Nikola Jokic
ESNY Graphic, AP Photo

Nikola Jokic has quickly become my favorite player following his outstanding postseason performance. He should be yours, too.

Matt Brooks

Nikola Jokic is not your typical NBA superstar.

With a doughy 7-foot, 292-pound body, he sure doesn’t look the part of a franchise-altering star. At first glance, his style of play doesn’t support the claim, either.

While other stars, such as Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, are leading their teams with a traditional ISO-heavy “put the team on my back” mentality, Jokic has quietly been just as important to the young Denver Nuggets. Coming into the season, Denver was projected as a fringe playoff team. Now, Denver is a game away from advancing to the Western Conference Finals. None of this would be possible without Jokic  – the second-best player of the Western Conference playoffs.

What is it that makes Jokic so special?

Isolating one thing that makes Jokic exceptional is no easy task. You could point to his top-notch footwork. He’s already the greatest passing big man of all-time, so maybe that’s it. Jokic is also a prolific rebounder.

But the thing that makes him truly revolutionary is his ability to play within himself. At 24 years old, Jokic plays a position with the sharpest learning curve in the league: center. On top of this, he’s Denver’s de-facto point guard; he quarterbacks a majority of the Nuggets’ offensive possessions. So, in a way, he’s playing two positions at once all while being under the legal age of renting a car.

The workload and responsibility of playing two positions never appears to overwhelm Jokic. That’s perhaps been the most impressive part of Jokic’s playoff run. Coming into the postseason, doubters pointed to his conditioning, stating that the heightened intensity would be too much for the plodding big.

Well, Jokic hasn’t missed a beat. In fact, he’s only improved underneath the bright lights of the promised land.

Jokic currently sits atop the postseason leaderboard with 3 win-shares. That’s 0.4 more win-shares than Kawhi Leonard and 1 win-share better than Kevin Durant. Jokic also sits at number one in VORP and holds the top spot in box-score plus/minus with a staggering +12.1. That’s right, he’s been better than Giannis Antetokounmpo, KD, Kawhi, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard … pretty much every major superstar in a handful of prominent performance metrics.

Nikola Jokic screams authenticity, and to me, it’s why he’s so damn good. He’s a lovable goofball who cannot seem to figure out how to use a microphone to save his life. The Joker fits the “gentle giant” mold perfectly: he owns three horses back home in Sombor, Serbia and decompresses by spending the summers with his animals. Unlike many other stars in this league, Nikola is grounded. When discussing his pre-draft physique with ESPN’s Ohm Youngmusik, Jokic was not shy about the state of his body when he entered the States.

“There were not any muscles,” Jokic told Youngmusik. “Now around 292, but I have a couple of muscles.”

Nikola’s self-deprecating nature is a true outlier from the current personality of our me-first league, and it’s incredibly refreshing. His charisma, self-awareness, and balance lead itself nicely to the basketball court, too.

The phrase “well beyond his years” is a contrived, overused cliche. But there’s really no other way to describe The Joker. Take a look at this possession below. With four seconds remaining on the shot clock, Jokic receives the ball at the three-point line with Damian Lillard defending. With a smaller guy in his way, Nikola picks up his dribble — a bit too early. Stuck in no-mans land with a dwindling amount of options, Jokic has two seconds to make something happen. For most players his age, this would be a turnover or a big ole’ brick.

Not for Nikola Jokic. The Serbian prince pivots, spins, pivots again, and somehow finds an inch of space to dish to a cutting Gary Harris for an and-1 basket. At no point during the possession does Jokic show even the slightest bit of fear — even with the shot clock expiring.

Ready for another cliche that Jokic embodies? Patience is a virtue. For the Joker, it’s the virtue. Look at how he controls the pace during this fastbreak:

Nikola Jokic is by no means a quick player. As unique as it is for a 7-footer to run transition, aesthetically he isn’t exactly smooth – especially compared to someone as breathtakingly powerful as say, Giannis Antetokounmpo. Jokic knows this, and he uses his lack of speed as his biggest weapon. Jokic’s slow pace during the fast-break is weirdly daunting – similar to the build-up before a jump-scare of a horror film. He drags possessions out, using suspense as an advantage. As a defense, you know the Joker will put points on the board. It’s just a matter of when and how.

Notice (in the video above) how lackadaisical Jokic appears while jogging up the floor, casually scanning for the best option. While Jokic is cool-headed, Portland’s backline is on the edge of panic and in a scram. You can almost hear the Jaws’ theme song playing as Jokic readies his attack.

Attempting to track Jokic’s vision is no easy task – his head is always on a swivel. Let’s hop into the mind of the Blazers’ defense as they attempt to survey the cruelest passer in the association.

“Does he see something I’m not seeing?” “Am I leaving Will Barton open in the corner?” “Is he going to stop and pop for three?” “AHHH!”

Right as Portland lets its guard down — and CJ McCollum and Al-Farouq Aminu double — Jokic makes his move. He sneaks in a cheeky bounce pass to a cutting Gary Harris, who appears in the frame out of thin air. Even with the utmost focus, Portland coughs up the easiest basket available: a wide-open layup down the middle.

Down the stretch, Denver’s utopian offense revolves around Jokic’s playmaking. The numbers are downright astounding.

NBA

Nikola Jokic is the playoff leader in crunchtime assists with 13 total. Number 2 on the board is not even in the same stratosphere – Andre Iguodala has recorded 4. Being pass-first during crunch time is a daring and, frankly, unusual trait for a star. Jokic is essentially telling his teammates “you got this, I believe in you” during the clutch. Denver is eighth youngest playoff roster in NBA history, so mistakes and miscues are bound to happen with a group this young. Yet, Jokic’s assist-to-turnover rate of 3.25 remains completely unharmed by the young supporting cast. (That’s the best assist-to-turnover rate of the postseason, by the way.)

Jokic is instilling the necessary confidence in his teammates by providing certified bucket-getters like Jamal Murray — a guy who has struggled with self-doubt in the past — a chance to shine in big moments. It’s working. With homecourt advantage for Sunday’s Game 7, all signs point to Denver cruising to the Conference Finals. The 22-year-old Murray has broken out, averaging 24.7 points on a 43/36.4/96.6 shooting split. Last Sunday, he buried 6 straight free throws down the stretch to clinch victory in perhaps the biggest game of Denver’s season.

Just one more Nugget (no pun intended) on Jokic’s passing before we move on.

One of my favorite plays from the Serbian big is his full-court baseball pass. Many times, after bringing down a defensive rebound, Jokic will chuck the basketball full-court — a couple of feet ahead of a sprinting teammate. This essentially creates a catch-and-shoot opportunity: by the time the basketball lands, Jokic’s teammate is slotted next to the three-point line, ready to shoot.

(Unfortunately for Jokic, Jamal Murray misses this wide-open three. Still, a wonderful look courtesy of the Joker-man.)

If you were to create the perfect pick-and-roll center in a lab, he would come out looking something like Jokic. Nikola is the playoff leader in pick-and-roll man possessions with 6.2 per game. He’s got efficiency to match his volume; Jokic is scoring 1.27 points per possession as a roll man. That is astoundingly good. For reference, the league-best Golden State Warriors’ offense scores at a rate of 1.126 points per possession. As a rolling big man who rarely dunks, Jokic is scoring with more efficiency than a team with four All-Stars (five, if you count former All-Star Andre Iguodala). Holy crap.

Jokic is a great screener. He ranks third in playoff screen assists. The dude has a tremendous frame that’s pretty immovable – especially for smaller guards. This makes life easier for his teammates as they torch defenses for shots at the rim.

If, for whatever reason, his teammates fail to fully penetrate, they have the perfect stopgap option: they can simply toss the ball back to Jokic. This is where Nikola’s underrated scoring comes into the picture.

Jokic has nimble feet like a ballerina. For a heavier player, it’s still shocking to see him operate on the low block. His footwork is so good that it’s almost offensive. Why else would I be yelling “Oh, Jesus!” every time The Joker makes his move?

On top of having tremendous footwork, Jokic has a nifty floater game. You’ll catch color commentators discussing his skillfulness following these shots a couple of times each game. It’s well deserved, too.

In the playoffs, he’s made 9 of his 20 total “floating jump shots.” Many of these shots occur late in the clock when Jokic is forced to pull out his “do it himself” kit.

Shooting 45 percent on a bail-out move is vastly impressive. He’s even more lethal when attempting floaters off the drive: per NBA.com, Jokic has made nine of his 17 total driving floaters — good for 52.9 percent.

When he isn’t dusting dudes in the post or launching high-arching floaters like a 7-foot Stephen Curry, Jokic is a pretty reliable threat from deep. Go ahead and add “a killer pick-and-pop option” to Nikola’s long list of deadly PnR skills.

Jokic is the third-best center in playoff three-point percentage. Through 13 games, The Joker has taken 3.8 three-pointers per game and has made an eye-popping 40 percent of them. His presence outside forces the defense to stay on its toes, thus giving Jokic leeway to break out slow-mo drives or (Jokic’s favorite) play-make for others.

Here, Jokic’s gravity as a shooter sucks Enes Kanter away from the basket. This, unfortunately, leaves Damian Lillard stuck on an island, forced to guard the much bigger Torrey Craig. Jokic, being the basketball genius that he is, recognizes this mismatch in a flash and lofts the perfect pass over Lillard’s outstretched arms. It lands softly in Torrey Craig‘s hands.

One last thing before we close this baby out.

Jokic is a sensational offensive rebounder, especially considering his lack of athletic gifts. In the playoffs, his per-game average sits just below the pogo-stick Andre Drummond as well as Rudy Gobert, who is a flat-out skyscraper. Jokic excels at rebounding in traffic, grabbing a whopping 88 percent of his contested rebounding opportunities.

What he doesn’t have in bounce, Jokic makes up for with incredible touch. I honestly can’t remember the last player who was this good at tip-in layups. Per NBA.com, Jokic has scored on 9 of his 16 total tip-in attempts. Although tip-ins are fairly subtle compared to the rest of the Joker’s flashy game, they might be my favorite part of his arsenal.

The dexterity required here is outrageous. Jokic has a couple of these each game. He’s always a threat to wield that 7-foot figure and fly in from the corners for picture-perfect tip-ins. Talk about hand-eye coordination.

For most of my player profiles, I like to conclude by sharing my favorite clip of the athlete at hand. So let’s do that, shall we?

Denver is the playoff leader in total passes with 4,052 made. Their offense is frankly gorgeous – it encompasses everything that makes current basketball great: ball-movement, creativity, and high-efficiency shots. The Nuggets have quickly become my favorite team outside of Brooklyn.

This possession from the fourth-quarter of Game 6 epitomizes the beauty in Denver’s system.

It begins with Jokic receiving the ball above the break. Jokic hands the rock off to his dynamic teammate Will Barton. Tangoing together like dance partners, the two execute a flurry of lightning-quick handoffs and touch-passes before eventually finding Jokic in the post.

The gravity of Nikola Jokic’s star-power on the low-block subconsciously sucks in Portland’s defense. You can see it as plain as day in the footage. Two of Portland’s defenders, Rodney Hood and CJ McCollum, begin to help one pass away to stop Denver’s star. Before the ball even touches his hands, Jokic is aware of McCollum ball-watching.

As McCollum cheats over, Gary Harris is now wide-open in the right corner. Jokic recognizes this and strikes quickly, launching a throw-in style soccer-pass to the weak side. McCollum realizes his grave mistake right away, but it’s too late. He’s held helpless as the ball lands squarely in the palms of Harris: his man. Harris catches the basketball, picks his nose, and still has time to calmly launch a wide-open three.

Our feel-good story ends here. Harris’ shot misses. C’mon Gary!

Regardless of the result, there’s still beauty in Jokic’s process. That’s the way it always is. The Joker appreciates the intricacies of the game, and the more I watch him, the more I do too. Nikola Jokic isn’t just a basketball player. He’s a teacher. You better start taking notes.

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