Nikola Jokic’s Scoring Leap Has Made Him An MVP Candidate

This season, four players are averaging 35 points per 100 possessions on 65 percent true shooting. Kevin Durant, an offensive virtuoso you might peg based on reputation, is there. Zach LaVine, enjoying a prolific scoring and breakout campaign, makes the cut. Zion Williamson, burgeoning as a historically dominant scorer at the rim , joins the group.

And then, there is Nikola Jokic, justifiably and predominantly heralded for his passing artistry, who rounds out the quartet. The Serbian center has gone from superstar to legitimate MVP candidate by taking the next step as a scorer, increasing both his volume and efficiency.

Outlier 3-point shooting — he’s a career 34.7 percent guy from deep knocking down 42.1 percent of his triples this year — is partially responsible, but newfound quickness has unlocked further offensive versatility for him and improved his quality of looks as well.

Jokic’s Basketball-Reference shot chart is patently comical. Each of the five zones features an elite clip. He’s shooting 77.4 percent from 0-3 feet, 53.9 percent from 3-10 feet, 50 percent from 10-16 feet, 56.1 percent from 16 feet to the 3-point line and 42.1 percent beyond the arc. What’s even more absurd is the marks between 3-10 feet and 10-16 feet align with his career averages of 54 and 49.2 percent, which is to say, his intermediate touch is all-time awesome.

Where the extra top gear has primarily aided him is as a finisher. A career 68 percent shooter from 0-3 feet entering the year, and 70.7 percent across 2018-19 and 2019-20, he’s at 77.4 percent this season. He’s also jammed home 15 dunks in 33 games, on track to race past his career-best of 23 set back in 2016-17. Some of that is due to increased scoring volume, but dunks compose 2.5 percent of all his makes this season. It’s the second-best frequency of his career, trailing only 2.9 percent from 2016-17, and much higher than the 1.1 percent of his other two All-Star campaigns. He has more space to rev up for slams because he’s manufacturing separation at a higher rate.

His speed upgrade manifests both on and off the ball. In the post, his baseline spin leaves opponents defending air and propels him to cleaner looks around the rim. That latter point is the overarching theme tying together the multifaceted ways his scoring benefits from having a little more pep in his step: shots are easier because he endures fewer optimal contests.

Denver is also tapping into his burst off the ball, leveraging the quickness into advantages and space against defenders by forcing opposing bigs to navigate screens. Jokic is more nimble than his previous self to reach desired locations on these plays. Some of it isn’t even about foot speed, but rather economical motion with the ball in his hands, capable of greater efficiency and decisiveness in his moves (notably the spin cycles shown above).

His avenues and openings for scores have broadened. Defenders find themselves trailing plays and sacrificing critical angles to prevent him from good looks. It’s similar to a dynamic off-ball shooter who sprints around screens and distances himself from his man. By the time a shooter catches the ball, he has the choice to fire from deep or attack off the dribble.

Jokic is regularly getting downhill on these sequences, but touts the touch, strength and tough shot-making to exploit any slight breakdown, even if he’s not just waltzing to the rim every time. He beats his man to the spot and proceeds.

Any offensive superstar is challenging to contain, especially once they’ve seized control on a play, let alone Jokic within 15 feet of the rim, where he’s been seemingly automatic for much of his career. Those advantages are the norm these days, fueled by added top-end speed, and it’s leading to comfortable, seamless shots.

An uptick in pick-and-roll efficiency stems from his athletic enhancements, too. After ranking in the 36th percentile (2019-20, 1.11 points per possession) and 44th percentile (2018-19, 1.16 PPP) the past two seasons, he’s climbed to the 62nd percentile (1.25 PPP) this year. The explanation is quite simple: he’s sprightlier as a roller, traveling from point A to point B in a timelier manner. Because he is a ground-bound scorer, finishing in traffic on the move can prove difficult, though the traffic is not as prevalent when he’s outright winning foot-races to the basket.

Jokic deserves credit beyond refining his quickness. Over the past few regular seasons, he’s had a tendency to defer to others and lack aggression as a scorer for stretches. He’d scan the floor for passing outlets, too content to set the table rather than grab the reins himself. Assertiveness, once an intermittent hole of his otherwise masterful offense, is no longer much of an issue.

He’s averaging a career-high 25 shots and 36.8 points per 100 possessions. They’re similar levels to his playoff production of 24.8 and 33.5, postseason runs in which he’s more prone to carrying Denver as a scorer than we’re accustomed.

Emerging as one of the NBA’s best high-volume scorers this year solidifies his standing among elite shotmakers, even as Jokic is atypical compared to the general preconceived notion of that group. He does not adhere to traditional blueprints as either a domineering dribble-driver or unflappable pull-up shooter in the vein of KD, Kawhi, Steph, James Harden, or Damian Lillard (there are other elite shotmakers, do not perceive anyone’s exclusion as a slight).

Instead, the 7-footer grinds and wiggles his way inside. His elevated release point protects the ball from defenders and his touch is historically good. He lofts in high-arcing shots and funky-footed floaters and converts off-balance jumpers through contact. His bag of tricks suggests these are trained instances. Jokic is assuredly cognizant of his athletic deficiencies and spends hours in the gym practicing such shots like a game of H.O.R.S.E.

Carnival-type buckets are not a recent development. The quickness and regular-season scoring aggression are. Underrepresented defensive aptitude and passing have resided on his All-Star resume for a few years. Transforming from certified All-NBA center to an MVP front-runner, one of the most arduous leaps in sports, necessitated an evolution in other facets. That’s exactly what Jokic has accomplished. He is now among the game’s greatest distributors and scorers, ranking in the 93rd percentile on jump shots and runners, and 88th percentile around the basket.

The skillset has long existed. A shift in disposition and physical capabilities are expediting his rise, one that’s coalescing with the fact that Jokic has been the NBA’s best player this season and must figure prominently into every MVP discussion, even if his candidacy is likely determined by where Denver finishes in the West. Basketball, fundamentally, is about scoring points and he’s doing that better than ever, amplifying and punctuating everything else that already made him a wonderfully exceptional superstar.

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