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Nikola Jokic, NBA player rankings, and why all that matters is the big picture

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Prove it or get out of the way for the next big thing.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

August is the most boring month of the NBA calendar. Next season’s schedule has been released, NBA 2K19 is garnering hype, but beyond the random player tidbit here or there, the majority of August is considered offseason workout and vacation time for players, coaches, and front office executives. It’s the only time for such plans for most members of the NBA circuit, which reflects that nothing of major importance usually occurs at this time.

August and early September is the time where most player rankings come out from national outlets. I am releasing mine week by week (small forwards will be released Monday), and ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and many more outlets and writers will piece together their rankings as well. Top 10 players. Top 100 players. Top 25 players under 25. And so on.

With these rankings come debates, and Nikola Jokic is a hot button issue for most fans. #NBATwitter loves to analyze, assess, project, and argue about everyone, especially young players. Most recently, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid were the players compared to Jokic. Haley O’Shaughnessy of The Ringer and Coach Nick of BBALLBREAKDOWN did some statistical and video analysis of Jokic versus the other two young premier centers.

Regardless of the conclusion in these kinds of articles, it’s important for everyone to understand why such articles being made: Nikola Jokic is making the conversation about him whether he wants to or not.

Over the course of his third NBA season, Jokic averaged a robust 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game, averages matched only by Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett, and Russell Westbrook in NBA history. He’s one of just five players to accumulate 3,000 points, 2,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists during the first three seasons of his career, joining Robertson, Bird, Sidney Wicks, and Maurice Stokes. He’s fifth on the all-time single season assist list for centers with 458 during 2017-18, a number he will likely surpass in 2018-19. His shooting efficiency from the perimeter is also elite for a big man, ranking fifth among all centers in three-point percentage with at least 250 three-point attempts at 39.6 percent. That number is also likely to rise next season.

The unique nature of Jokic’s game has made him one of the league’s most intriguing players, and it’s the unique players and teams that set league wide trends for years to come. Larry Bird was the first true outside shooting and passing forward of his size. Magic Johnson was the first facilitator of his size. Michael Jordan was the prototypical shooting guard who set the bar for the next 20 years, while Kobe Bryant was as great of a mirror image of MJ as one could find. Kevin Garnett was the first true unicorn. LeBron James combined the scoring skills of MJ and Kobe with the passing skills of Magic Johnson. Stephen Curry taught the league to take more threes.

It’s the league’s unique talents that rise to the top, and if Jokic is anything, it’s unique.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Minnesota Timberwolves Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

So much of the debate surrounding Jokic involves his defense. As I’ve argued before, I don’t believe his deficiencies are what kills Denver consistently. Would Denver improve on that end if they had Rudy Gobert to anchor the defense? Absolutely. The reason for the improvement is two-fold though: on one hand, Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, and on the other hand, the reason why he was DPOY involves his ability to make up for others’ mistakes. Jokic doesn’t have the natural athleticism to make those kinds of plays, but playing in a system where everyone understands where they have to be and executes? Jokic looks far less like a sieve and far more like what I believe him to be, an average defensive player.

Another argument against Jokic is the failure to understand just how valuable his offense is. I’ve heard the arguments for Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, and DeMarcus Cousins being more valuable than Jokic offensively, and most of them involve volume over impact. Most fans have been trained to look at the box score numbers and the high point totals to judge offensive worth, but in some cases, less is often more. Jokic could almost certainly average 25 points per game on scoring skill alone, but his passing opens the door for other players to succeed, and his decision making shows a healthier offense than his competition.

Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns have the most positive offensive team impact statistically in the NBA.
NBA.com/stats

Regardless of where one ranks Jokic among the hierarchy of young talent in the NBA, it’s clear that he’s among that group. At just 23 years old, Jokic won’t turn 30 until 2025, and at just 23 years old currently, his ceiling hasn’t been defined quite yet. The points, assists, and rebounds have increased every season, now at outlier center levels. The outside shooting jumped to elite center levels. The defense is a work in progress, but that end of the floor usually takes awhile for players of Jokic’s build and athleticism to learn how to excel in the NBA. Think Marc Gasol or Aron Baynes here, two thicker centers who got in shape so that their bodies could catch up to their minds defensively.

Most of these debates will be solved in the coming years. They almost always are. Chris Paul and Deron Williams were debated for much of the first few years of their career. Years later, Paul is one of the most decorated point guards in NBA history, and Williams is not. Andrew Wiggins versus Jabari Parker was a highly contentious debate for the first couple of seasons of their careers. Now, it looks like nobody wins, except those who thought Joel Embiid was the best prospect in the 2014 draft and should’ve been taken first overall. Where someone is ranked right now is almost certainly not where they will be ranked at the end of their careers. Nuggets fans should understand that by now, given Jokic’s initial status as a second round pick.

Embiid versus Towns versus Jokic will continue to be a debate until it’s not. One could even throw Kristaps Porzingis into that group if the Knicks ever stop being awful. The big man in Philly may very well separate himself by dominating the Eastern Conference for years and years, though he has the benefit of playing in a lesser league at the moment. Towns may soon become an MVP candidate if the Timberwolves (or whoever Towns plays for in the coming years) learn to utilize him in his best form. Porzingis might return to form and become a full-fledged unicorn, dominating games on both ends.

Or, it could be Jokic, learning to play defense and continuing to prove the doubters wrong by destroying teams offensively.

For what it’s worth, I have Jokic as the third best player under 25 years old at the moment.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo - MIL
  2. Joel Embiid - PHI
  3. Nikola Jokic - DEN
  4. Karl-Anthony Towns - MIN
  5. Ben Simmons - PHI
  6. Donovan Mitchell - UTA
  7. Kristaps Porzingis - NYK
  8. Devin Booker - PHX
  9. Gary Harris - DEN
  10. Clint Capela - HOU

Of course, as I have mentioned before, things are likely to change. Towns or Simmons could absolutely become the best player among this group. Booker has a chance as well. Jamal Murray, who’s not listed, could jump into the top 5 as soon as two seasons from now, depending on how he continues to progress.

But the most important factor is that Jokic has made the conversation about him. Whether one has him in the top three, or fifth, or seventh, or wherever, all ten of the above players will likely be in the top 25 players in the NBA for years to come. Some of them, like the top eight on this list, have shown the ability to take over a game at any moment, willing their respective teams to a victory. Whoever becomes the most consistent, and whoever shows the highest peak performance, will top this list in the years to come.

Nuggets fans know Jokic to be one of the very best young players in the world. The national audience is starting to catch on. The only way for everyone to trust Jokic’s future stardom is to win in the playoffs. Giannis has been unable to lift his teams to the second round yet. Embiid, Simmons, and Mitchell have already been to their respective Conference Semi-Finals, though they have struggled on arrival. Towns was frozen out by the Houston Rockets and his own teammates and coaches in the first round. Booker and Porzingis have yet to play on competent NBA teams. Jokic is almost there, but in order to win over skeptical fans, he has to perform on the biggest stage, act like the player many believe him to be. With 35 points in Denver’s elimination game to Minnesota, he looks like he has the guts to get there. 37 points and a game-winning shot over Taj Gibson, and the narrative would’ve already changed.

Denver simply has to make the playoffs and show they belong. You can’t be one of the best young players in the NBA while sitting at home in Mid April and not receive criticism for it. Jokic and the Nuggets have an opportunity to change that this year. With so much young talent, offensive firepower, and what’s believed to be a top talent going forward, there are no more excuses.

Such is life in the NBA. Prove it or get out of the way for the next big thing.