“Yeah, OK, sure.”
That, I will admit, was my reaction to pretty much everything Jokic related for the first solid year and a half of his career. When it was announced he was coming over, I thought that was nice. I was still very torn on European players then, with concerns about how games translated. It wasn’t that I thought European players were soft, it’s that I had watched a lot of those players just not work out. (Jan Vesely, come on down.)
”So he’s like a passing big?”
”I mean, he’s not a superstar.”
”The stats are nice but his defense is terrible.”
”He’ll never, ever be a good defender.”
”I don’t know if you can build around him.”
These are all things I’ve said about Jokic. He’s made a believer out of me at every turn, proven me wrong about everything. Do I still wonder about things, like what it will be like in the playoffs when teams shut down any and all cuts because attention to detail and effort is so much higher? Sure. Am I concerned about what happens when team abandon their systemic offense and decide to just have the best perimeter player attack him over and over? 100%.
But I also know this: Jokic has the goofiest, most hilarious way about him of any NBA superstar in recent memory, and yet the results bear out time and time and time again. No matter how much you think this guy can’t beat you, he does. And even with his pouting and occasional fits of malaise brought about by whatever is inside his head, I do know this: Jokic wants to be better. He doesn’t want to rip your throat out and step on it or shut the haters up, or any number of cliches that drive your typical superstars.
He wants to be better every night. He wants to play the game the right way. He understands this year that to do that means defense, something I never though he’d commit to.
When I did a sitdown interview with him a few years ago to look at his passing, what really struck me was how much of an artist he is. NBA players are either artists or scientists. Paul Millsap is a scientist. Angles and numbers, body weights and verticals, mechanisms and counter-mechanisms. Jokic is an artist. He’s a player driven by the force of creation that basketball enables. He paints the canvas in a way we’ve never seen a player, much less a center, do so.
There’s always a lot of discussion in media circles about what Jokic is thinking going into a certain game/ matchup or about a situation. I almost never engage there, because I really don’t think anyone, not even Adam Mares, the Jokic Whisperer as I call him, can really get him. He’s different in a way that’s fascinating and frustrating and exciting and most of all confusing. That’s also part of what makes him great, though.
He’s not perfect, no player is, and anyone that watches him closely knows that. The most impressive thing about him continues to be clear however.
Every player on the floor is better with Jokic on the floor with them. Guards. Wings. Bigs. Shooters. Slashers. Screeners. Playmakers. Everyone excels when Nikola Jokic is on the floor. There are so many comparisons thrown around about him, from Sabonis to Gasol, but my favorite is Steve Nash. A different personality who never liked doing media, a funny guy who could see the court in remarkable ways, a guy who shot an obscenely high percentage but never wanted to get up shots to get shots up.
I was skeptical of everything with Jokic for so long and was proven wrong each time. So those concerns I brought to the table above? They’re also met with a very clear understanding that just like there’s no understanding Jokic’s mindset, there’s no understanding his ceiling either. Now I have that same response when met with what lofty things he could accomplish, only without a hint of sarcasm.
”Could he be the best big man in the league?”
”Yeah. OK. Sure.”
”Could he be an MVP candidate?”
”Yeah. OK. Sure. “
”Could he bring this ragtag franchise stuck in the mountains near the clouds and lead them to the promised land?”
Matt Moore is a national NBA writer for The Action Network. He has covered the NBA for over a decade including as a columnist for CBSsports.com. He also founded Hardwood Paroxysm and the HP Basketball Network.