By Liam McKeone
Nikola Jokic is a name not many knew outside of die-hard NBA fan circles when he was drafted in the second round of the 2014 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets. More guys picked in the second round end up out of the league in two years, but the Nuggets thought they had something in Jokic, and two years later, it seems they were right.
Jokic was a virtual unknown, only 20 years old and playing in the Adriatic League in Europe for the team Mega Vizura out of Serbia. He put up a few solid statlines in his time overseas, but what intrigued the Nuggets revolved entirely around his potential. He has an unnatural combination of agility and size, and could score from just about anywhere on the court. Most impressive, and why Jokic’s game stands out in the NBA, is his basketball IQ. He’s almost LeBron-like with his natural ability to know where his teammates are on the floor and where they are going to be. Nobody is as good as LeBron in that department, but for a center, he’s one of the best.
It took some time for Jokic to get adjusted to the NBA; he had to drop thirty pounds and get used to the speed of the game at the pro level. But once he did adjust, he looked every bit the part of a superstar. Last year was just a taste of Jokic’s potential, as he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting en route to averaging 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 assists. Just as importantly, he shot nearly 35 percent from three, which is huge for a big man. Having a 6’10 center who has to be guarded all the way out on the perimeter creates a massive amount of space for an offense to work.
While Jokic has had a better season this year, he didn’t truly break out until the Nuggets traded their other European draft pick from 2014, Jusuf Nurkic. Head coach Mike Malone tried a two-headed monster experiment by playing Jokic and Nurkic at the same time, but it never worked. Neither are particularly good defenders, and the paint was clogged on the other end of the court. Now, Jokic has lots of room to work with, and he’s been unleashed.
The Serbian is averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists as the maestro of the Nuggets offense. He has a polished offensive game in every aspect, and seems to have a highlight reel play every game. He’s astounded fans everywhere with his court vision, tossing up alley-oops and no-look passes like he’s Chris Paul. He’s the best passing big man since Peja Stokavic, and will take the mantle passed by Dirk Nowitzki as the leader of the next generation of great European big men along with Kristaps Porzingis. The Nuggets are surging as the season is ending, and are in serious contention to steal the 8-seed on the back of Jokic’s offensive wizardry. If they sneak in the playoffs, Golden State should be nervous. Jokic is good enough to drag any team to success.