In his fourth season and first NBA postseason, Nikola Jokic is showing just how special of a player he can be. When the Denver Nuggets drafted him in the second round, they didn’t know they were getting such a steal. Jokic’s playing style is something not often seen in the NBA nowadays. Standing at seven-feet tall, 250 lbs., and barely being able to jump, Jokic’s play style is draining, clever, and even poetic at times.
In the 2018-19 season, Jokic made the leap into being the league’s best big man, showing his versatility on offense. His defense might not be elite, but it is definitely good for a big man. In a league where the big man’s role is diminishing, Jokic has shown that a big man can still be the focal point of an offense. What makes “The Joker” the NBA’s best big man is that he isn’t just good at one thing; he is great at multiple things.
Do it all big man
Nikola Jokic has become one of the few NBA centers who can do it all. When looking at the offensive end, Jokic made considerable leaps in key categories this season.
The evolution of his offense resulted in a four-point increase in his points per game this year. His 20.1 points per game was a new career high for him, and sixth in the NBA among centers. Using his supreme footwork and soft shooting touch, Jokic is able to have his way in the post, posing matchup nightmares on a nightly basis. He also had a player efficiency rating of 26.38, tied for best in the league among centers.
Jokic also has a mid-range and three-point game that one has to defend. His ability to make outside shots cause the opposition to play him from further out. This allows him to utilize his pump fake for driving opportunities.
This isn’t what separates Nikola from the rest of the pack, however. It is his superb passing ability that makes him a special kind of talent. Jokic has made an increase of at least 1 assist per game since his first season. He set a career high of 7.1 assists per game this season, which was by far the highest among centers. The next closest was Marc Gasol at 4.4 assists per game.
The Joker has the ability to pick apart a defense at every level of the floor. He operates the offense from within the post or on the perimeter. With his inside scoring, it causes defenses to collapse, allowing outside opportunities for teammates. When he hits his outside shots, defenders must come out to defend, which creates lanes for cutters to the rim. He has an answer for every defense thrown at him, which is amazing for a big to do.
Nikola Jokic is one of the rare big men to have a team’s offense ran through him. To put this in perspective, he led the NBA in touches per game with 92.5 touches. This is more touches per game than players like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and LeBron James. Despite his high amount of touches, Jokic still has an assist to turnover ratio of 2.34 which is second amongst centers.
With him being used as the ball handler or the screener in the pick and roll, he capitalizes on the matchups these switches present. His assist percentage of 37 percent is tops amongst big men. This shows that he uses his high basketball IQ, his vision, and his creativity to find the right man. There are very few big men in the league who have the skill set Jokic does offensively.
The rest of Jokic’s game is above average as well. He averaged 10.8 rebounds a game, 2.9 of those being offensive boards. His active tips to keep the ball alive on offense is an underrated part of his game. His defense is also amongst the best amongst big men. He ranks third in steals amongst big men with 1.4 during the regular season. He is an underrated rim protector, using his girth and length to swat away potential shots. The versatility of The Joker’s game is what makes him so much better than his fellow big men. He has the power to get a triple-double every game if he chooses to.
Methodical Play Style
What makes Nikola’s game so much better than others is that his play style is something I would call “close to the ground.” He doesn’t have much bounce, but being as big and beefy as he is, he doesn’t need it.
Using every bit of his frame, Jokic drains his opponents on both ends of the floor. His ability to withstand (and even dish out on some occasions) punishment causes fatigue on his foes. He leans and bullies his way into the post, putting pressure on his defensive assignment. Over the course of a 48-minute game, his presence will begin to suck the energy out of opponents, which causes mental lapses.
These mental lapses are where Nikola thrives, operating as a surgeon in passing lanes and threading the needle to the right player for an easy bucket. Once The Joker makes the pass, the defense is usually too late to react.
Jokic also plays methodically, slowly dissecting the defense in games. This slow style of play is represented in the Nuggets’ pace, as they had one of the league’s slowest paces in the regular season (98.52). Despite this slow pace, Denver had the seventh-best offensive rating in the league in the regular season.
Even with this physical, patient, bruising style of play, Nikola Jokic has been consistently on the floor for his team. Nikola played in 80 of 82 games this season and played the ninth-most minutes in the league amongst centers. He is one of five centers in the league who played in at least 80 games and averages at least 30 minutes per game.
Respect the Joker
Nikola Jokic is the whole package as an NBA big man. He brings a presence to the post, using his variety of moves to get buckets. The Serbian born player also has a perimeter shooting game, something that is needed in today’s NBA. He is an active rebounder despite his lack of hops, using quick tips and great positioning to claim balls of the glass. His passing is unlike any other big man and his playmaking is one of the best in the league, guards and wings players included.
Jokic has been in the conversation as one of the game’s best bigs. This season (and this year’s playoffs), however, he has shown why he is the league’s best. He is like a swiss army knife, able to do damage in many ways on the court. Being seven-foot, beefy, and having great basketball intelligence, there isn’t a big man like him who can affect the game in so many ways. Putting all these aspects of The Joker’s game together, it’s time he gets the respect he deserves as the NBA’s best big.