There are a lot of reasons that at just 22 years of age, Nikola Jokic is one of best offensive players in the NBA. He’s got incredible touch on short shots, post ups, floaters, and mid-range jumpers as well as a great handle, ridiculously high basketball IQ, and incredible footwork. But his best and most entertaining skill is his passing. Jokic has every pass in the book including a few passes that he personally wrote the chapters on.
Let’s dive into the book of Jokic to find the correct taxonomy of every type of pass.
Give and Go’s
The staple of Jokic’s passing is the give and go. Gary Harris trusts this so much that anytime Harris passes to Jokic you can bet there will be a cut quickly following it. Wilson Chandler and Jamal Murray also got on the same wavelength very quickly with Jokic. Between the three of them, Jokic would rack up two or three assists per game on give and go’s alone.
Part of what makes Jokic so good at these types of passes is the cutter doesn’t have to be wide open for Jokic to throw the pass. If the cutter can get his defender off balance just a little bit, Jokic will throw the pass into open space so that the cutter can run into the pass, like a receiver running a fade route to the corner of the end zone. These types of cuts don’t always work but the beauty of the Nuggets offense this season was that if it didn’t work the first time, the team would keep the ball moving and find a second, third, or sometimes even fourth opportunity. Eventually, someone is bound to fall a half step behind.
Quarterbacking from the elbow or top of the key
Jokic’s perimeter game opens up the paint and allows for wide open cutting angles. Similar to the give and go’s from above, these passes find Jokic operating as a sort of quarterback, standing still in the pocket while a cutter runs a quick route toward the basket.
Hitting cutters and spot up shooters from the post
The post up is one of the most misunderstood things about the “modern” NBA. The post game isn’t dead. Post entry plays aren’t inherently inefficient. What has changed is that isolation post up scoring is rarely efficient in and of itself, not because there are no longer valuable post players, but because there are better shots to be found
I have a 1⁄4 theory when it comes to post ups. Most good post players only take a field goal attempt on roughly one out of every four post touches. This isn’t an exact science, but the best post players tend to know how NOT to force shots in the post. If a player gets a mismatch in the post or is able to gain a half step on a defender with a post move, or if he is able to evade the double-team, then by all means, take the post up shot. But most of the time in today’s NBA, the defense does not allow an efficient scoring opportunitiy off of a post up. Defenses collapse, send a double, or just force the post player into a mid-range or fallaway shot and those shots aren’t very valuable.
That’s why low-post passing is as valuable or even more valuable than low post scoring. A post passer makes it difficult to double team the post since that leaves the post player with one open guy to hit on the cut or spot up. Jokic is great at both.
Kickouts on the roll
Most great passing bigs can make passes from a stand still or from a dribble handoff where there are one or two things to read. Jokic sets himself apart by being able to make super quick reads, on the move, in open space or in traffic. The first type of on-the-move read is the kickout on the roll.
Jokic ranked in the 75th percentile in efficiency on the roll, scoring 1.15 points per possession according to Synergy. Most of the elite roll guys are so effective because of how they play above the rim but Jokic only had 21 dunks all year. What made his roll game so deadly was his ability to make floaters from five to ten feet of the basket or finish with a short jumper. He led the NBA in FG% from both 5-9 feet and 10-14 feet among players to attempt at least 50 shots from each distance.
When the defense got wise to his incredible touch and rotated over to help, he’d call on his passing ability and hit someone wide open in the corner or wing. Jokic never failed to deliver the highlights with these types of passes either, often never taking his eyes off of the rim before whipping a true no-look pass to the opposite side of the floor. Seriously, watch both of these clips and try to figure out when he peaked over at the guy he actually throws it to.
Interior passing on rolls
Perhaps the best of all Jokic’s passes are his interior passes on rolls to the rim. We already covered how he is elite at finishing rolls with his touch and at making the kickout pass if the defense collapses off of a shooter, but when defenses bring the help off of a big operating in the short corner, Jokic is the best I’ve ever seen at these drop off passes in tight quarters.
Other interior passes
Of course, Jokic makes interior passes on other plays as well. Like offensive rebounds, post ups, and drives.
Fast break passing
Some of the most fun Jokic passes come on the break. Earlier in the season Jokic was asked when head coach Michael Malone gave him the green light to start bringing the ball up the court on the break. Jokic said that he didn’t. He just started doing it one game and coach didn’t complain.
Lucky us. Jokic is incredible in the open court, once again adding his flair by putting spin on his bounce passes and looking off defenders to create highlights.
Of course, Jokic doesn’t always have to move across half court to lead the break. His outlet passes are second only to Kevin Love among today’s big men.
Around the defender passes
You know a pass is special when the announcer gives an audible grunt after seeing it. This is even more true when it’s the announcer for the opposing team. Jokic gets grunts of awe out of Scott Hastings and Jim Peterson with these passes. They have become a Jokic specialty. Here are three examples but there were plenty more throughout the course of the last two seasons.
DHO curl passes
This is one of my three favorite types of passes in the game of basketball, along with the behind the back pass from the post and one other Jokic specialty that is coming up later. This play is so difficult to defend. It begins with a dribble handoff (DHO). When a defender takes away the handoff by aggressively playing chest to chest or trailing the guard tightly, an alert guard will curl toward the basket, staying tight to Jokic so that his defender has little room to squeeze through. More often than not, a defender will relax, thinking that their job is done since they denied the handoff, but with Jokic, the play isn’t over until it’s over.
Drive and dish
Despite Jokic’s great handle and footwork, he wasn’t great at beating the defense off of the dribble drive since he is a bit slow of foot. It’s good for the league that he isn’t quicker...yet. If Jokic is able to develop just an average burst of speed off of the dribble, I don’t know who in the league will be able to guard him. When he does drive from the perimeter, he is great at keeping his head up and suckering the defense into help. Notice once again the way Jokic adds the lookaway. Regular passes are too easy!
The Nuggets had a few set plays that they enjoyed that would get Jokic throwing lobs to open dunkers. “2 down,” which got Gary Harris a dozen alley oops this year alone, and “52 fist slip,” which got Gallo rolling to the rim off of passes from Jokic. But even in the flow of the offense, Jokic would throw lobs on the run, with one hand, over the head, whatever it took.
The one-handed hook lob
One of the cool things about watching every single Jokic game is that you start to see new types of shots, moves, and passes enter his arsenal. One such pass was the one-handed hook lob. The first time he busted it out was against the Knicks. I’ve never seen another player throw that pass and it doesn’t look like Jokic was actively trying to invent anything new. He just saw Faried and quickly flinged that pass up there.
But a few weeks later that trick found it’s way back onto the court, this time a lot more deliberately and with a touch more flair. And so the hook lob was born.
Dribbling guys open
Another thing that separates Jokic from other big men that can pass is the way he sees the court two steps ahead. Here, Jokic sees the court the moment he touches the ball but knows that a few false dribbles will drag the defense away from a wide open defender near the basket. He does this all the time and every time he does it I laugh out loud.
Water polo passes
Water polo is popular in Serbia and although Jokic has said that he hasn’t ever trained for water polo, he sure has a lot of water polo type passes and shots in his arsenal. The touch here is absurd. The ability to gather a tough pass with one hand and then make a pinpoint pass across the court without ever putting two hands on the ball is next level stuff.
And the pearl of the one-handers are the two he threw against Portland and Oklahoma City. The first in which he looks at the corner but throws toward the rim, and the second where he looks at the rim but throws toward the corner. Goal!
No look passes
I know that half of these passes already have been some form of no-look or lookaway but sometimes Jokic uses the no-look as it’s own weapon. These three videos - which should be played in slow motion to fully appreciate, only happen because of Jokic’s lookaway. Watch each defender jump OUT of the way because of Jokic’s deceiving eyes.
Shot fake pass
The no look pass and the shot fake pass are fitting for a man named Joker. They’re equal parts magic, trickery, and sleight of hand. He actually does this pass quite a bit. It works in part because of his slow release. Manu Ginobili also had a slow release and some trickery to his game and like Joker, he was great at this type of pass. Just watch how the defense freezes.
Over the head pass
Remember what I said earlier about trying out new shots, moves, and passes and then adding it to his arsenal? That’s what happened here. Against the Lakers, Jokic pulled out one of the most ridiculous passes of the year, a no-look, over-the-head pass against a triple team. It was enough to convert Shaquille O’Neal to the church of Jokic right there on the spot.
But Jokic didn’t just put that pass in the archive. He kept it in his bag of tricks and busted it out against the Pacers a few games later. This might not be the last we see of the over the head pass. Who else in the league is doing this? This isn’t a great pass for a center, this is a great pass for any player, ever.
This is my all-time favorite pass. Casual and smooth and right on point.
Jokic isn’t finished. He’s just two years into what will hopefully be a long and prosperous career full of creativity and invention. For now, Joker has every pass in the book. Next year, that book will get a few new chapters.