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SI’s top 100: Is Nikola Jokic no longer underrated?

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Jokic slots in at #17, one spot ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns

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

Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney have been unveiling their collaborative ranking of the top 100 players in the NBA this week. Four Denver Nuggets players were already revealed to be slotted between 31-100. Will Barton at 70th, Jamal Murray at 55th, Gary Harris at 44th, and Paul Millsap at 37th. Newcomer, Isaiah Thomas was discussed as a “snub” but was left out of the top 100 due to the uncertainty around his health.

Today, it was revealed that Nikola Jokic came in 18th on their list, one spot ahead of his divisional rival, Karl-Anthony Towns. Analysts have been comparing the two “unicorns” since the end of their rookie seasons, when Towns won rookie of the year and Jokic put up some surprising performances on somewhat limited minutes. Both guys looked to be revolutionizing the center position, albeit in different ways. The comparisons grew louder in their sophomore season as Jokic became a more prominent piece of Denver’s team. Still, Towns was thought of as the better player and prospect by nearly everyone outside of Denver or Belgrade.

Last year, Jokic caught up to Towns in terms of both hype and opportunity. As luck would have it, the two players met on the final night of the regular season, each tasked with the responsibility of carrying their team into the playoffs. Jokic won the battle. The Timberwolves won the war.

The two players are clearly very close in impact, even if they are fairly far apart in terms of style. Both are excellent rebounders and shooters while both struggle on the defensive end. Towns is a dominant one-on-one scorer while Jokic is equally as dominant as a passer and facilitator, a distinction that was at the center of how Mahoney evaluated the two.

“If we assume that every player on our list is surrounded by fairly average teammates as a sort of vacuum test, Jokic is among the most likely to elevate them. A middling role player will rarely look so good as when Jokic is force-feeding them points. This was a key point of separation between Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns in the determination of their rankings.”

This distinction is the core tenant of the church of Jokic, a cult-like following of a specific type of NBA fan who favor Jokic’s high IQ and advanced stats to Towns’ unmatched ability to score on anyone, anywhere, anytime. The debate about which talent is more useful is one that likely will rage on for years to come, but this is the first time that Jokic has come out on top, at least from a national platform like Sports Illustrated (here at Stiffs we’ve been saying as much since Jokic’s near triple-double against the Wolves way back in 2016).

So this ranking is something of a watershed moment for Jokic and his fans and begs the question: Is Nikola Jokic no longer underrated? Even if you are the type of (insufferable) person who frets over the difference between ranking 18th and 13th, consider for a moment the fact that Jokic is now a player who is widely considered one of the best 20 players in the league. More important than the exact spot he landed is the tier in which he is being placed. He’s in the all-star tier.

With a max contract in his bank account and his name in lights across the city of Denver, Jokic is no longer under rated, at least not like he had been for his first three seasons in the league. His ascent parallels the rise of the Nuggets as a whole who also find themselves as something other than long-shots for the first time in a decade. And with that newfound respect comes a whole new set of challenges. Expectations. Pressure. A new level of fame. How he and the rest of the young Nuggets handle that will go a long way toward defining the 2018-19 season.

For now, Jokic has finally gotten the respect he deserves. At 23 years old, he’s a top 20 player in the NBA. That alone feels like a victory.

Poll

How do you feel about Nikola Jokic’s ranking?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    Insulted! He should be ranked in the top 12.
    (170 votes)
  • 74%
    Seems pretty fair
    (514 votes)
  • 1%
    He’s ranked way too high.
    (10 votes)
694 votes total Vote Now