Nikola Jokic grabbed a rebound and led his own fast break. He then pulled off a smooth behind-the-back move to fool elite defender Draymond Green and glide to the hoop for an easy dunk. This type of play is not that uncommon among NBA point guards, but for a 6′ 10” center? Very rare.
Yet that’s just the type of player Jokic is. He embodies the changing nature of the NBA big man with his skilful game. While the league’s attention has been fixed on how players like Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis will change the game, Jokic’s quiet brilliance has gone relatively under the radar. He entered the league through the back door – he was not a high draft pick like Towns, Embiid and Porzingis were. The Serbian was picked 41st in 2014 by the Denver Nuggets and was stashed for a year in his native country. Regularly, European second-round picks don’t even make it to the league, but Jokic has thrived in the NBA.
The Best Is Yet To Come
And we certainly haven’t seen the best of him. He turns 22 in a month, so he has plenty of time to add more strength to his skill as he matures. In addition, his development hasn’t been helped by Denver’s muddled lineup selection. First they started Jokic with Jusuf Nurkic, then they benched Jokic in favour of Kenneth Faried, and now they have returned Jokic as a starter instead of Nurkic. He has played less than 25 minutes per-game this season. This is a team that seems unsure of how to use their best player and who to surround him with.
Since Jokic was reinstated as a starting center in mid-December, the Nuggets’ new-look small lineup has been encouraging; they’ve gone 5-4 with the second-best offensive rating in the league. The Serbian has had 17 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.6 assists per-game in that span and it’s surely only a matter of time before he records the first triple double of his NBA career.
As well as these strong raw numbers, Jokic is an incredibly efficient player. Despite a slow start this season, he has shot 57.9 percent from the field – good enough for 7th in the NBA. But even that doesn’t tell the full story. The players around him as the top field-goal shooters play mostly from close range. Those at the very top like Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan shoot almost entirely from within 10 feet. And those with more similar field-goal numbers to Jokic like Steven Adams and Marcin Gortat take 95 and 82 percent of their shots from within 10 feet, respectively. Jokic is different; only 60.6 percent of his shots come from within this range. Put simply, he is scoring efficiently while maintaining more of an outside game than his contemporaries. Again, very rare.
Jokic also has unusually good passing skills; his 3.7 assists per game rank 5th among NBA centers. Again, the raw numbers alone don’t tell the full story. He passes with the effortlessness of a point guard, like here against the Dallas Mavericks:
Just like James Harden, Jokic’s passing is another aspect of his varied and unique style on offense. His ability to shoot free throws at around 80 percent further complements his offensive game and complicates how defenders combat him. How do you defend a 6′ 10” guy who can dribble, pass, shoot jumpers and convert free throws – all with deadly efficiency?
Jokic still has plenty to improve upon, particularly on defense. He has good positioning, but is an infrequent shot-blocker. This means he has allowed opponents to shoot over 55 percent on 2-point attempts. His nimble footwork on defense is usually sufficient against most centers, but he will have to improve his shot-blocking to counter more athletic opponents.
Even so, All-Star recognition is on the horizon. This year seems too early, despite his solid production. But as Jokic’s role expands in Denver, expect him to be an All-Star by the time he will likely hit free agency in 2019. And teams will be queuing up to snag such a uniquely skilled center. They’re just so rare.