Transcendent and Talented: Nikola Jokic

On February 4, 2017, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic posted 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists in a 121-117 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. In honor of his performance, Nuggets head coach Mike Malone bestowed Jokic with the game ball. In return, Malone received an appreciative hug from his 6’10”, 250-pound, Serbian big man. The kicker? Big Honey (or Joker), as Jokic has come to be called, was completely naked.

Considering Jokic’s all-around superb play in 2016-17, I imagine Malone becoming accustomed to tossing more game balls his way and perhaps expectant of a few more naked hugs in return. Malone certainly isn’t shy about expressing his admiration for Big Honey, stating he’s never coached such a gifted passer and playmaker at the center position and that he wouldn’t trade  Jokic “for anybody in the world,” comparing him to the likes of Vlade Divac and DeMarcus Cousins.

Not bad company for Denver’s big man, especially at the tender age of 22. Keeping with the theme of similar players, ESPN FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO NBA Player Projections also look favorably on Joker, listing Kevin Love, Charles Barkley, and Shawn Kemp among his top-10 comps. Additionally, CARMELO projects Jokic’s 5-year market value at $281.3 million. That’s a lot of probable production for a player making just north of $3.0 million over the next two seasons.

The interesting part is how atypical Jokic’s talent is in a NBA where most true centers have been relegated to niche categories like rim protectors, rebounders, or dunkers. Watching the Nuggets, it’s immediately apparent that Joker is their best playmaker and passer. The ball in his hands, surrounded by athletic cutters, is a nightmare for opposing defenses in the half court. As teammate, Gary Harris, puts it, “He has such a great feel for the game. When he has the ball, everyone wants to cut because they know he’ll make the pass. That just gets the movement going on the offensive end.”

Overall, Denver had the fourth best Offensive Rating (113.2) in the league last season. Not too shabby, but a deeper dive reveals the inescapable sway of Jokic’s presence. According to nbawowy.com, with Jokic, the team’s Offensive Rating climbed to 119.1, 3.5 points higher than the league-leading Warriors, but without him fell to 107.7, on par with the Grizzlies and Knicks.

Big Honey’s court vision is so advanced, especially considering his age, that trying to define that area of his game using statistics almost feels like a fool’s errand. Sure, he averaged 4.9 assists per game in 2016-17, but the truly staggering stat is that he was the only player, besides LeBron James, ranked inside the top-35 in Assist Percentage (minimum 500 minutes) who was NOT classified as a point guard, per basketball-reference.com. Additionally, among all centers, Jokic ranked top-3 in a handful of the NBA’s advanced passing stats, including Secondary Assists, Potential Assists, and Assist Points Created.

And if his passing abilities aren’t enough, Jokic’s shooting efficiency kills. Last season he ranked 6th in Effective Field Goal Percentage. What really sets Big Honey apart, however, is that his efficiency isn’t artificially bloated by assisted dunk attempts and catch-and-shoot threes. Take a look at the players ahead of him and it’s easy to realize the benefits of playing with the likes of Chris Paul, James Harden, or John Wall, for instance. Clearly, Jokic isn’t making a living off of his teammates’ world-class passing abilities. As outlined above, if anything, it’s the other way around.

 

2016-17 NBA Top-6 Effective Field Goal Percentage
Player %2P Assisted %2P Dunks eFG%
DeAndre Jordan (1st) .723 .477 .714
Rudy Gobert (2nd) .741 .393 .661
Clint Capela (3rd) .826 .318 .643
Nikola Jokic (6th) .566 .029 .605

 

To round out his repertoire, Jokic is a capable rebounder as well. He averaged 9.8 boards per game in 2016-17, while converting 56.2% of his rebounding chances, good for 19th among all centers (minimum 500 minutes). This is what makes him an immediate double-double threat on a nightly basis and when paired with his adept passing, a transcendent triple-double talent (more on double-double and triple-double stats below).

If there’s a knock on Jokic to this point, it’s his defense. The data tells a varied story. He averaged 0.8 blocks per game last season and had a relatively negligible defended shot differential of 1.1 inside 6 feet, ranking him 59th out of 72 centers (minimum 41 games played), per NBA.com. Both DRPM and Defensive Win Shares rank him positively; 2.29 for the former and 2.0 in the latter case. As challenging as it can be to quantify a player’s defensive impact (or lack thereof), there’s really no significant, damning evidence that proves Joker is a complete liability on that end of the floor.

Make no mistake, Denver is well-aware of their good fortune. When you have a 22-year-old, on a favorable contract, who placed 14th among all NBA players in double-doubles (39), and 4th in triple-doubles (6), behind only Westbrook, Harden, and LeBron, award-winning defense when/if it comes is just icing on the cake. With Jokic, the Nuggets offense is world-class; without him, it’s a step below mediocre.

The Nuggets know this. Mike Malone knows this. And it’s exactly why they’ll keep giving Big Honey his game balls while tolerating (maybe even learning to love) all his naked hugs.

 

photo via llananba