Many NBA nicknames are easier to explain and understand than others. Michael Jordan seemingly hovered when he attempted dunks, so several labels dedicated to the six-time champion were linked to his ability to figuratively walk on air. Some younger basketball fans may not be able to tell you Magic Johnson’s actual first name if money was on the line. Wilt Chamberlain was “Wilt the Stilt” and “The Big Dipper” because of his size.
The Association provides fans and observers with an overabundance of entertaining monikers for stars, everyday starters who won’t compete for personal honors and off-the-bench figures who may go unnoticed if they walk through Times Square. Here are the best NBA player nicknames.
We begin with an honorable mention. New York Knicks guard RJ Barrett was born in Canada, and he adopted the “Maple Mamba” nickname to honor Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. As Peter Botte of the New York Post reported, Barrett elected to drop that nickname after Bryant, his daughter and seven others tragically died in a helicopter accident in January. “I don’t want to get called that anymore. Somebody great like that, to lose him in that way, is really sad,” Barrett said.
We’ll be honest and explain that we selected this one because, per Royce Young of CBS Sports, Kevin Durant wasn’t a huge fan of it in 2014. Take one look at Durant’s frame, and you’ll see “Slim Reaper” is not only perfect but it's also complimentary toward a two-time NBA Finals MVP. It’s also superior to the boring “KD” or “The Servant,” the latter of which nobody uses for Durant in 2020.
ESPN’s Myron Medcalf explained how Duke teammates had started calling forward Zion Williamson “Zanos,” a reference to the Marvel villain Thanos. Like Thanos, Williamson showed in his first 19 NBA appearances that he’s capable of changing things with the snap of his fingers, and he has, at the very least, matched expectations since making his pro debut in January. He also owns a pup that shares his nickname.
Plenty had questions about the future of the Boston Celtics once it became apparent Kyrie Irving wasn’t staying with the organization past the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Forward Jayson Tatum is just one Boston starter who’s thrived playing alongside Kemba Walker during the 2019-20 season, as the third-year pro evolved into his team’s leading scorer. In February, LeBron James posted on Instagram that Tatum was an “absolute problem.” The company Breaking T ran with the idea, and “The Problem” became reality. Tatum could cement that as his new nickname, for good, during the 2020 postseason (assuming the playoffs take place).
It’s yet another spring where there is little to like about the Chicago Bulls, as the team will finish with a losing record for the third consecutive season. As Rob Schaefer of NBC Sports Chicago documented, Bulls forward Lauri Markkanen is suffering through a letdown of a campaign, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see the club move on from him during the summer. For now, though, the Finland product has the finest nickname on the roster: The Finnisher. Of course, Chicago is still waiting for him to become that type of an impact player worthy of such a moniker beyond only February 2019.
Handfuls of outlets have dedicated internet space to the best beards in the NBA at any given time or even in history. With that said, only one star is nicknamed “The Beard” 20 years into the 2000s. The epic nature of James Harden’s beard varies per month, but the one-time regular-season MVP establishing himself as one of the greatest scorers in league history should ensure nobody else shares his label moving forward.
As Josh Martin of USA Today wrote in 2018, Lonzo Ball and other members of the Los Angeles Lakers used to clown Brandon Ingram about Ingram’s supposed resemblance to internet meme “ Slenderman .” That name stuck for a time, but Ingram’s New Orleans Pelicans teammates went in a different direction during the 2019-20 season. Per Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated, Ingram became "Durag B.I.” after his move from L.A. to New Orleans. “It might be my signature thing. I don’t wear my hair out too much unless it’s game time,” Ingram told Spears. If nothing else, we’ll give Ingram and the Pelicans credit for originality.
We know what you’re thinking. Kawhi Leonard has been “The Claw” for years, well before he won a second ring and second NBA Finals MVP Award last June. As mentioned by Charles Curtis of USA Today, Leonard utilized unique trash talk during his collegiate days. The best of such gab may have been “board man gets paid,” a reference to Leonard’s thoughts about the importance of securing important rebounds throughout contests. We want “Board Man” to stick regardless of if Leonard leads the Los Angeles Clippers to a title during the 2020s.
Pascal Siakam ’s ascent from off-the-bench contributor to Most Improved Player and championship cornerstone for the Toronto Raptors in the spring of 2019 is one of the most positive NBA stories of the past several years. As Siakam told Yahoo Canada Sports in 2018, his “Spicy P” nickname isn’t all that logical, at first, since he’s not a fan of food that carries some heat. Siakam added: “I don’t like spicy food because I’m spicy enough. I don’t need to add any spice. You know what I’m saying?” Maybe it’s the perfect nickname for the one-time champ, after all.
Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams is nearly 7-feet tall. He’s from New Zealand. “Big Kiwi” isn’t all that imaginative, but it gets the job done in the nickname department. Adams told reporters that he spent portions of the All-Star break training his dog who is “hyper as s---.” We’re sure she’s a very good girl.
Dragons are awesome mythical creatures. They’re massive. They soar through the air. They blow fire on enemies and threats. Not just any player can be named after them. According to Fox Sports , Miami Heat guard Goran Dragic explained this tag in 2015. “That nickname was given to me by Steve Nash when I came to the league and nobody could say my last name, Dragic,” he said at the time. We don’t think Dragic is all that difficult to pronounce, but he probably hasn’t been bothered by fellow players calling him “Dragon” throughout his NBA career.
If you go by Basketball-Reference , Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo is known as “The Big Ragu,” which in itself is a tremendous nickname. Instead, we wanted to focus on a time when he was affectionately known as “The Michael Jordan of Delaware.” Before the Bucks drafted DiVincenzo in 2018, Kevin Noonan of Town Square Delaware wrote about the birth of that identity. During a weekly media appearance, Villanova coach Jay Wright randomly referred to the guard as “The Michael Jordan of Delaware.” While Wright was likely being facetious at the time, the name stuck. There are worse things a basketball player can be called by coaches and peers.
Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter is a massive WWE fan. The big man even won the company’s 24/7 Championship during an edition of “Raw” in September. According to Eurohoops , Kanter admitted in May 2018 he could join WWE on a full-time basis once he calls time on his playing career. Thus, it’s only fitting he’s known in some circles as “Underkanter,” a tribute to legendary wrestler The Undertaker. Will we ever see Kanter hit a tombstone piledriver inside of the squared circle?
Mimicking shooting an arrow from an imaginary bow is a celebration that works across multiple sports. A hockey sniper, soccer forward, or basketball guard commemorating a successful score with a fictitious strike that would make DC Comics superhero Green Arrow proud adds salt to wounds felt by opponents tasked with defending such players. Before Jamal Murray became a starter for the Denver Nuggets, he was unleashing fake arrows into the chests of teammates while at the University of Kentucky. As Kyle Tucker of USA Today explained, the original celebration involving Murray and other Kentucky players was choreographed but also “wasn’t really planned out.” The act combined with Kentucky’s famous uniform colors led to a nickname that has remained associated with Murray for years.
Brook Lopez evolved along with the Association during the second half of the 2010s. After the 7-footer went six years without hitting a single regular-season three-pointer, Lopez developed a distance game and became a reliable shooter capable of draining roughly 35 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. According to ESPN’s Malika Andrews, Lopez’s growth as a player and offensive force led to Milwaukee Bucks fans naming him “Splash Mountain.”
Defense wins championships, but it apparently doesn’t sell tickets or generate headlines. How else can one explain two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert having to wait until February to receive his first All-Star invite? At least the French-born Utah Jazz center has some top-tier nicknames. We particularly like “The Stifle Tower” for the shot-blocker who led the NBA in rejections per game during the 2016-17 season. “The French Rejection” also rolls off the tongue nicely. Of course, lately he has garnered attention for other reasons.
Multiple injury woes stood between Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox and an expected third-season career leap that didn’t happen in 2019-20. You know things are a little rough when the young man known as “Swipa” has seen his steals-per-game rate drop from Year 2 to Year 3. As Fox once told ThePostGame’s Jeff Eisenband, the nickname comes from his ability to accumulate steals during his younger days and the Swiper the Fox character from the “Dora the Explorer” show. Since Swiper was taken by a company that holds the trademark, “Swipa” had to do for this Fox.
After the Sacramento Kings drafted forward Marvin Bagley III in 2018, he spoke with James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area about, among other things, a nickname he acquired while at Duke. “They started calling me ‘Problem Child,’” Bagley explained, “just because of being able to go out and play hard every night. It was a positive. They turned that into a positive.” Bagley celebrated his 21st birthday on March 14, so he’ll have some time before he grows out of this moniker.
According to outlets such as AdAge and Box Office Mojo , the “Uncle Drew” movie was a financial success, so we’ll let Kyrie Irving hang onto this nickname for the foreseeable future. Irving’s tenure with the Boston Celtics and his first season with the Brooklyn Nets left more to be desired than the film, but we haven’t yet seen him feature alongside Kevin Durant vs. NBA competition. That buddy-cop duo deserves a name of its own. One commentator on The Score Facebook page recommended “The Amphisbaena,” the name of a mythical snake with heads at both ends. Ouch.
Whatever the Boston Celtics plan to do regarding future rosters, center Robert Williams III must be protected at all costs. As noted by Greg Brueck-Cassoli of USA Today/Celtics Wire and Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle, Williams’ mother nicknamed him “Boo Butt” at a young age, and his sister once took to social media to debunk the theory “Time Lord” is what he’s known as outside of basketball circles. The sports world deserves a Champion Boo Butt. Make it so, Celtics.
All due respect to Zion Williamson, but Milwaukee Bucks unicorn Giannis Antetokounmpo remains the Association’s only “freak” as of March. The 6-foot-11, one-time regular-season MVP can play every position, including point guard, and he’s done well to add a three-point shot to his repertoire. One can only guess how unguardable he’ll become once he hits his physical prime. That’s right. We haven’t yet seen the best of Antetokounmpo. That’s a scary thought for anybody who has to defend him.
As it pertains only to nicknames, Phoenix Suns forward Mikal Bridges may be the most interesting man in the NBA. According to both Basketball-Reference and Bleacher Report, Bridges picked up nicknames such as “Inspector Go Go Gadget,” “Noodles,” “Praying Mantis,” “String Bean” and “Brittle” while playing at Villanova due to his long arms and slender stature. Per Evan Anderson of Basketball Society Online, Villanova teammates also called Bridges “kills” because he was a “killer on the court.” We wonder if he’d prefer that over the other options.
Just as players develop and grow, so must their alter egos. Peter Hailey of NBC Sports Washington chronicled why Kelly Oubre Jr. went by “Wave Papi” when he played for the Washington Wizards. “Wave Papi is all about good vibes. He’s about staying cool, calm and collected,” Oubre said at the time. Since then he has evolved into “Tsunami Papi,” the name he uses on multiple social media services.
Joel Embiid is a national treasure. The Philadelphia 76ers center who willingly embraced “ The Process,” both in name and in Philadelphia’s roster-building tactics, doesn’t dance around topics or shy from having fun, even at his own expense. As recorded by Sports Illustrated’s Extra Mustard, one “Jeopardy” contestant believed Embiid’s nickname was “Do a 180.” Embiid got a kick out of it, and he changed his Twitter profile to include that phrase in his bio, per Scott Polacek of Bleacher Report. The big man also tweeted a highlight that must be seen to be truly appreciated.
We live in a world filled with uncertainty as of the middle of March. It’s anybody’s guess if LeBron James will ever play in another NBA Finals, either with the Los Angeles Lakers or a different franchise. Association gospel does tell us, though, that James was the NBA’s King of the 2010s and the man who should’ve won the regular-season MVP each year from 2011 through 2018. Depending on what occurs with the remainder of the 2019-20 campaign, James may reign atop MVP power rankings by the end of the first spring of the decade.
Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink.