In case you were living under a rock (and hopefully, all of you are with some great social distancing practices) it turns out that Nikola Jokic was making the most of this quarantine period to get his body right.
nikola jokic gave up everything pic.twitter.com/uB0uwViu7m— Haley O'Shaughnessy (@HaleyOSomething) June 13, 2020
With quotes raining down from president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, head coach Michael Malone, and Denver Nuggets starting point guard Jamal Murray regarding Jokic’s physique, it was only a matter of time before photographical evidence made its way onto the internet. As it turns out, nobody was distorting the true either: Jokic looks flat out skinny.
This is the skinniest I have season Jokic since his rookie year. He started building up his body bit by bit over his second and third seasons before coming into the 2018-19 season (his fourth year) at the biggest he had ever been in a Nuggets uniform. That weight had many advantages for his individual game offensively, and Jokic finally cracked 20 points and 7 assists per game while earning First Team All-NBA honors at the center position. He was dominant at a higher weight.
The Nuggets as a whole have seen their greatest success with Jokic playing at a higher weight and dominating on the interior, but it’s far to question whether Jokic and the Nuggets could reach new levels with Jokic at his athletic peak. The Nuggets have tailored offensive and defensive concepts around Jokic to have the rest of the team rotate around him, but could Jokic make life even easier for the Nuggets if he can cover more ground on both ends of the floor?
Here are some ways the Nuggets could utilize a kinetic Jokic during the Orlando quarantine bubble and for years to come:
Handling the ball more frequently in the pick and roll
One of the primary marks against the Nuggets as a championship contender is their lack of a superstar playmaking guard or wing. A Stephen Curry or LeBron James generally makes things easier in pressure situations, in which that player can bring the ball up the floor and not need the ball delivered into a scoring position once it reaches half court.
Now, I trust Jamal Murray to continue taking the steps needed to become an elite playmaking guard, but in the meantime, Jokic can help out by assuming more responsibilities in the pick and roll. During the 2019-20 season, just 2.9% of Jokic’s scoring possessions came as the ball handler in pick and roll situations. He scored in the 38th percentile on these possessions, which isn’t great but also shouldn’t preclude him from experimenting more.
Jokic handling in the pick and roll also created one of the craziest dribbling highlights of Jokic’s career. He has the handling capability to excel in this role, and the more comfortable he gets in the pick and roll, the more looks the Nuggets can throw at the opposition in a playoff series. The Nuggets primarily use Murray as the screener in the 5-1 pick and roll concept, in which Murray either rolls to the rim or pops to the perimeter like a standard big man.
I’m curious to see how both Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. handle a screening role as well. Both players are athletic and rangy with the ability to attack the rim or shoot the three, and using those players in that action could free up Murray to create in a secondary role if the initial action falls through.
This Porter-Jokic action is a dribble handoff that is converted into a lob off a vertical cut, but the principle is the same. Porter is attacking the rim off Jokic action and gets two easy points off a beautiful pass from Jokic.
Another important stat from John Schuhmann of NBA.com, “Jokic has averaged just 3.1 drives per game, but the 59.5% he’s shot on drives is the best mark among 218 players with at least 50 field goal attempts on drives, according to Second Spectrum.” Make sure to check out John’s article on Jokic and the Nuggets. Let’s see more drives per game from Jokic.
Coming Off Screens looking to score
If you are the defender on this off-ball screen, Willy Hernangomez in this case, I don’t know how you stop Nikola Jokic from getting an open jump shot in the following clip.
Hernangomez goes mostly though Murray’s solid screen to try and block Jokic’s shot to no avail, and it leads me to another factor in Jokic’s diverse offensive game: he is the most efficient big man in the NBA scoring off screens, averaging 1.07 points per possession and in the 73rd percentile league wide. His 52.7 FG% coming off screens ranks second in the NBA among qualified players, behind only TJ Warren of the Indiana Pacers.
Scoring isn’t the only thing Jokic does coming from an off ball position though. The next pass is sort of ludicrous for a seven footer.
The finesse, fluidity, and accuracy on that pass is so great. It allows Murray to get comfortable while relocating after setting the pin down screen. This play is something the Nuggets have had in their play book for awhile, as it puts Murray and Jokic in the same action without needing the ball for the initial setup. It even works with Jokic reading his man going under the screen.
Denver’s bread and butter offense places Jokic at the top of the key or in the post, but having wrinkles that the defense doesn’t expect can be the easiest way to generate an open shot in a key situation. Jokic’s diverse shot profile only magnifies that, and if he’s comfortable shooting from distance in those situations, he will be unguardable in a playoff series.
Quick moves in isolation against bigger guys
Perhaps the most important factor for any modern day championship team is having at least one player with go-to scoring moves throughout important playoff games. Jokic has certainly improved as an isolation scorer over the years, ranking in the 83rd percentile on post-ups and in the 80th percentile on true isolations (Michael Porter is the highest ranked Nugget in the 83rd percentile for what it’s worth.
Jokic’s go-to move in isolation is the face up midrange jumper, a shot that cannot be blocked because of Jokic’s high, irregular release.
But in the event that Jokic doesn’t feel comfortable with a standard jumper, having counter moves to get to the rim will make his life easier. A spin move here or a jump stop and pump fake there. Those are quick and easy ways for Jokic to use both his size and improved agility to get a shot in the paint from an isolation position.
Of course, Jokic has been working on other ways to create more space in isolation, with the Sombor Shuffle at the top of the list. A shot that always feels like it goes in, Jokic began to work the Sombor Shuffle into his regular gameplay last season. This season though, the shot has taken off.
This is looking more and more like a signature move, and the quicker and more agile Jokic is, the more he may trust that shot in clutch moments. In the culmination of his body work during December and January, Jokic put it to use on Rudy Gobert in Denver’s signature win of the 2019-20 season thus far.
Rolling hard to the rim in pick and roll situations
The last factor offensively for Jokic is his pick and roll game. In reality, he has fallen off as a scoring roll man every single year. This shot counts as an attempt out of the pick and roll, and it’s clear to see why Jokic’s efficiency has dropped.
While becoming a midrange assassin has led to some important growth for Jokic in recent years, it has hurt him when trying to get all the way to the lane. Very few teams leave him unabated in the floater zone anymore because he’s so efficient with that shot, and there are a number of times where Jokic will still fire up the shot anyway despite a great contest from the opposition. Now, it’s of paramount importance for Jokic to continue feeling comfortable while taking contested shots. The majority of Jokic’s game winners are contested, as are most shots in the playoffs taken by a superstar.
This is why when Jokic has a lane to the rim, he must consistently take advantage. It doesn’t happen frequently, but when it does, Jokic creates a high percentage look on almost every occasion.
A lot of these looks will be dependent on the ball handler taking pressure off of Jokic. In the clip above, Murray was at the tail end of his best scoring performance of the season, and Deandre Ayton knew it. The window wasn’t wide open, but Murray delivered a pass to Jokic between Ayton’s legs, and Jokic rewarded him with a mildly contested dunk.
If Jokic can put pressure on the rim like that, openings will appear for other players as well. Whether it be Murray throwing passes across the court or Jokic making quick reads in a situational advantage, the Nuggets could use some standard pick and roll to mix in with the unique nature of Denver’s offense. This projects well for Denver in the present and future with Porter and Grant likely to assume more responsibility as athletic, cutting forwards.
Jokic is a sleeping giant when it comes to his offensive game. He does a lot for the Nuggets, but it feels like he may be able to do even more from a scoring perspective. Now, he’s a slender giant, and taking advantage of his combination of skill, touch, and fluidity may be the best way for the Nuggets to become serious contenders.
Last year, Jokic averaged over 25 points and 8 assists per game in the playoffs while playing around 275 pounds. So much of Jokic’s work was done by bullying his way to the basket, outmuscling the opposition to get easy buckets under the rim. Unfortunately, that isn’t a sustainable method for most players, and it neglects some of the best pieces of Jokic’s offensive game. In addition, Jokic facing up more frequently rather than going into the post will have him always seeing the floor for cutters and open passing lanes. He rarely misses a pass, but he may never miss a cutter again if he plays more face-up basketball.
I’m looking forward to seeing what this version of Nikola Jokic can do on the big stage. He shot nearly 40% from three-point range last playoffs, and if he can replicate that, it makes him even more dangerous than he already is. Most importantly though is putting him in positions to take advantage of his elite touch in the midrange. Only Khris Middleton and Chris Paul can challenge Jokic’s midrange efficiency this season, and while every player around Jokic on Denver’s roster should be striving to shoot more threes and layups, Jokic is in his own world in the midrange. He’s a game changer there.
A skinny Jokic may be even better.