. Front offices have drafted major project players higher in drafts than previously and it’s quite apparent. It seems like each year, there is a new athletic, seven-foot talent with “all the tools to be great” who gets drafted by a team in the top 10, as teams hope they landed a Tyson Chandler or Clint Capela-type player. The Oklahoma City Thunder drafted Aleksej Pokusevski this past year with the 17th overall pick, and its shown impressive results so far. The success rate of these players isn’t high, but the risk is worth the reward.
For every Joel Embiid, there is an Anthony Bennett. For every Nikola Jokic, there is another European with height who teams will take a shot on. Long story short, these players are few and far between. For the aforementioned Embiid and Jokic, their respective teams couldn’t be happier. These two have surpassed expectations and have silenced critics. These two sit at the top of the MVP ladder, and other than a late push by Stephen Curry, the race looks like it will come down to these two “unicorn” superstars.
For Embiid, his MVP case was strong early on. He lead the race for the bulk of the season, posting 30 points per game with a career-high .642 TS%. He is shooting way better from deep (38%), destroying any player that comes his way (71% on shots three feet and closer), and leading the charge for the renaissance of the prototypical big man. With all of these offensive numbers, it’s easy to overlook his impact defensively. The 76ers have a better defensive rating with him on the court and miss his presence as a rim protector when he is off the court. Unfortunately for Embiid and the team, a bone bruise has kept him out for 18 games this season. The silver lining for his MVP case is that Philadelphia didn’t perform up to standard without him in the lineup.
Watching Embiid play against a small-ball lineup is like watching an NBA player join a YMCA league. He is bigger and stronger than most, and has the speed and switch ability on defense that it’s difficult to play him off the court like you can with most large big men.
For Jokic, his MVP case has been consistent as well throughout this season. The Serbian-born center has put on a clinic this year offensively, and has done the work required on the defensive end as well. A few seasons ago, you could hear murmurs about whether Jokic was the best passing center of all-time. Years later, critics have been forced to eat their words. Jokic has the highest assist per game among big men in the history of the league through his career (5.9 career, 8.8 this season). Couple that with 26.4 points and 11.1 rebounds per game, and Jokic has cemented his spot at the top of the MVP ladder. When the Nuggets selected Jokic with the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, even they didn’t expect for him to turn into an MVP candidate.
So, who is the clear winner? As of now, Jokic is looking like the favorite, but that may change overnight. Just three months ago, Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James was getting a lot of media love. Brooklyn Nets’ James Harden had a case as well, but like Embiid, their run was cut short due to injuries. A dark horse candidate would be Curry, but I can’t justify giving a player on a team barely above .500 an MVP vote.