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Denver Nuggets Year in Review: Nikola Jokic

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Nikola Jokic wasn't supposed to get many minutes this season. He wound up being the brightest star on the team and flashed the potential of a cornerstone piece. He'll need to improve his game though if he's going to take Denver to the next level.

Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports


Overview

By Zach Mikash

Ask anyone who watched the Nuggets this year "who was the biggest bright spot on the team?" and I'll bet you get the same answer every time: Nikola Jokic aka Big Honey aka the Joker aka one of the Balkan Towers. The 6'10" Serbian was just twenty years old when he signed his rookie deal to come play for the Denver Nuggets. Fresh off a dominating performance overseas in the Adriatic League which led to him being crowned the MVP, Jokic came stateside to prove he could play in the NBA. At first it appeared that he would spend much of his rookie year on the bench but when injuries presented an early opportunity, Big Honey seized the starting center position and never looked back. With each month of the season, Jokic's game improved. His feel for the NBA got better, his shooting stroke got more confident, his defense improved, virtually every aspect of his game kept getting just a little bit better. By the end of the season Jokic was among the top rookie performers in the Association and he just might end up being the best player on the team.

When media day arrived, coach Michael Malone made a comment that it may be tough to get Jokic minutes, but on that same day he also made a comment that he wasn't sure Jusuf Nurkic would be ready for the beginning of season. Over the course of training camp and the preseason those statements bared true. Joffrey Lauvergne was given the first crack at starting and he performed admirably, but three games into the season he suffered a back injury that would keep him out for a couple weeks. While J.J. Hickson was initially given the starting job, Jokic saw a minutes increase as well and after a big double double against the San Antonio Spurs in mid November he earned his first start of the season.

Big Honey held onto his starting job for two weeks before coach Malone went back to Lauvergne but despite going back to the bench there was little doubt that the kid could play and could play now. The elite vision, passing ability and soft touch that Jokic displayed in Summer league was no fluke, and he was supplementing that offense with a solid shooting stroke. Beyond just the raw talents, Jokic had an uncanny feel for the game at such a young age, displaying the ability to read a play as its happening and make the proper adjustment based on how the opposing defenders reacted. He had his struggles as well, namely foul trouble, but it was easy to tell he was a special talent.

By the time January rolled around Jokic was back in the starter's role. His offense was simply too good to keep him on the bench. He had become quite adept at executing the pick and roll as well as operating as a point big from the elbow. Despite his month of January not being as strong as his December, and Jusuf Nurkic beginning to return from surgery, Jokic would not relinquish his hold on the starter job, not in January, not in February, not in the rest of the season.

His play earned him a start in the Rising Stars Challenge but a game that is designed for highlight reel dunks and displays of raw athleticism was an ill fit for the fundamentally sound center. Nonetheless, a strong February propelled Big Honey to more minutes in the rotation. He was liable to go for a double double on any given night and while he will never be mistaken for Dikembe Mutmbo, Jokic showed signs that he could be a solid defender, using his length and good positioning to alter shots even though he rarely would outright block them.

When the season drew to a close the Nuggets started experimenting with Jokic playing power forward alongside Nurkic at center. The experiment was met with mixed results. The pairing certainly offered an intriguing combination with Jokic's ability to stretch the floor and Nurkic's ability to protect the rim, but defensively it put Jokic in a tough spot where he often struggled to stay with his man. Fellow rookie Trey Lyles in particular was able to take advantage of the slower Jokic when the Nuggets played the Utah Jazz on the second to last game of the season. Still, there was a lot to like about the Balkan towers, beyond their complimenting traits, they both are outstanding passers and started to develop a little chemistry with one another on the court.

Ultimately, whether he plays at power forward or at center, Jokic appears to have a very high ceiling, perhaps the highest on the team. As he continues to improve, his versatility and plethora of skills on offense will make him a very difficult match up for any team. There has been debate about some of the other young Nuggets and whether or not they can be stars or part of a "big three" on a championship roster. There is no debate when it comes to Jokic. If he can continue to to improve his game, his unique skill set has the potential to make him one of the best big men in the league and a corenerstone piece for the Nuggets for years to come.

Important Stat

By Gordon Gross

6.07

It's been mentioned before, but it's still eye-popping:  Jokic's Real Plus-Minus.  Real Plus-Minus is an attempt to quantify just how much a particular player impacts his team's net scoring margin while he's on the court -  and that figure is 8th in the ENTIRE NBA.  Durant is 9th, followed by Love, Millsap, Cousins, Paul George and Tim Duncan.  Leading a pack of All-NBA first and second teamers while trailing a handful of MVP candidates is a nice position for a rookie to be in.  Nobody knows whether Jokic can keep that kind of impact up over 30 minutes instead of 20, or once teams have had this summer to better understand his game, but if he can then Denver doesn't need to go find a star.  They'll already have one in house.

Room for improvement

By Gordon Gross

Jokic has to get stronger.  Everybody has said it, from his coach to the announcers after the season to Jokic himself in his end-of-year exit interview. It's not a secret, or some genius insight, but Jokic has got to hit the weights and cardio this summer and pack some more muscle on his body.  He can't be getting shoved around by balding shooting guards - it's a bad look.  The book on the Nuggets this year was to play rough with them and watch them wilt, and Jokic was a part of that finesse mentality.  Can anyone imagine Evan Fournier shoving Jusuf Nurkic like that and living to tell the tale? Whether Jokic plays more at the 4 next year or not, he's got to be able to hold his own against the league's more physical players next season for Denver to take that desired step toward the playoffs.

Highlight of the year

By Adam Mares

Joker had a bunch of highlights this year. He has the skill set that lends itself to jaw-dropping passes, post moves, and ball-handling but his best highlight was undoubtedly the silky, funky, no-look, behind the back, wrap-around, drop-off assist he left for Kenneth Faried in a home game against the Grizzlies. Marc Gasol is known for being a crafty passer himself yet on this play, he looked like a kid that had just been stumped by a magic trick, searching for the ball while Faried went up for the jam. I'll remember this pass for years and years to come!

Best Game of the Year

By Daniel Lewis

For me, it was the game where he absolutely took the Toronto Raptors to school. He had the first 11 points in the game, assisted on the next basket after blocking Jonas Valanciunas and leading the break before dropping off a pass to Faried. His bounce pass to Gary Harris in the second quarter on a backdoor cut was just as pretty as Harris's two-hand poster dunk over Luis Scola. Jokic sprung a spin move on Cory Joseph on the block, who is a fine defender, but was totally fooled by the Serbian Sensation. He even dunked on a fastbreak!

Roundtable

Worse dancer: Jokic in this Pepsi Center video or this Mavericks fan?

Zach Mikash (@ZachMikash): Give Jokic some credit here, he's arguably not even the worst Nugget in that video (there's a lot to choose from) but undoubtedly it is bad. I mean what is that? Some sort of failed Kriss Kross move that hybrids into a modified Carlton? Nonetheless, there is some semblance of dancing there...I guess...which still beats the Mavericks guy who I'm not sure isn't just having a grand mal seizure.

Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): So many of Jokic's charms are evident in that dancing clip. His weird coordination mixed with a goofy streak and a complete lack of cool make him a positively endearing player who will hopefully be great in a Nuggets uniform for years to come.  I want stories about him like Dirk gets with his Hoff warm-up music.  The Mavericks fan getting tased is a worse dancer, because there's nothing about Jokic's dance that I hate. The guy is like an adorable 7-foot bunny rabbit that's a genius at basketball.

Adam Mares: (@Adam_Mares): Jokic has a very Borat feel to him in that video. It's awkward, but I'd love to see what type of song that dance move goes to. The Mavs fan, on the other hand, is just dancing terribly AND he has his button-down tucked into khakis at a sporting event. Unacceptable, even for Texas.

Can Jokic play significant minutes at the 4 in the new small-ball-friendly NBA or will the Nuggets have to choose whom to keep at the 5 long-term? Bonus: if they have to choose, how long can the Nuggets put it off before they have to make that choice?

Mikash: I've been pretty staunchly against it, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't see some flashes of how it could work at the end of the season. I go back to that Cleveland game though when the anything but spry 32 year old Channing Frye blew right by Jokic at the perimeter to get to the basket with ease. His lateral quickness will always be a problem on defense against any power forward with a modicum of ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket. Draymond Green, sort of the poster child for the new age four, would demolish Jokic. I don't think necessarily you have to choose and you can find him and Nurkic around twenty-five minutes a game where maybe only ten of those they're on the floor together. If you do have to choose one or the other though, I'm keeping Jokic and probably looking to deal Nurkic by the trade deadline next season.

Gross: Significant minutes?  I'm not sure about that.  But if he gets 20 minutes at center he only needs 10 or 12 minutes at the 4 to get up to the max any large player is likely to get in Denver.  Marcus Camby averaged just under 32 minutes a game for his Nuggets career, and that would probably be a high-water mark for Jokic.  Something more like Nene's 29 or even Faried's 27 would be more likely, and for that Jokic only needs a few minutes at the 4.  Michael Malone can find him that against bench players if need be.  I don't think Denver has to choose between their two centers until both men start making significant chunks of change, which is several years away still.  I'd certainly give it at least one more year for both of Denver's big men to increase their trade value at minimum.

Mares: Sorry, Nuggets fans. But I don't think the Jurkic combo is the long-term plan for Denver. I like both guys quite a bit but I just don't think Jokic has the physical tools to guard the perimeter effectively enough to make it work. My guess is that the Nuggets experiment with that combo a lot more next season but ultimately decide to move one of them (almost certainly Nurkic) in 2017-18. I hope I'm wrong and that Jokic develops into a solid defensive four because he already has the skill set to be an interesting PF next to Nurkic on offense.

How do the Nuggets go about making Jokic a successful centerpiece of this team going forward?  There aren't a ton of successful teams built around a center these days...

Mikash: Don't make him the centerpiece, that's really all there is to it. The 90s are dead and so is that style of basketball where you could ride a post player to the top (save for the Mavericks in 2011 which is almost as big of an anomaly as the 2004 Pistons). Doesn't mean Jokic isn't a big piece to the puzzle though as there are plenty of teams who have won championships (in fact most all of them) recently with a big man as the second or third option. However, Denver needs to get a wing who can flat out score who isn't an offense killing ball stopper like Carmelo Anthony or a complete defensive sieve like James Harden and that's the person who will be a successful centerpiece for this team.

Gross: If you are going to center (bad pun) your team around Jokic, then you need to figure out how to take advantage of his strengths and shore up his weaknesses.  If he's some mix of Dirk and Pau (lite or not), then those guys took far different paths to titles.  It's hard to do what the Lakers did since Kobes aren't in large supply these days (although as our own Jeff Morton has pointed out, Jokic / Nurkic has some Pau / Bynum parallels).

So I'd be looking at what the Mavericks did:  they gave Dirk a Defensive Player of the Year candidate playing next to him, a defensive buzzsaw on the wing, one of the great passers the game has ever seen running point, and a collection of wing scorers to keep the bench points flowing and the starting offense from stagnating if Dirk went cold.  I think that's what Denver will be aiming for.  If the Mudiay = Kidd comparisions are anything near accurate and Nurkic can turn into Tyson Chandler, we're actually pretty close to a baby version of that (even though we might need to switch the defensive talent to the 4 instead of the 5 spot for Jokic). It took Dallas a long time to get Dirk the right pieces.  Hopefully Denver doesn't wait that long.

Mares: I don't think anybody knows what his potential is so it's hard to say at the moment how they should construct the team around him. He's a versatile offensive player so I'm not sure the team needs to do anything special to maximize his skill set. It's more about him growing from a jack of all trades type of player to a master of all trades type of player. He's a great shooter but I'm not sure he can dominate the game from behind the arc. He's a great post player but I'm not sure he can dominate a game from the post. So if he becomes dominant in any one skill, he'll be a cornerstone piece. But right now it looks like his floor is incredibly high and his ceiling is unknown.