Behind the screen: The arrival of the NBA's next great passing big man, Nikola Jokic
Nuggets star narrates some of his wildest, and best passes of the season
DENVER -- To be honest, there are plenty of jaw-dropping aspects about Nikola Jokic's game this season.
At 22, the Nuggets big man has become one of the most buzz-worthy names in a hyper-athletic league, despite being slower than dirt and having the vertical lift of a Buick.
He's tied with Chris Webber for the most triple-doubles by a big man before age 23 since 1984.
He's 11th in assists by a big man in their first two seasons in NBA history, with 12 games to play.
The complete list of players who have averaged what he has per 100 possessions this season while shooting 58 percent from the field is made up of just him.
Oh, and he's a huge goofball who really enjoyed the series Friends.â€ He can't pick a favorite between Joey and Chandler.
But if you really want to get into what makes Nikola Jokic so unbelievable, you have to watch his passes, and you need to see them the way he does.
Let's start here.
The NBA is changing. Teams are trying to find ways to use and feature big men in a game that has gone smallball crazy and perimeter-oriented. This has freed up big men to run the break, and no big does it like Jokic. Jokic has the most transition assists of any big this season outside of Draymond Green, with 44. That's only five fewer than Kawhi Leonard, and the same number as Jimmy Butler.
It's where the Magic Jokic label tends to pop out, never more so than on this pass against the Minnesota Timberwolves, where he dribbles behind his back, then finds Wilson Chandler on a line-drive jump pass that hits him perfectly in stride for the score.
*** Turn volume on to hear Jokic narrate each play moving forward
Jokic's ability to improvise like in that clip is what sets him apart. With so many big men, if you interrupt their dribble, that's it -- the play is done. They'll pause and wait for a guard. But Jokic is able to find ways to adapt as the play develops, and still create in those moments where the play is still alive.
Here, a defender tries to drive Jokic away from the center of the floor where he's most dangerous, but the connection he has with Gary Harris means that Harris kicks it into overdrive. If passing is all about angles (and it is), Jokic's understanding of uncommon angles and how they're created by movement away from the primary direction of the play is something unique to his game.
Talk to anyone close to the Nuggets and you realize that like most teams with their best acquisition, even they didn't know what they had when they landed Jokic. The Nuggets drafted Jokic with the 41st overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft -- a second-round draft-and-stash. The talk that night surrounded Jusuf Nurkic (ironically, given that the Nuggets traded Nurkic this year to Portland for a host of reasons, among them his inability to successfully play next to Jokic) and Gary Harris. At the post-draft presser, no one asked about Jokic.
But quietly, executives would say they really felt he could be something special. But this though? Putting up what are historic numbers on a per-possession basis? There was no way they could have anticipated that.
For a team to escape mediocrity, you need a black swan event. The Rockets thought James Harden could be a star. But MVP? The Celtics knew they were getting a great player in Isaiah Thomas. But a franchise cornerstone? And the Nuggets felt they were getting a talented young big man. But a player who literally makes all of his teammates better? That was never the plan in 2014. (Otherwise they would have taken him in the first round.)
Sometimes, Jokic throws passes that even he doesn't really know are there to be made. This play is pretty routine on the surface. Guys spot up like this all the time, and that function, catching on the short-roll and kicking to the shooter is pretty standard. This pass is made all the time. But the fact that Jokic never has Gallinari in his line of sight and manages to land the pass not near Gallinari, but right on target so he can go into his shooting motion, it still seems pretty wild.
There's a casualness in these clips you're always going to find with NBA players. I've never asked a player about any of the mechanics of their game and had them reply, Let me tell you how difficult this is,â€ when it comes to individual plays. But Jokic takes it a step further, constantly deferring to how the Nuggets' team play is what unlocks what he's capable of.
All the media talking to me, saying that I'm the best player on the team? But I really don't think that. You've seen the NBA, the individual players are part of a team, but this team is really a team. It's 15 guys every day on the court, working hard, practicing together.
It's that dynamic that has led the Nuggets to the NBA's best offense since Dec. 15, when Jokic was reinstalled into the starting lineup. Since then, they have an offensive rating of 114 -- a full 1.5 points higher than the second-best team in that span, the Houston Rockets, and better than even the Golden State Warriors. The Nuggets are constantly moving the ball, sharing, finding the open man, kicking, driving, kicking, and making extra pass after extra pass.
Jokic is the engine, but with his nascent game still finding itself day by day, the Nuggets wouldn't be nearly the same if their personnel weren't so well primed around Joker, as Mike Miller nicknamed him. Players have stepped up across the board to create this offensive juggernaut. But Jokic's effect is crystal clear. Check out the net ratings (net points vs opponent's points per 100 possessions) of various rotation players with Jokic on and off the floor
|Denver Nuggets Net Rating:||With Jokic||Without Jokic||Differential|| |
Danilo Gallinari DEN SF
Jameer Nelson DEN PG
Wilson Chandler DEN SF
Gary Harris DEN SG
Will Barton DEN SG
Jamal Murray DEN SG
Kenneth Faried DEN PF
Juan Hernangomez DEN PF
Mason Plumlee DEN C
All of those players have positive net ratings -- some significantly so -- with Jokic on the floor, and all of those players have negative net ratings when he's on the bench. They outscored their opponent with Jokic, they get outscored without him. That kind of impact doesn't mean that he's even the best overall player on the floor every night. It just means that when Jokic is on the floor, good things happen.
All of this means Denver is in the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference standings with a fighting chance to hold off Portland and return to the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Jokic sees it as an opportunity to experience something new.
"My highest achievement is the silver medal in Rio with the national team," he says. "But I want to do something here. I want to see how it feels."
Jokic stands at 6-11. With Kevin Durant, his height combined with his insane natural scoring ability makes him an impossible cover for opponents. With Jokic, the effect is similar for his passing. His release point is high, which means he has the ability to make split-second decisions whether to shoot or pass. Throw in his unreal vision, and you have something that's a nightmare to defend.
Jokic's passing is built not only on touch and natural feel for the game, but obviously his vision, and his ability to make multiple reads at once.
Some big men have pet passes, certain moves they can go to which provide an opportune moment for a pass they're comfortable and familiar with. Jokic instead has the ability to modify where he wants to go to, depending on the coverage. Here, Willie Cauley-Stein's long wingspan freezes the overhead pass Jokic so often goes to, so he spits a bounce pass to Jamal Murray.
Jokic credits the chemistry he's built with those players with the time he's spent getting to know them and learning everything about what kind of passes they want, where they want it, and when they want to receive it.
"When you first come to practice, you learn the guys," he said. "You're going to play with them for the next couple seasons. You just need to know what shots they like, how they run, how good a lead they are. You need to know your personnel. Jameer likes to go for right, I'll set a screen to go right. Kenneth likes the lob, you throw him the lob."
"You need to be a fan of your own team."
After Jokic started firing off double-digit assists with consistency, the book got out to guard against the cutters when he was stationary with the ball, effectively playing the pass to make him a scorer. Unfortunately for them, he's shooting 58 percent from the field, 35 percent from 3-point range, and most effectively when he gets into that range shown above. Jokic is shooting 63 percent from 5-to-9 feet this season, per NBA.com:
The Knicks tried to make him a scorer ... and he dropped 40 on them at the Garden. He's hit 77 of his last 120 shots in the past 10 games. There will be tougher matchups and schemes, and opponents will look to attack him more, but Jokic's combination of vision and efficiency is a huge part of what makes Denver's offense catch fire instantly.
If Jokic's game as a pass-first, hyper-efficient big man with no discernible athleticism is an episode of NBA counter-culture, then his personality is outright revolt. Jokic stands contrarian to the mindset that says a player has to have killer instinctâ€ to dominate a game. He's a goofball, funny and earnest. That can be a great thing -- a guy whose teammates love him, who engenders a positive atmosphere with his presence. Or it can grow to be Dwight Howard. There are risks that come with it.
But Jokic is never going to get caught up in the manufactured intensity of the NBA, not growing up in Serbia with two big, tough, brutal older brothers, one of whom is an MMA fighter.
"I just play the game," Jokic says. If that means I need to joke around, or whatever I need to do, that's what I'll do. This isn't a job to me, it's a game for me. It's not something I need to do, it's something I want to do. For me, every game is a pickup game in front of my house."
Does your best player have to be that alpha? Do you have to have a killer instinct? This isn't to say Jokic isn't a competitor. He is. On Wednesday night, the kid went right at, and through, LeBron James.
But here's what Jokic said about his bucket over the game's best player afterwards:
I just tried to cut, then they switched. I think that's a mismatch for us. I just tried to score. I didn't think that it was him or whatever. I just wanted to score. That's it.â€ Jokic said. I'm feeling really good on the left block right now. I'm confident in my shooting, in my post moves, in my hook. I feel really good.â€
That's it. No big deal. Michael Malone called it a defining moment. Will Barton told BSN Denver that he expected Jokic to score on whoever is defending him., from a size standpoint.
Jokic didn't say he was going right at him, that he wanted to prove he was the best. He just saw an opportunity to score, and he did. I asked Jokic about whether respect is implicit -- that is, whether you should have respect for everyone when you meet them, as people, or whether people have to earn your respect. He brought up LeBron, unprompted.
"If someone is better than me, we all need to know that, but we don't need to accept that," he says. "If it's LeBron James, we all know he's better than me, you, everyone, but we don't need to accept that, we can fight against that."
Is that enough? Can that be the attitude of your best player? That's what makes the future of the Nuggets, way past whatever happens in the next month, so fascinating.
And then ... there are times when Jokic just tries stuff.
Crazy, unthinkable, brash, I-can't-believe-he-tried-that-let-alone-pulled-it-off stuff.
Like the full-court, one-hand outlet pass off the inbounds for what he calls a touchdown.
Or the one-hand instant pass from the low right side underneath the basket to the left wing, pinpoint, in mid-transition.
This is the stuff that defies convention, that should drive coach Michael Malone to concerning levels of blood pressure. But as Jokic says, Malone doesn't dress him down when one of these passes fails and results in a turnover. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has long said the same thing about Manu Ginobili's wild creativity. He said he had to learn to accept the pull-your-hair out bad with the incredibly good passes. Malone has taken the same supportive approach, usually clapping when Jokic's attempts at a pass no sane person would try go awry.
And sometimes, heck, relatively frequently, they actually work. Like this one.
That's the only way I can make that pass,â€ Jokic said.
Which is why most players would never, ever attempt it.
Some of this will fade in time. He'll learn the value of possessions as he gets older. The grind of NBA life will take away some of the joy found in pulling off passes with such a high risk-to-reward ratio. And there are very real weaknesses to his game. A two-game set against the Rockets and James Harden's tenaciousness in the pick-and-roll with the phenomenally more athletic Clint Capela exposed Jokic's defensive liability at this point in his career. He hasn't faced real adversity in the league beyond an early-season benching of his own design. ( It was what was best for the team.â€ Jokic was reinserted into the starting lineup on Dec. 15.) There's a lot that can go wrong, especially given his notoriously questionable diet and the wear and tear that's already taken its toll on him.
Jokic slumped after the All-Star break, admitting he was tired,â€ before backtracking on that and saying he wasn't tired. The reality is that he was mentally exhausted from the constant demands of his time in New Orleans. (That slump lasted three games. Then he dropped back-to-back triple-doubles and a 31-14-4 line against Charlotte.) He's playing more minutes with more focus and more responsibilities, and being targeted more. His exhaustion was palpable after the win over Cleveland on Wednesday. And this is all before the hypothetical pressure and physicality of a playoff series.
For now, though, this is Jokic: Unfazed by expectation, unhindered by convention, redefining what a big man can do, and all with a goofy smile on his face.
The NBA is always evolving, from Wilt Chamberlain to Michael Jordan to Shaquille O'Neal to Allen Iverson to LeBron James to Stephen Curry. Jokic is just one of a handful of young bigs along with Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis who seem like they could redefine the future. But maybe they all do.
Jokic's rise hasn't been sudden. It's not Linsanity or the sudden flammability Steph Curry hit when his ankles got right. It's been a slow burn, and Denver, a football town through and through, has been skeptical to embrace the idea that maybe this slightly-pudgy, goofy 6-foot-11 Serbian kid could be the real deal.
But for every element and highlight that seems surreal springs this fact: Nikola Jokic has arrived. And no matter what comes next for him, you can believe it won't be what we all expect.
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