The majority of hardcore NBA fans know the story of Nikola Jokic by now a pudgy teenager without much serious basketball experience turned polarizing NBA point center with future All-Star potential in just a matter of years.
Jokic, who all 30 teams passed on at least once in the 2014 NBA Draft, has greatly exceeded expectations in just his second season. He's helping the Nuggets hang around the playoff hunt amidst an entertaining, free-flowing brand of basketball.
The Sombor, Serbia native has made great strides in a handful of areas (and little progress in others) since he was most-heavily evaluated during the 2013-14 Mega Leks season and 2014 Nike Hoop Summit. Here's a 360-degree breakdown of Jokic's evolution as a player:
Jokic's improved marksmanship from distance has played a sizeable role in the expansion of his offensive game he's shooting a career-high 36.5% from three while scoring 1.12 points per possession on catch and shoot jumpers. Jokic is one of only 11 NBA bigs 6' 10 or taller to be shooting over 35% from three on at least 2.0 attempts per 40 minutes, making him a rarity as a stretch five, especially when coupled with his elite court vision.
Jokic always showed glimpses as a shooter throughout the 2013-14 Mega Leks season and during his week in Portland at the Nike Hoop Summit. There was never much doubt about his overall natural touch, but the results weren't always there in game play, as his mechanics broke down a bit when heavily contested. Jokic shot only 22% from three in Adriatic League play in 13-14 and proved he needed time and space to be effective from beyond the arc which is still very much the case today as he's benefited from longer closeouts while playing the five.
Here's a look at the strides Jokic has made as a shooter from the 2013-14 season until now:
Jokic has always had a very unique skill set for a 6' 11 250-plus-pound big in terms of his ball skills, body control and coordination. He is pudgy, yet light on his feet, loose yet fluid and instinctual with the ball. Thanks in part to his more consistent stroke, Jokic has turned into a tough cover from the perimeter even if he's not going to create space for step backs like Kristaps Porzingis or blow by defenders with quickness a la Karl Towns.
As a 19-year-old playing in the Adriatic League, Jokic always had the ability to get defenders in the air with shot fakes, attack an open area and stride his way to soft floaters in the lane. He knew how to play when run off of his spots, and even showed some impressive agility and ball-handling skills creating versus bigger, slower centers. Jokic could be a bit predictable from the perimeter, however, and didn't have the core strength to stay on balance through slight nudges, an area where he's really improved. Jokic is now putting opposing centers through the spin cycle using his nimble feet, creative handle and deceptive timing, and has even added a more reliable one-legged runner from 15 feet in. Here's a look at Jokic's progress as a straight-line driver and closeout-attacker from the perimeter.
Coming into the NBA, there were real questions about Jokic's ability to finish versus size and length. Scouts wondered how he'd adjust to the speed and athleticism of the NBA game given his play at your own pace' style, below the rim game, and good not great size for a traditional center prospect. While very crafty at a young age, Jokic wasn't overly physical, didn't get to the foul line often (2.5 times per 40 in 13-14) and was still improving his feel around the rim in terms of when to go to his off hand, when to use touch shots and when to go up strong.
Jokic has answered the aforementioned questions quite easily, as he's used his silky floater (off of either foot or both), elite hands, tremendous creativity and overall smarts to get the ball up quickly on the rim and neutralize the run and jump athletes of the NBA. He leads the league in floater efficiency (30 attempt minimum) and has become a real threat as a roll man despite his below the rim game. Jokic still has his troubles with the Rudy Goberts of the NBA, as will naturally be the case given his physical limitations. With that said, he's averaging 23.7 points per 40 on over 61% from two, largely due to his off-beat inside hand finishes and feathery floaters. Take a look at how Jokic has evolved as a finisher:
Face Up/Post Game
The strides that Jokic has made in face up and post up situations are as sizeable as any other area of his game over the last few years. While he always had soft touch, creativity and budding footwork, he was regularly knocked off spots, very limited over his right shoulder, lacking a consistent face up jumper or turnaround game, and turned the ball over on 22% of his post possessions.
Thanks to a stronger (although still doughy) core, Jokic can hold his spot on the block and size up his defender with a variety of back to the basket moves. He's smooth getting to his jump hook and can counter with occasional turnarounds over either shoulder. He's also comfortable inside pivoting, clearing space and shooting face up jumpers off the glass, often with a hint of Tim Duncan off the window. Jokic's ability to face up and shoot, score with his back to the basket and facilitate at a high level inside the arc make him an excellent option to run offense through in the half court. Here's a look at Jokic's expanded scoring attack from 15 feet and in.
Jokic's vision and passing instincts for his size jumped off the hardwood early in his development. At 6'11, his ability to grab a rebound and push it himself with fluid behind the back dribbles through traffic before rifling a bounce pass to a lane-filling wing was something you rarely saw in the NBA, let alone from a 19-year-old who had admittedly only been playing basketball seriously for a couple of years. Jokic's ability to facilitate at his size was apparent to scouts from the jump, but even with such a tremendous baseline he's been able to take his floor game to a new level in the NBA.
Thanks largely to Jokic's emergence, an otherwise vanilla Nuggets roster ranks seventh in the NBA in offensive rating and top 10 in assists per field goal attempt, effective field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Jokic truly is the engine that makes Denver's offense go as he's as well-rounded of a facilitating big man as you'll find in the NBA. He can ignite a fast break, is an outstanding short roll passer, can facilitate back cuts on DHOs, will throws lobs out of the post, moves the defense with his eyes on high-low feeds, and delivers the ball from all different angles with impeccable timing. As was the case at a young age, Jokic can be a little flash over substance at times, and gets too loose with the ball for stretches, but his ability to instinctually engineer an offense generates a beautiful brand of basketball predicated on constant movement, IQ and skill. Here's a look at Jokic's evolution as a passer:
After his 2013-14 season with Mega Leks, there were some questions about Jokic's ability to defensive rebound at the NBA level. The instincts and hands were certainly there, but the lack of lift and elite center size were a bit concerning, especially for a guy who didn't quite have the range or explosiveness to go well out of his area for defensive boards. Jokic really underwhelmed on the defensive glass that season in Mega Leks, averaging a below average 6.3 rebounds per 40 minutes. To be expected given his age, his lack of physicality, core strength and experience showed for stretches against grown men in the Adriatic and Serbian Leagues. Jokic was able to ease some of those concerns a bit at the Nike Hoop Summit, when he hauled in six defensive rebounds in 16 minutes against a US team featuring Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner, Cliff Alexander and Reid Travis up front. Jokic had also averaged 9.4 defensive rebounds per 40 minutes in the 2013 FIBA U19 World Championships, an impressive number amongst his peers.
Still, his below the rim style and sometimes casual approach on the defensive glass was a bit concerning, and that's held him back at times at the NBA level. Jokic isn't going to sky for a defensive board or snatch the ball at its highest peak, but he's been able to be just good enough to stay in about the middle of the pack among NBA centers he ranks 18th in defensive rebounds per 40 minutes among 36 centers 6' 10or taller who play at least 20 minutes per game. In fact, thanks in part to his frontcourt mate Kenneth Faried, the Nuggets lead the NBA in rebounds for and rebounding differential, by a fairly wide margin. Jokic's improved strength, tremendous instincts, soft hands, and ability to read the ball off the rim and tap it to himself or a teammate have really helped him add value on the defensive glass despite some limitations. He's always showed impressive timing and instincts on the offensive glass as well, and has only improved with added strength and experience, upping his output from 3.2 offensive boards per 40 to a career-high 4.6 this season.
Whether or not Jokic could defend the perimeter (or the interior for that matter) was a driving force in the Serbian big man falling to 41st in the 2014 NBA Draft. While nimble for his size, Jokic always had trouble sitting down in a stance, getting his body fully in front of perimeter-oriented bigs, and recovering to alter shots if he did get beat. He had his moments versus Karl Towns in Hoop Summit practices and found ways to get by using his smarts and length to rack up deflections as a pick and roll drop man, but he played on his heels, was a bit slow getting out to shooters, wasn't a switch asset in pick and roll, and lacked the tools to rim protect at a high level all areas the NBA has trended away from on the defensive end.
To his credit, when fully engaged, Jokic now does do a nice job of bluffing at the guard in pick and roll drop situations, playing with active hands and forcing him into contested runners. He can use his decent length and instincts when he is able to corral the guard, rather than having to deal with LeBron James coming at him downhill at full speed. With that said, a lot of teams have been able to pick on Jokic in ball screens as he lacks the foot speed, range and bounce to keep up for long stretches. He has to drop deep into the paint to keep the ball corralled, yet isn't a prolific rim protector, nor is he overly fleet of foot recovering to stretch bigs all factors that have played a role in Denver ranking dead last in half court defensive efficiency this season. Jokic proved early on that he was going to have some issues defending the perimeter Denver tried him at the four next to Jusuf Nurkic for stretches and while intelligent and crafty, he's been up and down as a ball screen/perimeter defender at the five as well. Here's a look at how Jokic has evolved as a perimeter defender over the last few years:
While a tough cover as a passing, shooting, low post scoring center offensively, Jokic has long had troubles defending the interior as a five, both in the post and as a rim protector. His lack of lift (from a standstill or on the move) really limited his upside as a shot blocker, which Karl Towns exposed vividly with a posterizing dunk during a Nike Hoop Summit scrimmage that may have stuck in scouts' memories. Jokic was instinctual with length and timing, and could alter shots in a crowd, but simply too limited physically to do much more than that around the rim. Jokic, who averaged 1.2 blocks per 40 in 13-14, currently ranks last among NBA bigs in defensive field goal percentage within five feet of the rim, allowing a near 60% conversion rate. As a team, the Nuggets rank 29th versus shots around the rim (1.23 PPP) and 26th versus post ups (1.018).
He has shown some signs of improvement as a post defender, thanks to his natural strength, along with his added experience. Jokic still struggles at times with big bruisers and doesn't quite have the feet to keep quicker fives in front, however, forcing him to rely mostly on craft and instincts, which he's able to do effectively for stretches, just not usually over the course of a game.
Overall Jokic has far surpassed the expectations of any NBA scouts or executives, the Denver Nuggets' front office (as they'd freely admit) included. That pudgy teenager who didn't yet take the game seriously has blossomed into one of the more unique offensive players in the NBA. During an era of basketball predicated on up-tempo small ball lineups, the ultra-creative, still-somewhat-flabby 6' 11 below the rim Nikola Jokic is thriving.