For Jokic Week, we reached out to three prominent voices around the NBA who were all early believers in NIkola Jokic as a star player. We sent them a series of fun hypotheticals to predict where Jokic’s career is going from here, what kind of players fit best alongside him, and what the advanced statistics say about him that gets overlooked.
Adam Fromal is the founder and editor-in-chief of NBA Math and a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. His metric, Total Points Added is one of the best catch-all metrics for evaluating individual talent in the NBA. Andy Bailey also covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a contributor at SB Nation’s SLC Dunk. He hosts the Hardwood Knocks podcast which can be found on iTunes, Stitcher, and every other podcast app. Shane Young is a freelance NBA writer who’s work can be found at BBallBreakdown, Clutch Points, and several other outlets around the web.
If you were to hold a draft of all of the players in the NBA, how many players would you pick ahead of Nikola Jokic?
Adam Fromal: Given his youth (24 in February) and the versatility of his skill set, Jokic has to be considered one of the absolute best building blocks in the league. I’m not taking him before the current crop of yearly MVP candidates (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, James Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard), but that may be about it. Maybe you also want Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard and Paul George, even as the latter two draw ever closer to their 30th birthdays, counting on their shooting touch allowing them to stave off the ill effects of Father Time longer than most at their positions. Still, you’re looking at a reasonable decision to leave Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns and other young studs on the board in favor of Jokic just outside of the top 10.
And that’s probably the pessimistic take on his re-draft value. It’s entirely justifiable to think of him as a top-10 selection in this exercise, particularly if you’re cold on a soon-to-be 34-year-old James remaining at peak level throughout the foreseeable future.
Andy Bailey: I suppose this depends on the parameters of the exercise. If it’s just for one year, there’s probably around seven or eight guys I’d have over him (he was in my personal top 10 before the season). Curry, LeBron, Giannis, AD and Harden are probably no-brainers, but I think Jokic is in that very next tier. Now, if it’s a multi-year experiment, Jokic probably moves up the list a few spots. I think a lot of people have lost sight of the fact that he’s only 23 years old. In that scenario, Giannis and AD might be the only two I’d definitively take over him.
Shane Young: The absolute locks ahead of Jokic, to me, would be: Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, and Joel Embiid if you could guarantee me full health. I think where the conversation can get spicy is when you get to the group featuring Jokic, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, and Jimmy Butler. Since Jokic hasn’t even turned 24 yet, he has a long career ahead of him and could age gracefully as a basketball player with his all-encompassing skill-set and shooting touch. Westbrook and Butler may not have many dominant years remaining. So, it’s not lunacy to consider Jokic a top-10 player at this juncture.
If you could pair Jokic with any player in the NBA, who would it be?
Fromal: I can’t help but want to see him with Giannis Antetokounmpo. (In the interest of full disclosure, I think I want to see every good, fun, young player operating next to the aptly nicknamed Greek Freek.)
Just imagine the slashing devastation Antetokounmpo could inflict while maximizing Jokic’s passing. Think of the unorthodox distributing schemes you could run with two gifted facilitators operating out of the frontcourt. Dream of the offensive mismatches generated by a big-man duo that’s also capable of running similar defensive sets to the ones utilized by Jokic and Paul Millsap. Antetokounmpo would be perfect alongside almost any fellow star, but he and Jokic would be extra perfect.
Bailey: Can you imagine Jokic and Antetokounmpo together? Either one could initiate a pick-and-roll with the other as the screener. And Giannis running those Nuggets curl cuts off Jokic in the high post or at the top of the key would be unstoppable. Cheat down on Giannis and Jokic would kill you softly from 15 feet. Jump the passer and you have Giannis one-on-one with someone in the paint.
Young: I’ll give two different answers because this is a very fun hypothetical. Out of all current stars, it would be Durant. Rolling out lineups with Durant at the four and Jokic at the five would be exciting, considering Jokic’s passing acumen is a few notches better than Draymond Green, who already excels with Durant right now. Then, there’s the dynamic of Jokic having someone that can create a shot with ease any time he wants. Denver would thrive in late-game situations.
Going through historical players, I’d pair the 2008 version of Chris Paul with Jokic in a heartbeat. There’s arguably never been a point guard to play the position better, so it would join two offensive geniuses together.
Can Jokic be the best player on a championship team?
Fromal: Unequivocally yes. Now that he’s developing into a two-way asset who can stay in front of foes and prevent Denver from needing to win every game in shootout style, he’s even easier to build around. Plus, I love that his distributing flair makes everyone around him better. Jokic might not carry the scoring load of your typical championship-leading superstar, but his presence makes it so much easier to get standout performances from unexpected sources on any given night. If anything, I might rather count on someone like him as my best player than a score-first stud who can drag down a team with an inefficient shooting night.
Bailey: Absolutely. This is the token criticism for a lot of great players who don’t have NBA titles. The thing is, people said that about Dirk Nowitzki before he won one. The start of the Warriors dynasty with Curry came out of nowhere. So many players are deemed incapable of leading a championship team until they suddenly do it. And in this case, I mean, we’re looking at a 6’10” Larry Bird. I really don’t think Jokic and the right supporting cast winning a title is some huge leap.
Young: He’s probably on the borderline, riding the fence of yes and no for this question. With Denver, I wouldn’t bet on it -- only because the West is already too stacked with superstar forces and the current roster doesn’t have much flexibility beyond their core three of Jokic, Murray, and Harris. But, in a scenario where Jokic is the unequivocal best player on a team and the surrounding talent includes a Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, or any veteran guard coupled with great ancillary defenders like a Robert Covington ... then yes. It just takes a tricky roster construction, but the point is, Jokic is likely the last player on the league’s All-Star list that can be the leader of a title unit. After him, the answer is closer to no.
Is Jokic as talented as the advanced stats say that he is?
Fromal: This largely depends on which advanced stats we’re discussing, but I’ll answer by focusing on TPA, which we commonly use over at NBA Math. As TPA is derived from box plus/minus, it inflates Jokic’s numbers due to his abnormally lofty combination of passing and rebounding prowess—a rare blend of skills that the model isn’t quite equipped to handle. But that’s not to say the numbers overestimate his value to a significant degree. He’s still an obvious All-NBA candidate who can routinely function like a top-five asset when everything is clicking.
Bailey: Yes. Even I will admit that there are occasionally times when I look at the numbers and feel like they’re lying to me. But that’s never happened with Jokic. Of course, he’s not on the same level athletically as Joel Embiid or Anthony Davis. But skill-wise, he has very few superiors. There’s a real argument for him being the best passer in the game (which is insane for a center). Early struggles notwithstanding, he has range beyond the three-point line. He knows how to use his body in the post and on rebounds. I could go on, but there’s a reason the advanced numbers love him so much. And it’s not because some Jokic stan custom-fit a formula for him. It’s because of those skills.
Young: This isn’t even biased because I enjoy watching him play, but absolutely yes. Everyone that delves into the advanced numbers is aware that most of the all-in-one metrics favor rebounding a lot, so that gives him a little boost in a few areas, but it points more toward his multifaceted traits as a basketball player. Right now, he’s second in Real Plus-Minus (behind Anthony Davis), seventh in Win Shares, and nearly tied for first in Offensive Box Plus-Minus. Given the Nuggets’ hot 18-9 start to the season and Jokic being healthy all season, this all matches the eye test.
One thing that cannot be stressed enough is how different he is than the traditional big. That’s why some people can’t effectively evaluate him -- this is like a new invention that basketball fans aren’t used to. He’s a career 60.6 percent in True Shooting while attempting almost 600 threes, and that isn’t really an advanced metric. It simply shows he’s one of the most efficient do-it-all bigs we’ve seen in this generation. He commands respect from all areas on the floor, especially on the elbows. Fearing a guy’s shooting from the mid-range or extended is one thing. But not knowing whether a shot is coming, or wicked overhead pass to a cutter is what makes him unpredictable.
What is the most under rated part of Jokic’s game?
Fromal: His defense has generated a lot more positive attention during the 2018-19 season, but I’d argue it’s still underrated because he’s been a decent defender for a much lengthier period of time than just the current campaign.
Basketball fans have a tendency to watch the ball at the expense of developments away from the primary action, and that’s exactly why Jokic has long held a widespread reputation as a point-preventing liability. He’s never been quick enough to stick with guards on switches or out of the pick-and-roll and routinely gets beat around the rim (these weaknesses are starting to be absolved), and that’s when the world tends to notice him on defense. But all the while, he’s been an excellent rebounder who prevents second-chance opportunities (a tremendously underrated part of the overall defensive picture, even if it’s one of Dean Oliver’s Four Factors) and largely positions himself in a way that deters interior passes.
Bailey: Jokic isn’t a great defender. So, don’t misunderstand me here. But his defense is probably the most underrated aspect of his game. His steal numbers are very strong for a center. Defensive rebounding ends possessions. And this is the first season of his career in which Denver’s defense is better with him off the floor.
Young: The most underrated part of his first four seasons is how much he’s able to take care of the ball while being the most prolific passing center the game has seen. Seriously, he’s averaging 65.6 passes per game, 11.2 potential assists, and has an assist percentage (38.2) that mirrors Ricky Rubio’s career average. Yet, he doesn’t get too crazy and risky by forcing things. His turnover rate has stayed the same this season (15.5 percent) despite the major increase in playmaking. People forget he’s this team’s main, and sometimes only, creator. The injuries haven’t helped. Yet, it’s rare to see a lot of turnovers for him.
How influential has Jokic been on style of play in the NBA? And how influential do you think he will be throughout his career?
Fromal: I struggle to see his play influencing the NBA’s style too much...yet. He’s been impactful, but I credit the pace-and-space offenses and overall positionless tendencies of the league for allowing bigs to operate as primary facilitating hubs more than his play in and of itself. That said, I expect to see some copycats joining the ranks of the Association before too long, if only because his style is so joyous and contagiously fun that big men won’t be able to keep themselves from practicing the flashy feeds and looking to make highlight reels with their passing chops. We should see a few imitation attempts within the next half-decade, even if he’s too unique a talent to force imitation throughout the present-day NBA.
Bailey: Kevin Garnett opened people’s eyes to position-less basketball for big guys. Dirk Nowitzki showed how transformative a stretch big can be. And now Jokic is showing teams all the opportunities opened up by a passing big. I mean, Detroit even had Andre Drummond quarterbacking before Blake Griffin got there. Having skill at every position is huge. As for some objective evidence of his influence. During the 10 years prior to Jokic’s debut, all 6’10”-plus players averaged 1.9 assists per 36 minutes. Since his debut, all 6’10”-plus players not named Jokic are averaging 2.3 assists per 36 minutes. That’s not a huge jump, and we certainly can’t chalk it all up to Jokic, but his career is helping to put more emphasis on skill.
Young: This is a great question. As Jokic was starting to get recognition, I actually think the league was already beginning to value playmaking centers and power forwards. Marc and Pau Gasol were really the first ones that tried to revolutionize the position, to me. Joakim Noah came along and eventually DeMarcus Cousins (to a smaller degree), but those are the names that come to mind when I think about great passing bigs in the last 4-5 years. Having Jokic as the next part of the evolution is fascinating because he’s more dexterous and proficient at finding open shooters than those guys.
A lot of players around the league have respect for players that “play the right way” and that’s where we’ll see Jokic’s influence in the next few years. Big men that are virtually one-dimensional and only think about scoring will match up with Jokic, study his tendencies and how much his teammates thrive off his style, and possibly adapt their games. The influence Jokic is going to have won’t completely alter the way we view basketball, like a Steph Curry or LeBron James have in the last 15 years, but it’ll undoubtedly be impactful to drawing more viewers and highlighting how successful an offense can be with an unselfish big.
Predict Jokic’s stat line in the prime of his career.
Fromal: It’s pretty unbelievable that he’s not already in the prime of his career, but he’s still in the early portion of his age-23 season! Considering he’s adding new tricks each and every year, that means he might have a significant amount of untapped potential that could be realized in the next few years. Assuming he continues to improve his conditioning and proves capable of logging around 33 minutes per game, I’ll roll with 22 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block per game while slashing about 50/38/85.
Bailey: 22 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, a steal and a block in fewer than 36 minutes per game, with a .600-plus True Shooting Percentage. And yet, plenty will still cyber-scream that he doesn’t pass the eye test.
Young: It’s very difficult to project when Jokic will even hit the prime of his career, since he’s only 23 and his conditioning still isn’t at the best possible level. He’ll be a much wiser player when he’s 27 or 28. That’s actually pretty scary. I’ll say his very best seasons will look something like: 24 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists per game on roughly 55 percent two-point shooting and 38 percent three-point shooting.
That doesn’t sound like a mind-blowing line, but remember, those advanced numbers for him are going to be off the charts if he improves defensively. Also, a big man dishing eight dimes while still being a first-option scoring threat is unprecedented. I do believe the scoring department is where he’ll begin to take even more strides, however.