One of the most important trends in the NBA landscape in recent years has been the development of “unicorns,” or big men who can play like guards. Take a player like Kevin Durant; at roughly 7’0 (despite what his listed height may say), Durant can shoot from anywhere, take the ball up court, and beat opponents in virtually any way possible on the offensive end; Kevin Durant is a unicorn.
In 2017, the basketball world was introduced to perhaps the most intriguing unicorn of them all: Nikola Jokic. The Denver Nuggets point-center spent all last season putting on an absolute show and having the numbers to back it up. This season, more of the same should be expected.
Simply watching Jokic play is spectacular; when the ball is in his hands, it’s like he’s playing chess while the defense plays checkers. Nikola Jokic is what you get when Jason Williams grows to be 6’10. His court vision might be the best in the entire league, regardless of height or position.
Not only do his passes look great visually, but they benefit his stat line as well. Jokic lead all NBA centers last year with 359 total assists, good for 4.9 per game. He also lead all centers with six triple-doubles, with all of them coming in February and March. This was highlighted by an insane performance against the Golden State Warriors, where he scored 17 points, and set career-highs with 21 rebounds and 12 assists.
Describing Jokic’s passing abilities as “unique” would be an understatement. He specializes in passes that most NBA players could only dream of executing. Whether it’s making a half-court bounce pass on a fast break or throwing up a no-look float pass for an alley-oop, Jokic makes everything look so easy. That’s the reason he racks up so many assists; he places the ball where his teammates get incredibly simple looks that they just can’t miss.
While Jokic was on the court during the 2016-17 season, Denver posted an insane 117.7 offensive rating, compared to just 107.9 while he was on the bench. His presence also brings the team an increase in assist percentage, raising it from 56.7 percent while he’s off, to 65.4 percent while he’s on. These two advanced numbers are important indicators that Jokic makes a positive impact for his team and he’s not just a flashy passer.
The big 6’10 Serbian had a pretty impressive stat line last season, averaging 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists, all on 57.8 percent shooting from the field. Also worth noting, he posted impressive shooting numbers for a big man, including a 32.4 three-point percentage and 82.5 percent from the free throw line. Jokic attempted just over three free throws per game last season; he tends to pass out of situations where he might get fouled, otherwise his scoring would likely be noticeably higher.
Perhaps the most impressive part of those numbers is that Jokic managed them while playing just 27.9 minutes per game. Drawn out to 36-minute averages, his stat line looks something like: 21.6 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and roughly one steal and block per game. After the All-Star break, Jokic averaged about 30 minutes per contest, and should continue to see an increase in minutes for this upcoming season. This could all add up as the perfect storm for him to continue setting new career-highs.
Keep in mind that the 2017-18 campaign will be Jokic’s age-22 season. He’s still a kid playing in a man’s league, but when watching him control the court, it looks like the opposite. He’s already the face of a Denver franchise that’s slowly building a young, formidable lineup. The Western Conference is notoriously difficult, but the Nuggets have a chance at a playoff appearance as long as Jokic can dominate his opponents.
The offseason loss of Danilo Gallinari hurts, but the Nuggets are still littered with talent around their Serbian superstar. The signing of Paul Millsap should give Jokic some veteran mentoring, as well as a player that can score from all over, presenting many assist opportunities. In fact, most of Denver’s roster can improve his assist numbers. Kenneth Faried is a great inside scorer, making over 65 percent of his shots at the rim last season. Gary Harris has incredible natural abilities as a slasher and shooter, nailing 42 percent of his three-point attempts last season. Other players, such as Jamal Murray, Will Barton, and Wilson Chandler, can all be relied on to knock down shots as well.
After breaking out as one of the NBA’s most intriguing players in the second half of last season, expect Nikola Jokic to prove that he’s worthy of the hype this year. As he gets older and more experienced, his offensive game should continue to flourish naturally, as he already has a pretty good foundation for it. His passing is nearly unmatched in today’s game and his ability to effortlessly make defenders look like amateurs will always make him exciting to watch.