Over the next few weeks, the Denver Stiffs staff will be previewing the 2016-17 Denver Nuggets. The team enters Michael Malone's second season with the Nuggets with a mix of new and familiar faces. With a roster mixed with young talent like Jamal Murray and more experienced veterans like Wilson Chandler, the Nuggets are looking to improve on their 33-49 record from last season.
A year ago, no one on Earth would've speculated that Nikola Jokic would be the 2nd best player on the Nuggets roster to open the 2016-17 NBA season. Jokic, who was drafted 41st overall in 2014 but didn't join the Nuggets roster until 2015, wasn't even expected to play very much last season. He entered training camp 3rd on the depth chart at center behind Joffrey Lauvergne and the injured Jusuf Nurkic. In last year's season preview, I mentioned Jokic just once, practically a footnote about who to keep an eye on.
This, of course, wasn't because he lacked talent or because he hadn't looked impressive in summer league and preseason. Jokic shined nearly every second he was on the floor. But as a 2nd rounder, expectations are almost always that a player will be brought along slowly.
That's why it was such a surprise when, on November 18th against the star-studded San Antonio Spurs, Jokic dominated the game. He had shown flashes of brilliance in the first month of the season but it wasn't until that night in San Antonio that people started to realize that he was actually more than just a promising youngster. He scored 23 points on an array of floaters, putbacks, soft touch post moves. He scored on Tim Duncan and David West in the post. He blocked LaMarcus Aldridge at the rim. He stripped Kawhi Leonard on the break and hit a three-pointer in his eye on the other end. In short, Jokic showed the full array of skills that make him one of the most dynamic and unique big men in the league.
By January, Jokic was the full time starter at center. In April, he received the 3rd most votes for rookie of the year. And in August, in a monster performance against team USA at the Olympics in Brazil, hyps around Jokic began to reach every corner of the NBA world. Analysts and national writers started digging into the advanced stats and noticing that Jokic was a top 25 player in terms of Player Efficiency Rating and a top 10 player based off of Real Plus-Minus including #1 among centers in the NBA. Now, as he begins his sophomore season in the NBA, Jokic may very well be the face of the Nuggets franchise with a shot at being one of the best players in the league very soon.
Part of what makes Jokic such a great player is that he is skilled at just about everything but perhaps his greatest strength is his passing. At just 21 years old, he might already be the best passing big man in the NBA. This isn't hyperbole, if I were ranking the best passing big men in the league, it'd be awfully hard for me to place anyone ahead of him. In addition to making the easy, fundamental passes from the post and elbow, Jokic is comfortable leading cutters into the pass, throwing no-look passes to draw the defense away, and passing on the run. And he does all of this while maintaining a very low turnover rate.
Jokic's feel for the game is off the charts. He sees passing lanes before they open up, he understands spacing and the proper angles on pick and rolls. In more ways than not, he has the mind of a point guard in the body of a center or power forward.
Jokic shot 61.4% in the restricted area last season despite making just 11 dunks all year. He has a surprisingly good floater and incredible touch on flip shots, jump hooks, and short jumpers. Although he'll probably never be an above the rim player, he may be getting more and more athletic and explosive. He had 3 dunks in one game against team USA, a sign that he may have added some lower body strength and endurance.
I wrote about this a few weeks ago but Joker is a a really under rated defender. He's not a shot blocker and he doesn't fill up the highlight reel with defensive plays, but he is incredibly smart on the defensive end. He forces the offense into difficult shots and prevents opponents from getting easy scoring opportunities. He forces the offense to take five-footers instead of three-footers, ten-footers instead of six-footers, and so on. He's struggled to defend as a power forward and that may be a part of his game that he needs to develop, but as a center, he's a very effective rim protector.
This list could go on and on. Jokic shot 33% from behind the arc last season, a very good mark for a center. He has excellent touch on his shot from anywhere on the court and has excellent shot selection, meaning he doesn't force outside shots when he's not open. I expect he'll be utilized even more as a floor spacer and three-point shooter this season, perhaps taking as many as two three-pointers per game.
Jokic is agile and fairly fast in the open court but he isn't very springy or quick. Stretch fours give him trouble, as does guarding shooters in isolation. It looks like Malone will try to play Jokic at the power forward position more this season so the 6'10" Jokic will have to work on his mobility. Strength and explosiveness will also help him finish even more plays at the rim. He's already near the top in the league at finishing in the paint but the ability to dunk through contact will likely add a few percentage points to his already sky-high percentages at the rim.
Jokic is the lowest paid player on the Nuggets roster. Think about that. The single, lowest paid player on the roster and will likely be the lowest paid player for the next two seasons. The reason he's on such a team friendly deal is because he is still on his rookie deal and was drafted in the 2nd round. He was also signed in 2015, before the salary cap jumped up. This means that the new rookies this year are all making more than the other players still on their rookie deals including first-rounders, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jusuf Nurkic, and Gary Harris.
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