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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Unicorns have roamed NBA pastures for years, transforming the sport of basketball with their unique blend of size, skill and athleticism.

The intrigue: These generational big men have started to come of age, graduating from "he's going to be an MVP candidate one day" to, well, MVP candidates.

  • They're no longer the future of the league — they're the present. And now that their respective teams have had ample time to build rosters around them, these unicorns could define the 2019-20 season.

The unicorns:

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo
  • Anthony Davis
  • Nikola Jokic
  • Joel Embiid
  • Kristaps Porzingis
  • Karl Anthony-Towns
  • Ben Simmons

By the numbers: In 2015-16, there were zero players 6-feet-10-inches or taller who were used as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at least 200 times. By 2017-18, there were 3 (Antetokounmpo, Simmons, Kevin Durant).

  • Heck, Blake Griffin was used in 300 such possessions last year — proof that this paradigm shift extends beyond even the unicorns, themselves (or perhaps Griffin should also be considered one now that he's transformed his game).
  • Jokic has recorded triple-doubles at a faster rate than any center in history, and after averaging 7.3 assists per game last season, he's closing in on Wilt Chamberlain's record for highest per-game average by a center (8.6).
  • Towns has been used as a primary ball handler and playmaker in summer workouts, per The Athletic, and is poised to become more Jokic-like now that Tom Thibodeau and his archaic philosophies are long gone.

The big picture: The rise of the unicorn is about far more than the talents of those individuals. Their versatility has changed the rules of the game, allowing teams to play "small-ball" with a slew of big men.

  • Judging by size, we'll see lineups this season that look like they belong in the 1990s, when basketball was dominated by physical, low-post play.
  • But judging by skill, the comparison falls flat. These 7-footers can shoot. They can dribble. They're gazelles. Heck, they're Monstars.
  • Prime examples: The Sixers will have 3 players 6-feet-10-inches or taller in their starting lineup (Simmons, Embiid, Al Horford), while the Lakers have discussed a "jumbo lineup" featuring LeBron James at the 2, Davis at the 3, JaVale McGee at the 4 and Dwight Howard at the 5.

The bottom line: The "Unicorn Era" has been defined by the players listed above, but it's ultimately a reimagining of what's possible for all players (and not just in the NBA) — a renewed sense of creativity in a sport that suddenly feels boundless.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

U.S. drone strike victims' families in Afghanistan seek compensation

A relative of Ezmarai Ahmadi, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike, looks at the wreckage of a vehicle that was damaged in the strike in the Kwaja Burga neighbourhood of Kabul on Saturday. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi AFP via Getty Images

Relatives of 10 Afghans killed by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul last month said Saturday they want to see punishment and compensation over the deaths.

Driving the news: The relatives said it's "good news" that the U.S. had "officially admitted" that "they had attacked innocents" in the Aug. 29 strike that killed Zamarai Ahmadi, an aid worker with a U.S.-based group, and nine family members, but they still need "justice," per AFP.

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
6 hours ago - Science

All-civilian Inspiration4 is back on Earth after flight to space

A side-by-side of the Inspiration4 crew and a shot of their capsule on the way back to Earth. Photo: SpaceX

The all-civilian Inspiration4 crew is back on Earth after their three-day mission in orbit.

The big picture: The launch and landing of this fully amateur, private space crew marks a changing of the guard from spaceflight being a largely government-led venture to being under the purview of private companies.

28 U.S. citizens depart Afghanistan on Qatar Airways flight

Passengers board a Qatar Airways aircraft bound to Qatar at the airport in Kabul on September 10, 2021. Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

The State Department on Saturday confirmed that a Qatar Airways charter flight left Kabul on Friday with 28 U.S. citizens and seven lawful permanent residents on board.

The big picture: Friday's flight is the third such airlift by Qatar Airways since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, AP reports.

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