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Nikola Jokic is returning to form after a slow start

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Film study on Nikola Jokic’s big December month

Orlando Magic v Denver Nuggets Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

After Nikola Jokic personally admitted that he was struggling from the Pepsi Center locker room following a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, one could sense a collective sigh of relief throughout the building. Up until that game on December 3rd, Jokic had amassed point totals of 8, 8, and 7 points. 13 points in a crucial game against the Lakers put a further exclamation on Jokic’s scoring issues.

Until Jokic acknowledged he wasn’t playing up to his normal standard, it was difficult to circumnavigate Denver’s offensive issues without returning to their focal point in the middle. At some point, only so many factors could explain why Denver wasn’t scoring as much as last year. Some of that is on others, but some of it was on Jokic.

Since acknowledging his personal struggles, Jokic as upped his season averages to 20.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 8.0 assists, shooting 54.0% from the field, 36.1% from three, and 81.0% from the free throw line in the eight games since. This includes a duel with Joel Embiid’s Philadelphia 76ers and an elite Boston Celtics defense, and Jokic came to play in both games. The real jump has come on this home stand though. In the four games played, Jokic’s three-pointer is up to 45%, and the 8.8 assists per game in that stretch signify a return to Denver’s increased ball movement.

So, how is Jokic doing it? After watching and rewatching the past four games and Jokic’s part in them, the primary improvements I have seen Jokic make have been:

  1. Aggressiveness going downhill
  2. Anticipating the off-ball movement around him
  3. Playing with joy

Aggressiveness going downhill

Jokic’s game is often so feathery and smooth for someone his size that it’s easy to forget that he outweighs nearly everyone in the NBA. He’s also stronger than nearly everyone in the NBA and can choose to move someone into the paint if that was his desire.

When on the left block, Jokic is most comfortable powering into the middle and turning over his left shoulder with a right hook. This has been his most consistent post move of his career, and unless opponents are loading up to stop that particular move, he often goes to his bread and butter.

Backing down Julius Randle—one of the strongest players in the NBA—into the restricted area is a pretty big deal. It showcases effort, a desire to get to a certain spot on the floor, and a willingness by Jokic to do what he has to in order to help Denver win a game in December against the New York Knicks.

Being aggressive to the paint doesn’t always entail post ups either. Jokic rarely made this slip cut to the rim and greatly surprises Steven Adams with his agility. Working this cut into the normal back screen into a ball screen motion he normally uses could help keep the defense honest, because he leads to a Jokic dunk here.

Even when he doesn’t get all the way to the rim, he has the touch to make difficult shots look easy. When the shot clock is running down, Jokic looking for his own shot and creating something out of nothing at a high level can be what takes this offense from average to good at some point in the near future.

And of course, a film study about Jokic would be incomplete without showing his floater on the short roll. He is the best in the NBA at this particular skill, catching the ball low and rising up in one fluid motion to shoot off one leg and arc the ball over an outstretched arm of a defender.

Only 28 players have attempted 100 shots or more from between 4 and 15 feet this season. Nikola Jokic is one of them. For Jokic, this is the floater zone where he gets to showcase his touch around the rim. As it turns out, he’s pretty good there, as he leads the NBA in field goal percentage from that particular distance by a significant margin. His 54.2 FG% far outpaces the next highest player, Chris Paul, at 50.5 FG%. It’s the shot that makes Jokic who he is, and it’s one of the factors that makes him such a dangerous offensive player in the middle of the floor.

Anticipating off-ball movement around him

Jokic hasn’t been the only player to up his game in recent weeks. The entire starting lineup has made a conscious effort to get into their half court sets earlier in the shot clock and continuously cut off ball.

This has helped the starters space the floor properly, and when teammates cut from a perfectly spaced floor, it tends to be a basket if the ball is in Jokic’s hands.

This is the standard 5-1 pick and roll, or as standard as a 5-1 pick and roll can be. Murray sets the screen then weaves his way back into the paint. Jokic threads the needle for an easy layup.

Notice the rest of the floor though. Both corners are occupied, and even though Mason Plumlee isn’t a threat to take a jumper if left open, his man is left occupied by Plumlee staying high near the elbow.

The screenshot above is the precise moment before Jokic throws the pass. This is picture perfect spacing of the floor. Credit to Denver’s off ball players for helping create an easy shot at the paint.

Jokic has also linked up with Torrey Craig on a number of off-ball cuts lately that I want to highlight. Early in their tenure together, Jokic and Craig struggled to get on the same page; however, they are finding the chemistry quickly during this home stand.

Teams won’t always guard Craig in the corner, but a well-timed cut freed him completely. Jokic throws a perfect pass to the rim and Craig goes to get it. The back side is spaced perfectly once again, leaving little opportunity for help.

Finally, a Jokic post up that turns into a dunk for someone else. Jokic being aggressive against a mismatch and looking to score immediately drew two extra defenders to help out poor Dennis Schroder. Jokic reads Gallinari, sees the vacant spot under the rim that Craig has filled, and easily gets him the ball for a dunk. Great work by both players, and another shout out to the weak side shooters for spacing the floor and helping create that open look.

Finally, this is the culmination of a set the Nuggets ran four times in a row to begin last game versus the Orlando Magic. Jokic had hit Murray for a back cut twice, then Denver ran the set normally, on the fourth time, Barton cuts after Murray clears the paint. Jokic hits him, and it’s another wide open shot right at the rim. The spacing is once again perfect.

So much of Jokic’s passing is dependent on the spacing of players off ball and the willingness to involved players to cut hard. Jokic found those passes early and often, resulting in four straight baskets on the same called play. He’s willing and able to make those reads, and the more often the players around him move freely, the better the offense will generally run.


Playing with joy

Sometimes, it takes the creation of a shot never seen before to break a shooting slump. For Jokic, that shot has been happily deemed the “Sombor Shuffle.”

Let me explain the move briefly. Dirk Nowitzki popularized the one-legged fadeaway from the post when he first entered the NBA. That shot (which can honestly be called “The Dirk”) has since been adopted into the move set for many players looking to create space for a contested shot.

The shot Jokic uses is similar, but not quite the same as he jumps off the opposite foot. Usually, a right handed shooter would lift their right leg and fall away from the defender while taking the shot. Jokic raises his left leg instead, and it is glorious.

Such an awkward looking move for what Nuggets fans have affectionately deemed the most awkward superstar in NBA history. Nothing Jokic does looks like it should happen, but the fact that he always gets the job done, no matter how things appear, is what makes him so endearing to fans. Jokic would occasionally break out this shot throughout the past year (I first remember him taking it when he dropped 40 points on Jusuf Nurkic and the Portland Trail Blazers in January of 2019) but on this road trip, he has done it regularly, and hit it regularly too.

James Harden has the step back three. Dirk Nowitzki has the one-legged fadeaway. Maybe Nikola Jokic has the Sombor Shuffle, his own signature move that many try to emulate throughout the years but few can master.

Either way, such shots are key in determining how much Jokic is enjoying the game, how loose he is playing throughout. When Jokic is having fun slinging passes around, attempting the Sombor Shuffle, the Nuggets are at their absolute best offensively. This is the version of offense the Nuggets must play if they are to seriously challenge as championship contenders this year or in future years. It all comes down to Jokic, who has found his groove after starting the year slow.

Jokic is back, and he may be better than ever.