The best young player in the NBA won’t be playing in the league’s All-Star Game on Sunday. Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets’ second-year forward, doesn’t have the profile of other young stars missing the big game like Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns or Kristaps Porzingis. Jokic also doesn’t have the draft pedigree of many other blue-chippers appearing in Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge game for the top first- and second-year players. But he could end up being one of the best players in the league, and he’s already one of the most exciting.
That’s pretty heady talk for a player averaging 16 points for the season. But, despite limited minutes in a crowded Denver frontcourt, Jokic has become both an object of fascination for NBA diehards and a standout in the fancier NBA stats.
Before we jump into an aria of gaudy stats, let’s pause real quick (especially considering we’re closing out the five-year anniversary of Linsanity) and be clear: Jokic is very young, and he’s only been playing a starter’s worth of minutes for two months now. But as we’ll see in a minute, his production could suffer a massive downturn and he’d still be among the more exciting prospects in the league.
Let’s start with the basics: Jokic’s Box plus/minus is 8.3, which is third in the league this season, behind only Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but in context of a player in only his second year, is extraordinary. It’s the third-highest BPM for a player in his first or second season, behind only David Robinson (8.4) who because of Navy service was 25 in his second season, and LeBron James.
|PLAYER||AGE||MINS./ GAME||PTS.||TRUE SHOOTING %||REBOUND %||ASSIST %||BOX +/-|
Meanwhile, FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection system pegged Jokic as an All-Star coming into this season (very rare for a second-year player), and as someone who should be worth more than $200 million over five years on the open market. But it also spat out a puzzling list of comps, such as Carlos Boozer, Lonnie Shelton, Greg Monroe and Kawhi Leonard. Jokic’s game doesn’t resemble any of those players outside of an excellent short-to-midrange jumper, but being compared to them is impressive in its own way, since projection systems tend to have trouble finding similar players when confronted with one who is truly unique. So the models can tell us he’s very, very good, but have trouble getting much more specific.
For that, put aside the big-picture stats and look at the lines he has put together: Against Kristaps Porzingis and the Knicks, Jokic had 40 points on 23 shots; in a win against the Golden State Warriors a few nights later, he had 17 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and added 12 assists. These were extreme outbursts, of course, but increasingly the norm for Jokic.
In 27 games since moving to the starting lineup in mid-December, Jokic has averaged 20.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists in 29.4 minutes on 65.6 percent true shooting and a 26.7 usage percent. He’s shooting 41.7 percent from 3-point range in that stretch on 2.2 attempts per game, and is assisting on 30.6 percent of his possessions. No player in NBA history has piled up a true shooting percentage, usage percentage and rebound percentage that high over the course of a season. That’s not uncommon for a brief, narrowly defined run, but the thing to notice is the degree to which Jokic is separating himself. If we cut the rebounding and assist rates in half and drop 10 points off the true shooting, the season-long average list still comprises mainly current and future hall-of-famers, with a few All-Stars thrown in on the back end.
Since the sum of Jokic’s recent production is too lofty to discuss credibly, let’s look at some of the metrics from his play as a starter individually: This season, the only players to crack 65 percent true shooting while taking 10 or more threes are Kevin Durant (65.2) and Otto Porter (65.3). The only player 6 feet 8 inches or taller to crack a 30 percent assist rate this season is LeBron James (41.6). His recent defensive rebounding figure doesn’t put him in line with the top bruisers such as Andre Drummond or DeAndre Jordan, but it jumps him up from being about even with Kenneth Faried to neck-and-neck with Karl-Anthony Towns.
But the biggest reason to be excited for Jokic in this game is that he’s one of the most audacious passers in the league.
Jokic doesn’t collect his assists like plodding big men, who draw a double team and kick the ball to a corner. He’s a good interior passer, finding cutters at surprising angles. But he can also work from outside the 3-point line, where he can hit runners for easy layups thanks to the space created by defenders respecting his range. When he’s leading the break, he can feed wings crashing to the hoop or drive himself and, if the defense commits, dump off to a wide-open man for a dunk. When he’s cooking, his passing angles resemble James Harden’s more than they do a 7-footer’s.
The video above should begin playing around 3:20 in, with two impressive sequences showing Jokic doing point guard things. But stick around for the play that happens at 5:15. Jokic collects the ball at his own free throw line, runs his own delayed fast break, and as soon as he crosses half-court begins loading a cross-court laser pass (which he throws wrongfooted) to the corner for a 3. That’s a play you expect from LeBron or Steph Curry, not from a center who was recently backing up Jusuf Nurkic. And yet here we are.
Jokic will get a little shine in Friday’s Rising Stars game, and a little more if the Nuggets hang onto the eighth seed in the West, which offers them the right to be slaughtered by the Warriors on national TV in April. Maybe that will be enough to bump him up into the Towns-Porzingis-Embiid class of young stars, or maybe it won’t. Either way, fans should enjoy every time Jokic is dragged out of the League Pass backwoods and shoved under some brighter lights.
CORRECTION (Feb. 17, 1:01 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Nikola Jokic was an injury replacement for Joel Embiid in the Rising Stars Challenge. Jokic was already on the Rising Stars Challenge roster, and replaced Embiid in the Skills competition.
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