Why you should care
Denver’s Nikola Jokic has graduated from immature enigma to one of the game’s most riveting talents.
Doubters be damned, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic wasted no time setting the tone for his breakout NBA season.
After three years largely spent finding his footing in the league, Jokic, 23, was expected to elevate his game this season. The versatile big man’s skill set — one reliant on creativity, court vision and shooting touch — is rare in a league full of more explosive, bruising centers. But since Jokic was drafted in 2014, NBA scouts and Denver fans have touted him as a “center of the future,” awaiting the day when the evolving NBA properly valued its improving big man’s unique gifts. That day has come.
On Oct. 20, in just his second game of this season, Jokic accomplished what only one of the game’s greats had ever done before. With a barrage of no-look passes, soft hook shots and nearly a dozen rebounds, Jokic dropped 35 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists on the Phoenix Suns. He made 10 of 11 free throws, swiped four steals on the defensive end and was perfect (3-3) from behind the arc. It’s a stat line that suggests LeBron James, not a 7-foot center. And yet:
Jokic joined Wilt Chamberlain as only the second player in NBA history to record a 30-point triple-double with a perfect field goal percentage.
Jokic’s historic early-season outing turned heads around the league, but those in the know have been expecting the budding star to take the league by storm. Jokic became Denver’s focal point when now Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic was traded in February 2017. Still, Jokic was just 21 years old at the time, still physically and mentally immature. Skeptics wondered if he would blossom into a franchise player. Late last season, everything started to click.
Over the last 18 games of the 2017–18 season, with his team entrenched in a heated battle for the eighth playoff spot, Jokic averaged 24 points per game, 11.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists on an absurd 54-48-89 (field goal, 3-point, free throw percentage) shooting line. Denver narrowly missed the playoffs, but the message was clear: Jokic owned the keys to the car.
So far this season, that looks to be the case again. With his team off to a 13-7 start, Jokic is averaging 16.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game. He ranks in the top 20 in rebounds and 10th in assists. No other center registers as a top 30 passer. But Jokic’s transformation into one of the best players in basketball didn’t happen overnight. Casual fans may not yet recognize his mug, but those days aren’t far off. Those closest to him have seen this coming for a while.
“When all is said and done, he’ll be the best passing big man to have ever played in the NBA,” says one NBA coach who previously coached Jokic with the Nuggets. “He finished [the 2016–17] season as the most efficient post player in the game. He’s a offensive juggernaut.”
A second-round pick out of Serbia in 2014, Jokic has always flashed potential. He’s a brilliant passer for a big man and a quality rebounder who has terrific shooting touch. “He played for Mega Leks, so you knew he’d be well prepared,” says Fran Fraschilla, ESPN’s international scouting guru. “[He] comes from a long line of well-coached, tough Serbian players.”
Still, more-than-occasional mental lapses had some folks around the league monitoring the big man’s maturity come game time. Watching Jokic’s pregame routine — as I have several times, in Chicago, Brooklyn and the NBA Summer League — is a bit like watching a Great Dane puppy play fetch or an oversize younger brother compete with his teenage siblings. Jokic wants to fit in and to have fun. He wants to play ball and joke with his teammates. “With Nikola, what you see is what you get,” says the anonymous NBA coach. “He’s selfless and has an innocence about him that is really refreshing.”
Jokic clearly possessed the skills and touch to be a great player, but he lacked the strength and apparent focus to dominate at the center position. That’s no longer the case. As the story goes, Nuggets veteran forward Paul Millsap pulled Jokic aside last season and told him to take control of the offense. There was no more time to be a kid; the Nuggets had a chance to win now. At Millsap’s urging, Jokic started shooting more while still dishing out assists. The Nuggets, who had also traded away Jokic’s main competition for playing time, Jusuf Nurkic, surged up the Western Conference standings. They narrowly missed the postseason by one game, but that won’t happen again.
This season, Denver’s supporting cast of quality shooters and athletic slashers perfectly complements its budding big man. The offense runs through Jokic, who acts as a conductor. Controlling a free-flowing, random offensive attack with no-look passes and sound decision-making, Jokic appears to be redefining how completely a center can control an offense. The Nuggets are clear playoff contenders, arguably a top three team in the West. Jokic is an early MVP candidate, and should his team meet Golden State in the Western Conference finals, fans will wonder why they ever doubted the NBA’s most gifted little brother.