Love it or hate it, NBA players have shifted. The influence of European basketball on the NBA game over the past few decades can’t be argued, with all-timers like Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker, among others, enjoying Hall of Fame careers. The induction of the stretch four and switch everything defense has led to positionless basketball, which, for some basketball purists, may be too much to handle at times, given the small ball, fast-paced lineups teams are incorporating.
Ever since the Mad Scientist, current Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, introduced the seven-second offense, the game has been faster. Then, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, took the fundamentals from his predecessors, Phil Jackson and Greg Popovich, creating an up-tempo system reliant on ball movement and big men who can handle the rock or shoot. The NBA quickly followed, and basketball has now transformed from the brunt sport of the ‘90s into a beautiful game of today. Gone are the days of dominant big men — much to the chagrin of guys like Shaquille O’Neal.
As the game and NBA players have changed, so too have the superstars. A major part of that change has been some players’ insane physical dynamics. Now, on any given night, a fan can see a rare species running laps down the court — like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis or Joel Embiid, among others — you name it, the NBAs got it.
In an attempt to stay current with the league, NBA players today are thinning out. Guys like Kyrie Irving have moved to an all-vegan diet in order to shed weight and naturally increase endurance. In the same token, ballers like Damian Lillard and Enes Kanter have taken up vegetarian or vegan lifestyles. This isn’t something revolutionary, but it’s definitely becoming a trend.
A lot of this movement started back with “The King” himself, LeBron James. When turning 30 a few years ago and coming off the heels of an NBA Finals loss, LeBron James set out to shed the extra weight. Not just fat, but muscle as well. He recognized that playing thinner meant playing faster. It also meant less wear and tear, less regression and a longer window in your prime. The behemoth that was LeBron in South Beach became a thinner monster on the new look Cleveland Cavs. Other superstars have followed suit, with these NBA players recognizing that, more than ever, the NBA is a young man’s game, and, in order to keep pace, it takes more work than ever.
To get a better sense of some of the NBA players evolving the NBA and sport, we’re highlighting some of the next-gen stars. The guys who have become the new NBA prototype and once-in-a-generation talents.
The Greek Freak! Giannis Antetokounmpo has been on a steady climb ever since the Milwaukee Bucks stole him with the No. 15 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. The prototypical point-forward in the mold of a Magic Johnson blended with a little LeBron James, the 6'11 Greek has rare athletic ability that allows him to be both a lockdown defender and the leader of the transition offense. Off a rebound, the Greek Freak can get out on his horse and be at the rim in what feels like four strides. The open court is where he creates most of his havoc, but he's a monster both inside and out. He's got a ways to go on his deep ball, but that doesn't matter when he can get to the rim at will.
Kevin Durant payed respect for Kristaps Porzingis’ blossoming skillset when, last year before their matchup, he labeled him a Unicorn. And it stuck. With his rare blend of size, skill and touch, Porzingis really does feel mystical. The Latvian big man is unlike any other to ever bless the court. Try to compare him to a young Dirk Nowitzki, but his offense is far more complete. Unlike Dirk, he doesn’t rely on a few untouchable moves — he's got a bevel of moves inside and out. He's an assassin from the outside, draining deep threes with ease. Press up, he's got speed and an exceptional handle for a true seven-footer. He's got a turn around, runs in transition and plays above the rim with aggression. On the defensive end, he anchors his New York Knicks squad and will likely lead the NBA in blocks per game multiple times throughout his career.
Trusting the process has paid off in full with this young, fierce Philadelphia 76ers squad right now. And their led by, Mr. Social Media fingers, the class clown, “The Process” himself — Joel Embiid. For all those who have been longing for a true big man in the NBA, look no further. He's the classic center of the golden era with some new swag. Embiid toasts defenders on the post with hooks, spins and fade-aways. But, push him to the outside, and he'll make you pay with his 33.6% 3-point stroke. If a mismatch presents itself, as it often does, he will shake and bake his way to the rim. Not much he can't do — assuming he stays healthy enough to be on the court.
The revolution is upon us. The fast-paced NBA game has taken full root and there's no looking back. As the international pool continues to build, the game fans will be watching in five years might be the most competitive that the league has ever seen. NBA players and the superstars of tomorrow are going to be asked to do everything at a high level, on both sides of the court, so, for basketball fans, we have to quote Drake, because "man, what a time to be alive!”
Lead image via Getty.