Nikola Jokic's play-making from the elbows and low block.
Of all the young guys on the Nuggets roster, none has been as big of a surprise as Nikola Jokic. Make no mistake, he showed signs of being a very solid NBA player as a prospect in Serbia and as a player in summer league. But no one predicted he would be this good, this fast. Jokic has not only earned a spot in the rotation, he is starting to become a focal part of the team's offense. Last night the Nuggets initiated the offense through Jokic at the elbow more than any other game this season so far. The young Serbian responded to the extra workload by posting career highs in both points and rebounds all while leading the Nuggets to an impressive 20-point win over the Toronto Raptors.
Front court passing from the elbows is one of the most valuable offensive skills in the NBA. Elbow passing has been a cornerstone of the Spurs offense for years and part of what makes them the league's 3rd most efficient offenses despite attempting the 5th fewest three-pointers in the NBA. Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, David West, and LaMarcus Aldridge are all phenomenal passers and decision makers. Pulling them up toward the elbows allows wing players to cut into an open lane. (I highly recommend taking a look at my Spurs breakdown for Hardwood Paroxysm. There are lots of great examples of how the Spurs use their bigs in the offense and it will give you an idea of why I am so excited for Jokic's upside.)
Might not look like much, but Jokic's ability to pass into tight Wdenver-indows is huge. https://t.co/COLujBpO70— Adam Mares (@Adam_Mares) February 2, 2016
Jokic has the ability to pass but he also has the ability to shoot the 15-foot jumper if the defense sags off of him too far. Or he has the ability to attack the defense with his back to the basket.That threat to pass, shoot, or dribble from the elbow puts enormous pressure on the defense. For one, the defense has to guard off-ball players both above the ball, i.e. from behind the perimeter, but they must also defend off-ball players below the ball, i.e. the paint. It is incredibly difficult to deny an off-ball player above the ball while also staying in position to protect the paint from back cuts.
Jusuf Nurkic is also a skilled passer, (although to a much lesser extent) as is Darrell Arthur. The combination of reliable passing bigs is a luxury that few teams are allowed to build around and can become the foundation of a very potent offense. The Nuggets have already begun to tailor their offense around Jokic's playmaking. With a little more seasoning, Jokic might just become a rare and unguardable offensive weapon.
Great cutters on the wings.
Gary Harris has had a breakout season. He's improved both his FG% and 3FG% by double digits from last season all while becoming one of the best perimeter one-on-one defenders in the league. One of his most valuable skills is his ability to find holes in the defense and cut toward the basket.
Like most skills in basketball, cutting is both an art and a science. It's not just about running toward the rim every time a player drives. To properly read when to cut and when to space the floor requires reading the player with the ball, reading your defender, reading the help-side defenders, and anticipating everybody's movement without delay. On top of all of that, it also requires setting up your defender by getting to the right spot or sliding your fit in the right direction to make it difficult for your defender to see both you and the ball. And on top of that, it requires knowing the right cutting angles. Harris still probably cuts more often than he should, especially given what a great perimeter shooter he has become, but he is excellent at finding the cracks in the defense in order to receive a pass at the rim off of a cut. The clip below is one example of how Jokic's passing at the elbow and Harris's cutting come together to create an and-one opportunity at the basket.
Harris isn't the only Nuggets player that is very good at off ball cutting. Will Barton uses his slender frame very well to sneak past the defense into open space. He also has a tireless motor that allows him to make cut after cut in the half court. Emmanuel Mudiay has shown an excellent ability to find gaps in the paint and play off-ball. Before his injury, the thing that stood out the most about Wilson Chandler in the preseason was how effective he was at cutting to the rim for thunderous dunks. The combination of great cutters at the wing and great passers at the elbows allows the coaching staff to create a fairly extensive playbook, full of counters and possibilities. It also opens up the team's ability to play read and react basketball, the type of basketball that has been a staple for the Warriors, Hawks, and Spurs for a couple of years now.
The fast break
The Denver Nuggets are currently 11th in the league in fast break points so this skill is one that hasn't fully developed just yet. Nonetheless, the pieces are there for transition points to become a staple of their future. Barton, Harris, and Kenneth Faried are great open court players and two guys that almost never wear down before their opponents. The faster the game, the more those guys e excel. Danilo Gallinari is currently 1st in the NBA in points per possession in transition, aided in large part by his propensity for drawing fouls in transition. Of his 68 possessions in transition, 24 have ended in him going to the line.
Mudiay has struggled with turnovers in his rookie season but he has the size and vision to become an excellent open court player. For him, it will be interesting to see how his conditioning improves in the offseason. Like most rookies, it looks like Mudiay has another level that he can reach athletically, and if he does become a faster, stronger, more explosive player, the Nuggets will have everything they need to push the tempo.
Lastly, the starting point of any fast break is the defensive stop. More often than not, that means securing the defensive rebound and getting a quick outlet. Both Jokic and Nurkic are good at securing the boards but both can be used to run in transition in different ways. With Nurkic, his size and strength on the glass should allow players like Barton and Faried to leak out on the break with confidence a bit earlier than they would with a lesser rebounder. On the other end, Nurkic is a great screener and can become very effective at setting drag screens.
Jokic, on the other hand, is probably not going to be quite as dominant on the defensive glass but is very good at throwing long outlet passes. He is also a decent three-point shooter. With a bit more confidence and the green light from the coaching staff, Jokic can be an incredible threat as a three-point shooter from the trail spot. This means that as the Nuggets push the ball up the court off of a defensive rebound, the defense tends to suck into the paint, over-helping inside and leaving players open on the perimeter. If Barton, Faried, Harris, Mudiay, or Gallo aren't able to get an open shot near the rim on first look, Jokic will often be open at the top of the key.
The pieces are all there for the team to become a very good fast break team. Head coach Mike Malone has emphasized the importance of finishing the play on defense, often at the expense of finding early offense. However, that may change as he develops more and more trust and familiarity with his players.
Mudiay's wrist strength and skip passing
This might seem like a silly or insignificant thing to highlight as one of the team's most valuable building blocks but Mudiay's ability to collapse the defense and throw a fast 30-foot pass across the court is a rare and important weapon. Penetration and spacing is the foundation of every possession in basketball. Offensive efficiency is largely about the push and pull of spreading the defense out wide and collapsing the defense into the middle.
Few players have the strength to stand on the right wing and hit an open shooter in the left corner. Lebron James is the best in the league and possibly the best all time at snapping the ball across the court to an open shooter at lightning speed. That is part of what makes him such an unguardable player. Manu Ginobili, John Wall, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook are a few of the best in the league at making those types of passes, each one of them have helped lead great offenses. In the clip below, look at how quickly Lebron's pass makes its way to the open shooter, as opposed to Trey Burke's pass, which bounces first and allows the defense to catch up.
Trey Burke vs LBJ: The Cross-court Pass https://t.co/nD8UpCkpoQ— Cameron Purn (@howsitgoink) January 7, 2016
Mudiay has the ability to make those quick, long passes and it might be his biggest strength. Although he has struggled with turnovers and field goal efficiency, the signs are still there for him to be a great skip passer, especially if the team is able to open up the paint and provide him with more opportunities to push and pull the defense in and out of the paint.
Mudiay's finishing at the rim
This one is more theoretical right now since Mudiay is actually pretty terrible at finishing at the rim. According to Statmuse.com, Mudiay is shooting under 40% in the restricted area, 15% below league average. But at a sturdy and strong 6'5" Mudiay is tall for a point guard. He also has a relentlessness about attacking the rim that makes his kickouts so valuable.
Most rookie point guards struggle to score at the rim their rookie season. Reggie Jackson, who is a fairly comparable player to Mudiay in a lot of regards, shot just 46% in the restricted area as a rookie before jumping up to 70% his second season and hovering around 60% for every season after that. Mudiay has the same determination at getting deep into the paint that Jackson does but he also has two inches of height and a much larger frame to work with. Once he learns how to control his body and his dribble around the rim, he'll open up so much for the Nuggets offense. With shooters like Harris and Gallo around the perimeter and bigs like Faried, Jokic, and Nurkic rolling to the rim, Mudiay's finishing at the rim will be a critical part of the Nuggets offensive success going forward.