Predicting NBA’s Top 10 International Players in 2019-20: Nikola Jokić (1)

Nikola Jokić is not your average superstar.

He doesn’t look the part. He doesn’t have jaw-dropping athleticism. He isn’t zipping up and down the floor at a fast pace. He won’t leave you mystified with his ability to shoot from deeper and deeper away from the basket. He’s not going to shut down an opposing team’s best player with intense defense. 

Instead, he is just changing the game.

He was taken with the 41st overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Not much was expected of him at the time. He went back overseas and spent another season in the Adriatic League (where he would win MVP) before coming to the Denver Nuggets for the 2015-16 season.

Jokić would make NBA All-Rookie First Team alongside three other big men (Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor and Kristaps Porzingis). With that kind of company, it was clear that there were big things on the horizon for the Serbian.

He’s a very sound and fundamental player; There isn’t much on the court that he can’t do.

But what makes him a transcendent talent is his ability to act as an offensive hub from the 5 position.

In the past, when teams ran their offense through their bigs, it usually meant a lot of post-ups and paint touches. Jokić is very capable when playing with his back to the basket, but that isn’t how the Nuggets run their offense through him. 

Instead, he is used as the primary playmaker.

March 6, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) moves the ball up court against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Jokić averaged 7.3 assists per game last season. He and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players listed 6-11 or taller to ever average seven or more assists per game. It is not uncommon to see Jokić slotted at the top of the key with the ball in his hands, creating for others.

He’s not going to blow by any defender but his basketball intelligence, court vision and passing skills⁠—in every season except his rookie year he’s had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2:1 or higher⁠—allow for him to make plays regardless of how he’s being defended

Let him isolate and he has enough feints and hesitation moves that he can leave the opposition flat-footed to expose them. Whether that’s with his soft touch around the basket or drilling a three-pointer, he is very efficient: He has a career 56 effective field goal percentage.

Send extra defenders at him and he’s adept enough to find open teammates, even if it means he has to thread the needle to get them the ball. 

Jokić uses a seemingly endless array of passes. He’ll lob a backdoor effortlessly into the hands of the intended target, just high enough so the defense can’t deflect it. He’ll whip a pass from the baseline to an open shooter in the corner with the flick of a wrist. Outlet passes hit players in stride as they sprint down the floor for an easy layup.

Seriously, this is LeBron and prime CP3-level stuff coming from a 7-footer:

Denver even inverts the pick-and-roll at times—usually with Jamal Murray as the screener—because Jokić can read the rotating defense and make the right pass.

He excels without the ball too. His wide-shoulders and girth make him a hassle for guards to handle in the pick-and-roll. Possession after possession, a guard will fail to get over the top of a screen he sets, often leaving the deadly Murray open from deep. Switch and Jokić will feast on the mismatch.

Last year he was the driving force behind the Nuggets ascension to the number two seed. He couldn’t overtake Giannis Antetokounmpo in the MVP race but was squarely in the discussion for most of the season.

This year, the opportunity is there for him to claim it as his own. He has as good of a chance as any star with the league as open as its been in a long time 

Jokić will need to make improvements on defense for that to happen. He wasn’t a complete zero on that end, but opponents would routinely attempt to seek him out, particularly in pick-and-roll and screening scenarios⁠—doing unto him as he had done to them, if you will.

He’s listed at 250 pounds, and his body doesn’t scream “athlete” at first-look (or second or fifth). He often plods around the court and won’t ever be the first player off the ground. Teams try to attack him by getting him switched onto smaller players or placing him in situations where they are at a numbers advantage.

Denver has wisely surrounded him with a solid group of defensive wings, but they’ll need him to be better too. Jokić doesn’t need to be Rudy Gobert or Joel Embiid, but he needs to be good enough that he can’t be played off the floor in a playoff setting. 

During last year’s Western Conference Semifinals, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum routinely exposed Jokić in pick-and-rolls and ball screens. In the end, that was likely the difference between Denver advancing to the conference finals and going home in an ultra-close seven-game defeat.

May 12, 2019; Denver, CO, USA; Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum (3) shoots over Denver Nuggets forward Mason Plumlee (24) and center Nikola Jokic (15) in the second quarter in game seven of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Denver has all its pieces back from last season and has added depth with Jerami Grant and Michael Porter Jr. joining the group this year. Other contenders sought to form pairings of superstars as they chase an NBA championship. The Nuggets are relying on the singular talent of Jokić to help raise the floor of its other players. 

We’re just scratching the surface of what he’ll ultimately become, however. Jokić might not be a “unicorn” like others on this list, but as a pure basketball player? There are few with more skills.

If Jokić can continue to develop defensively while maintaining his offensive production from a year ago, then a big season is in store in the Mile High City.

Read Part 2 here: