Yesterday the Nuggets officially signed Nikola Jokic to a 4-year deal. The signing didn’t make waves nationally and even at Summer League, where prospects are hyped like they will all become future all-stars, Jokic’s name didn’t exactly ring out. As the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft and virtually no prior exposure to the American sports market, Jokic is beginning his NBA career well under-the-radar.
Yet, while his numbers at Summer League don’t jump off of the page – 8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 1.4 blocks on 46% shooting – Jokic showed that he has quite a few promising skills that are extremely valuable and rare in today’s NBA.
The first thing that stands out about Jokic’s game is his passing. In the five games he played in Summer League, he showed the ability to make elite level passes from several spots around the court.
Out of the post - The decline in importance and efficiency of low post scoring has been very well documented. The issue is more complicated that this, but to summarize, it is far too easy in today’s NBA to double the post and prevent efficient isolation post up attempts. As a result, post ups become extremely inefficient when players aren’t a threat to make accurate passes out of the post. As team’s move their field goal attempts away from isolation post ups, it is incredibly important to have bigs that can employ other talents, especially passing.
Jokic has a very good feel for hitting cutters and kick outs from the post and at times it seems as though collapsing the defense and kicking out is his first option. It’s counterintuitive to most post players who typically look for their shot when they catch it on the block, and passing becomes something of an afterthought. Once Jokic gets a feel for the speed and timing of the NBA, playing through him in the post can really take advantage of the geometry of the court and create open looks from high efficient spots, i.e. the corners, wings, and cutters down the paint. The Nuggets coaching staff also appears to understand Jokic’s strength as a passer form the post and ran a lot of great off-ball action whenever they went inside to Jokic, providing him with passing lanes to cutters in motion.
From the elbow and wing – While Jokic appears to be a great passer down on the block, he is an even better passer from the elbows and above. On several occasions, Jokic either hit a cutter in stride or got the ball exactly where it should have gone on cuts to the basket. Much in the same way that a quarterback often throws the ball before the receiver is open, Jokic has a great feel for when, where, and how to lead a player right toward the spot of the pass on backdoor cuts.
Once again, a power forward or center who can make scoring passes from the perimeter puts an incredible stress on the defense. By drawing the rim protector out of the paint, the offense is able to create nearly impossible-to-guard actions for the team’s perimeter players off of the ball. The Bulls and Grizzlies run large portions of their offense through Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol respectively, both of whom are excellent at passing from the elbows. Jokic has shown signs that he has those same instincts and touch to become an elite passer.
The biggest difference in the effectiveness of Marc and Joakim on offense is that Gasol can consistently knock down elbow jumpers. Defenses give Noah a cushion that seriously limits his ability to pass toward the basket, whereas Gasol is able to draw the defense out of the paint. That alone is a large part of why the Grizzlies are able to have a league average Offensive Rating despite the fact that the team had the second lowest three-point field goal attempt rate.
Fortunately, Jokic has shown great touch on his shot, both from the elbow and from behind the 3-point line. Conservatively, he appears to have a good enough shot to force the defense to stay within arm’s length when he catches on the perimeter. However, in Summer League, the Nuggets frequently ran plays for him to catch and either shoot or attack from the elbows and/or three-point line.
The value of this can’t be overstated. Pero Antic was a rotational piece for the Atlanta Hawks this season, and he only shot 30% from range with no elite NBA skills. This seems like a realistic floor for Jokic’s shooting and based on summer league and the Nuggets staff seem to believe that he can become a legitimate threat to shoot open three-point shots, consistently.
In the Adriatic league last season, Jokic attempted over four three-pointers per game and shot a respectable 34.6%. Those numbers will likely drop in his rookie season in the NBA, but it’s still promising that he can develop into a decent stretch four or stretch five. Kevin Love, a very reliable stretch four, shoots 36.3% from three. Jokic is an inch taller and may be able to defend centers for short stretches in a way that Love cannot. If Jokic can improve his three-point accuracy to 35% and above, he will stretch the defense in similar ways.
While lost post scoring is losing it’s impact in today’s game, it isn’t irrelevant. In the same way that a big must be able to shoot in order to open up the passing game, bigs must also be able to score in instances when the defense refuses to provide help in the post. In summer league, Jokic used an array of up and under fakes, shoulder fakes, and excellent footwork to draw fouls or create decent looks from the post. The fancy footwork is a bit of throwback to 1980’s and 90’s post play and Jokic seems confident trying out complicated spin moves and hook shots.
His strength and speed both need work and there were a couple of instances in summer league when Jokic made great moves to shake his defender, but wasn’t able to maintain enough separation to finish the play. He also lacks explosion and many of his shots out of the post finish with finesse, even when the situation calls for aggressively attacking the rim. He doesn’t need to become an elite post scorer, but he has some of the tools to become good enough in the post to keep the defense honest. It will be very interesting to see how he develops his strength and explosiveness as he begins working with Nuggets trainer Steve Hess.
The over-arching theme of Jokic’s skill set is his great feel for the game. Take away the shooting, footwork and passing skills, Jokic reads the court very well for a rookie and he has a knack for where to be. It’s a subtle thing but watch in the video below how Jokic times his cut under the basket. After gaining excellent post position but not receiving the ball, Jokic waits until the pick and roll is initiated on the opposite side before diving below the rim to the opposite side. This little action forces his defender to do two things at once; stay close to the cutting Jokic while providing help on the drive.
Intelligent players almost always have a spot in the league and Jokic appears to think the game very well. His chemistry with fellow rookie Emmanuel Mudiay is a credit to both of their high basketball IQ’s and that alone should provide a solid base for Mike Malone to work in several interesting actions.
Jokic has a lot of question marks and the track record for 41st picks isn’t great. His athleticism in particular is a question mark, and it is unclear at this point if that is something that he can improve enough through training and hard work, or if he is just limited in that category.
It’s also uncertain what his role will be with the Nuggets in the 2015-16 season. The power forward position is the most crowded position on the roster with Kenneth Faried, J.J. Hickson, Darrell Arthur, Joffrey Lauvergne, and Danilo Gallinari all likely to get minutes at that spot. The physicality of the NBA will be a huge adjustment for Jokic and playing him heavy minutes at center might be tough to ask of him, as a rookie. The Nuggets signed him to a very cheap, four-year deal and he is probably a three-year project.
Nevertheless, Jokic has a tremendous upside and is arguably the best young prospect on the roster outside of Mudiay. His talents fit very nicely with the direction that the league is moving and his skill set fits very well alongside Jusuf Nurkic. There is a very realistic scenario in which both players develop into starting quality bigs over the next two or three seasons.
Mudiay will grab a lot of the attention, but Jokic will be very interesting to watch this season and in years to come.