Nikola Jokic entered the NBA a year after being drafted out of Europe and has since become a force. At his age, is he a legitimate MVP candidate?
It starts with his passing. This is by design, of course. Once he finishes his loping, seemingly disinterested jog to the top of the key, someone, usually Jamal Murray, dumps the ball into him, setting into motion any number of actions that keep the defense guessing. His teammates become electrons around his nucleus, weaving through and past each other as they wait for his move. This is when Nikola Jokic is at his best, and this is why he is the best player in the NBA under the age of 25.
In each of the last two seasons, Jokic has led the Nuggets in points, rebounds and assists. For good measure, he also led the team in steals this past season. He has led the team in Win Shares in each of his four seasons in the NBA. In 2018-19, he was a fringe MVP candidate, largely by virtue of his ability to orchestrate an offense from the elbows and concoct buckets out of high post moves that, simply, should not work.
Depending on how you feel about Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic might be the best player from the 2014 draft, despite being picked in the second-round For all the value he has provided to generationally-transcendent Golden State teams, even Draymond Green would struggle to stake that claim for his 2012 class. Jokic’s stash year in Serbia afforded him the chance to be a top dog there before he arrived in Denver.
After missing the playoffs in his first three seasons, Jokic led Denver to 54 wins, a playoff berth and a first-round series victory in seven games over the San Antonio Spurs. After another seven games, including a wild, four-overtime thriller, the Nuggets fell to the Damian Lillard-led Portland Trail Blazers.
Still, for a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since Andre Iguodala and Ty Lawson were leading the way under the expert tutelage of George Karl, this was massive progress. The system Mike Malone had spent years building was finally coming to fruition, and Jokic was perhaps the largest reason for it.
For his part, Jokic was marvelous in his first postseason, averaging 25 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists while sporting an assist percentage of 37.1, which would’ve led the league in the regular season by the same mile that his team plays above sea level.
Jokic’s unique skill set at his size made the Nuggets’ relatively slow pace (they were 26th in the league last season) advantageous. Because of him, they seemed to welcome it, drawing faster teams down to their speed and exploiting the off-beat tendencies Jokic employs that would not feel out of place in a pickup game between middle-aged dads at the Y.
The beauty of what Jokic does can be obvious as often as it isn’t. When he receives the ball — and, on occasion, when he brings it up the floor himself — Jokic goes into his own zone, scanning the defense for gaps two actions ahead of them actually happening so that he can fire the right pass. If nothing reveals itself, he is just as apt bullying his way to the basket or lofting a mid-range floater. Open shots of that variety aren’t hard to come by when you are seven feet tall with the build of a lush baked potato.
Denver has emerged as a potential force in the newly-wide open West. After picking up Paul Millsap’s $30 million option, some have tabbed the Nuggets as a title contender. Plenty of factors will end up determining the veracity of this claim, including but not limited to: everyone’s health, particularly that of Will Barton and Gary Harris; the emergence of a third scoring option after Jokic and Murray; how the team improves upon posting both a top ten offense and defense; and the soon-to-be-revealed talent and potential of Michael Porter Jr.
At the center of all this, both literally and figuratively, is Jokic. Again, he enters the season as an underground MVP candidate whose exploits may yet be worthy of chastisement from Pitchfork for having gone too mainstream. As far as we can tell, Jokic has not feuded with members of the media who identify themselves as fans, at least of the English-speaking variety.
For lack of a more studious frame of reference, Jokic is Big Bird for the Nuggets. He is the calming presence, the one who asks about what needs to be done before providing a swift solution that the others (Jamal Murray as Cookie Monster; Garry Harris as Ernie; Torrey Craig as Elmo; Will Barton, perhaps improbably, as Oscar the Grouch, for my money, anyway).
His is a steadying existence, his cold-faced countenance be damned, one which can direct offenses and suffocate defenses with familiarity – Jokic often shows up in five-man sets on the defensive end after having been apart of a play that went awry, to his chagrin. Complete with his complaints, he manages to make it back to the other side, adding his randomized, unique color to a scheme Malone has engineered.
With his affront of a body and equally disruptive basketball IQ, Jokic would not theoretically be out of place in a Silicon Valley boardroom, for how extremely out of place he would be. It is possible he would show up to a pitch meeting in a purple silk button-down, grey sweatpants and panda bear slippers, while carrying half a Dos Toros burrito.
In a word, Jokic is mesmerizing; in a hyphenated phrase, he is game-changing. He makes the Nuggets, an otherwise middle-of-the-road West team, a contender in a loaded conference. Loaded and ready, the holster is his. It can take him what feels like hours to reach for the true magic, but all the while he plugs away, and when Nikola Jokic decides to dig, more often than not, the Denver Nuggets strike something worthwhile. That is why he is the best NBA player under the age of 25.
When you look up Nikola Jokic on Basketball-Reference, he’s got two nicknames. The Joker is the one everyone knows him for most. His other one though is Big Honey. Boy oh boy does the big fella fit the nickname. At 7’0″ tall and 250 pounds, he’s definitely big, and, with the way that he moves, he’s sweet like honey. In an era where true bigs are being played off the floor on a nightly basis, the Joker is refusing to go quietly into that good night.