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One thing to improve: Nikola Jokic

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The franchise player is getting paid like one after signing a new contract. But to take the next step, he needs to work on a facet of his game that hasn’t been talked about during the offseason.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

This is the fifth part of a series in which a Denver Stiffs writer identifies one skill that they would like to see that a player worked on over the summer. Today, we’re talking about the franchise cornerstone Nikola Jokic.

It always makes me chuckle when I remember the moment it was announced that Nikola Jokic was drafted by the Nuggets.

While other players will get discussed by a panel of experts, or they’ll show a highlight tape, Jokic was asleep in Serbia while ESPN was on a commercial break.

Today, Jokic is a top 20 player in the league, the franchise cornerstone for the Nuggets, and with a freshly inked contract, he’s on track to be one of the richest Serbians of all time.

While the 2017-18 season was an up and down one for Jokic—as he adapted to a new frontcourt partner in Paul Millsap—he finished the season with an absolutely dominant stretch as the Nuggets tried to make the playoffs. Over his last 10 games, he averaged 24 points, 12 rebounds, and 7 assists per game while nearly shooting 50/40/90.

While it was an incredible stretch of play, when a push came to a shove in the final game, Jokic wasn’t able to score on Taj Gibson of the Minnesota Timberwolves, who was defending him closely. Gibson is a smart, veteran defender, and Jokic was worn out from a long, physical game. Minnesota won the game, earning the right to get blown to pieces in the playoffs.

While there are plenty of areas that are discussed frequently in regards to Jokic and areas to improve, I’m going with something that could actually happen.

One-on-one scoring

This isn’t based solely off of the Gibson matchup, but it certainly stands out as a case where it could have been beneficial to him.

There’s no doubt that Jokic is a skilled playmaker on offense. He’s lethal when the ball is in his hands as he looks to set up his teammates, rotating and screening their way into open shots.

But the offense goes to another level when Jokic looks to score on offense. Part of that happens when he gets into pick and roll plays with a point guard that can get him the ball on the roll around the free throw line. Once the point guard gets Jokic the ball, he can look to drive the lane or teleport the ball into his teammates hands.

It also creates opportunities where he can look to isolate and score on players that, frankly, won’t be able to stop him if Jokic develops the ability to score one-on-one. Jokic can look to other ground-based players on ways to score the basketball.

Randolph is a similarly sized and similarly athletic player to Jokic. While Randolph isn’t a rim-rattling, high flying, dunker—he uses his athleticism to create space and navigate around defenders. A left-handed shooter, he uses his prodigious backside to carve out enough space for him to get the shot he wants. Whether he is spinning towards the glass or plowing through his defender, you can tell he approaches each possession with both a plan he wants to execute, and a counter if that plan isn’t available for him.

While the current version of Dirk Nowitzki is a player that is self-admittedly playing with concrete blocks on his feet, that is not what Nowitzki was earlier in his career. Nuggets fans will recall Nowitzki exploding to the rim off the dribble to get to the free throw line, unstoppable with his combination of speed, shooting, and height. His fadeaway deserves its own spot in the Hall of Fame, with his leg up as he pulls the ball above his head and arcs in a jumper that hits nothing but twine.

It’s not fair or accurate to say that Jokic isn’t an athlete. Not all athletes have a 42-inch vertical or can run 100 meters in 10 seconds. Jokic’s athleticism is manifested in his footwork and balance, allowing him to dance around the court. He might never be the athlete Nowitzki once was, but he certainly can replicate the footwork that helped Nowitzki create the shot that carried him to over 30,000 career points.

Last season, Jokic busted out the Sombor Shuffle—a janky move where he shuffles right and shoots off his right leg, a move that Alex Len certainly wasn’t expecting.

It’s obvious to anyone that’s watched Jokic that he has elite touch around the rim. If he can extend that touch to 15 feet, while making more of an effort to uncork that shot when he’s open, that will create more space for his teammates to navigate into for scoring opportunities.

Jokic also needs to develop a reliable post move, with a counter that plays along with that. That will give the coaching staff an option to go to at the end of games without having to worry about Jokic successfully getting the ball to a teammate so they can get the final shot attempt off. They may struggle to get stops on defense, but they can end runs by giving Jokic the ball and letting him look to get the ball in the hoop on his own.

Jokic may not ever want to be a 25 point per game scorer. But if he’s able to increase his aggressiveness and get to that level, it’s going to help the Nuggets stack more defenders around him on the court, help the team in the playoffs, and help the offense be a top-5 unit in the league.