Monday night featured one of the most impressive passing performances of Nikola Jokić’s career. As the Denver Nuggets faced off against the Houston Rockets, Jokić impacted the game in a variety of ways, accumulating a triple-double toward the end of the third quarter by grabbing his 10th rebound. Of course, Jokić had long since eclipsed 10+ points and 10+ assists, putting together a passing frenzy against an undersized and undermanned Houston roster.
By the end of the game, Jokić was throwing some absolutely wild passes, watching his teammates cut and move around him and threading the needle every single time.
Two of Nikola Jokic's career-high 18 assists in the #Nuggets' win over the Rockets.— Joel Rush (@JoelRushNBA) December 29, 2020
Both great, both to cutters, and the first to Barton is especially crafty, as Joker wraps it behind his defender to slip it right through the gap to Thrill.#MileHighBasketball pic.twitter.com/2ryGMJXm6t
After it was all said and done, Jokić had set a career high with 18 assists, one of the high water marks in NBA history for a center and the most generated by a single player to begin the 2020-21 season. The only other center to generate more assists in a single game was Wilt Chamberlain, who once passed for 21 assists and 19 assists in two separate games. That was a different era though, and the pace of play mildly inflates the numbers generated by Wilt, Oscar Robertson, and other legends who have filled the record books with extraordinary counting stats. They are still legends, but it makes what Jokić is doing right now even more impressive.
Last season, Jokić led all centers with 7.0 assists per game, a mild number compared to the best passers at other positions. Bam Adebayo was second among centers at 5.1 assists, a substantial gap from the 7.0 Jokić averaged every game but still within striking distance.
This year, at this current moment, Jokić leads all players with 14.0 assists per game in the three games he has played. The sample size is drastically small, but any player that can rack up 42 assists in a three game span has to be a heck of a passer. Any center that could do it? The most total assists any center has ever had through the first three games of the season is 24, a tie between Jokić and Wilt. That’s eight per game. Jokić just put up 14 per game...
It’s stats like those that show just how much Jokić has changed the game since entering the league. He has slowly become more comfortable within his role as he has grown up and improved, but it feels like he has reached a threshold of new heights for his playmaking and manipulation of NBA defenses. Every year, he adds something to his passing repertoire, from a new pass to a new read to a new scoring move that causes the help defense to shift further away from their personal responsibilities. His control of the game from the elbow, post, and top of the key has improved every year, and his ability to dictate the terms of engagement makes him the most dangerous facilitator in the NBA. He’s LeBron James-esque.
If Jokić continues to produce historical numbers and the Nuggets finish with a top seed in the Western Conference, there will be a push to crown Jokić with an MVP trophy. His ability to mix individual numbers and winning has always placed him on the fringes of MVP discussion, and if the numbers and team success both receive a bump, it’s only fair to consider his MVP chances more closely. He won’t be averaged 24.0 points, 14.0 assists, and 12.9 rebounds for the entire season (at least, I don’t think he will) but if he averaged an efficient triple-double on a top seed? Who knows. Maybe he will garner the respect he deserves if he’s able to reach that level for an entire season.
Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that this version of Jokić is one of the best we’ve ever seen. He continues to amaze in so many different ways, and it’s truly a joy to root for him as a member of the Denver Nuggets for the foreseeable future.