It is very funny watching Nikola Jokic play basketball. Right now, in an era in which sports science is coveted and players are expected to be in near-pristine physical condition, NBA players routinely are helpless when the Denver Nuggets take the floor because their 6’11 center who looks like he could polish off a 30 rack of Miller Lite on his own is able to process the sport to an extent that few have ever been able to do.
Part of what makes Jokic such a joy is that it is damn near impossible to not be glued to him while you’re watching Denver play. This is by design — the Nuggets have figured our their best chance of winning as many basketball games as possible comes by putting the ball in Jokic’s hands and letting him cook. It’s been a smart bet over the last few years — Mike Malone’s bunch have made the conference semis and conference finals the last two years, although they haven’t been able to get over that last hump — and in 2020-21, Jokic has taken his game from All-Star level to MVP level, much to the benefit of the rest of his team.
Among players who have played in at least 10 games, Jokic is 16th in usage percent. The only centers on the list who are ahead of him are Joel Embiid, an MVP candidate in his own right, and Andre Drummond. The thing that makes Jokic different from both of them is how Jokic is essentially asked to be an initiator to an extent that neither are — Embiid and Drummond can both set up their teammates a little, but in the immortal words of John Cena, comparing their distribution to Jokic’s is like comparing apples to frying pans.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Jokic has an assist percentage of 37.8 percent. It’s impressive insofar as that’s slightly higher than LeBron James’ assist percentage, but when filtering by position, Jokic laps the field among big men. The player at that position with the second-best number in that metric is Draymond Green, who at 30.4 percent is not in the same galaxy as Jokic. For context: The gap in percentage points between Jokic and Green is about the same as the gap between Green and Thaddeus Young.
The best passers in the sport have a handful of traits about them. There are the obvious ones — the vision, the court IQ, the general passing acumen, the trust and connection that they have with their teammates. But the one that will oftentimes separate the guys who do all of that and the guys who are on another level is fearlessness. And part of the beauty of Nikola Jokic is that he has never seen a pass that he’s not afraid to try, which is good, because his brain has the unique ability to process every single possible thing that could happen on a basketball court at a genius level.
The fun thing about writing this is that I needed to watch lots of Jokic passing highlights. The not fun thing was picking which ones would get in here. Regardless, here’s an example of his genius on display against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Jokic reeled in a miss, and before he secured the ball off the rim, everyone else began running in the other direction. The level of trust that the Nuggets have in Jokic to get the ball and do something with it is admirable, and he reciprocated that trust by threading the needle with one hand to give JaMychal Green an easy dunk.
Here’s another from Jokic, this time against the Heat. Watch him just before he’s handed the ball, Jokic looks up the court and takes stock of what’s going on. He notices that Gary Harris got in behind the entirety of the Heat defense and decided to go Mahomes, getting the ball handed to him and going deep. The pass was perfect. Harris scored.
Because I find this fun, how about another? Against the Rockets, Denver gets Jokic the ball at the elbow (hold this thought!) and Will Barton is able to shake Danuel House Jr. He cuts into the paint, but with two players in it, Jokic has to put this in a pretty small window for Barton to reel it in and have a lane to score. You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next™.
Unsurprisingly, no one in the NBA touches the ball more than Jokic. NBA.com’s stats page indicates that the big man touches the ball 102.4 times a game, three more than the guy in second place (Domantas Sabonis). He’s comfortably in the lead for the most elbow touches per game (9.4) in the league, and second only to Embiid in post-ups (11). Only Sabonis makes more passes per game than him (marginally so, at that), and while he’s 16th in passes received per game, he’s tops among players who are nominally centers.
All of this is to say that it’s an understatement to call Jokic the sun around which Denver’s offense revolves. The creative load alone that he shoulders is remarkable. That’s also not considering the fact that he is the team’s top scorer, too — Jokic is averaging a career-best 26.8 points a night with the top effective field goal percentage (61.3 percent) and true shooting percentage (65.6 percent) of his career. He’s shooting more than ever, both from the field (17.9 attempts per game) and the free throw line (5.8 per game) and he’s making the orange ball go through the different shade of orange cylinder a whole lot.
And then there are all the other ways he is leading Denver, which, it must be said, is 12-8 and sits in fourth place in the Western Conference. A list: Minutes per game, points per game, assists per game, rebounds per game, steals per game, field goal percentage, free throw percentage, defensive rebounding percentage, assist percentage, usage percentage, offensive win shares, defensive win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, offensive box plus/minus, defensive box plus/minus, box plus/minus, value over replacement player, player efficiency rating. A whole bunch of those are career-highs. In short, he’s very good.
There is no player in the NBA like Jokic, and what’s most remarkable is that he continues to get better at the things that have been his weakness. He’s improved significantly as a defender, and on offense, he’s become far more aggressive and assertive, allowing his full gifts as a passer and scorer to be on display. With respect to greats from the past like Arvydas Sabonis, you can make a case that there has never been a guy like him who has been given the freedom to explore that skill in the manner he has. In an era when the word “unicorn” gets thrown out a ton, Jokic is legitimately a marvel on part with a mythical horse that has a horn coming out of the top of its forehead. Watching him play basketball is one of the simplest joys on earth, and as the 2020-21 MVP race begins to take shape, Denver’s big man has to be mentioned among the frontrunners.