TIM CONNELLY SENSED something was off with Nikola Jokic. A year after selecting the center No. 41 overall in the 2014 NBA draft, the Denver Nuggets‘ president of basketball operations wondered: “Where are all these cool passes?”
Jokic had impressed Connelly with a funky yet effective style of play as a teenager for Mega Basket in Serbia. The rare skill set at 6-foot-11, the on-court instincts, the scoring potential — those were all reasons Connelly and the Nuggets decided to take Jokic, even if they would have to wait a year to get him on the roster.
More than anything else, though, it was Jokic’s passing. One highlight dime Jokic loved to consistently deliver stuck with Connelly.
“He would dive [toward the rim] and catch the ball,” Connelly said. “And without dribbling, he would throw it between his legs on the bounce with pace to the left corner.”
But early in his NBA career, Jokic was reining in his passing panache. Connelly wanted to know what the deal was.
“Well, I can pass with my feet in Mega and still play,” Jokic told him. “But here, I turn the ball over, I am not going to play. So I got to be a little more conservative.”
In the midst of an MVP campaign this season, Jokic has left any fear of flair in the past. He is a point center with the green light to try just about anything. While his career-best 8.6 assists are astounding, Jokic is also posting career-high averages in points (27.3) and rebounds (11.0) per game. With defenses devising ways to take away Jokic’s passing, the center is coming up with other ways to dominate.
Shaquille O’Neal is the only center to win the NBA’s regular-season MVP this century. One of Jokic’s biggest threats in this season’s race, Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, is building a case based on familiar big-man traits: interior dominance and all-world defense. Although Jokic plays the same position, his MVP argument is completely different.
“He’s like Luka Doncic but a center,” said one Western Conference assistant coach. “He passes like a point guard, can shoot off the leg like Dirk [Nowitzki]. He’s a point guard.”
Jokic’s abilities are undeniable. But entering the second half of the NBA season, he’ll have to build on a yearslong transformation to snag the league’s top individual award from LeBron James, Doncic and Embiid.
JOKIC WAS READY for the question, one that superficially seemed a little silly: How does his game compare to LeBron’s?
“Oh yeah, the speed is there,” Jokic deadpanned to reporters last month. “We are the same athletic-wise. We are really close. I don’t know, can he jump as high as me, actually? But we are kind of similar. And the quickness. He is a little bit older. I don’t know if he can keep up.”
Then he burst into laughter, unable to maintain the act. When told of the exchange, James chuckled in appreciation. But there are ways in which the comparison is serious, especially in terms of passing.
“The guy has an unbelievable talent of seeing the floor and seeing plays happen before they happen,” said James, who likened watching the big man pass to Arvydas Sabonis.
No center has averaged as many assists as Jokic has this season since Wilt Chamberlain, the only center to have led the league in total assists, according to Elias Sports Bureau. But no one at his size dishes the type of assists that Jokic routinely delivers. Against Minnesota, Jokic grabbed a rebound, pushed it up the court and threaded a bullet bounce pass from the opposite 3-point arc to a streaking JaMychal Green at the free throw line for a dunk.
“[Jokic is] the best passer in the league right now,” Green said postgame.
This season, Jokic is second in the league with 77.1 passes per game and ranks seventh in assist points created per game (21.3), per Second Spectrum. That is on pace to be the most by a center since these stats started to be tracked in 2013-14.
“His overall feel for the game is unsurpassed for a center,” Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle said. “His vision, passing skills and desire to involve teammates is exceptional, maybe the best ever for a guy playing that position.”
When watching film in preparation for how to defend Jokic, Sacramento Kings coach Luke Walton said he felt anxiety and admiration.
“He is unselfish to his core,” Walton said. “I think he would much rather get an assist than score points.”
In past seasons, opposing defenses found success against the Nuggets by forcing Jokic to shoot. They wanted to take advantage of that overwhelmingly unselfish approach, which could prevent him from being aggressive when necessary.
“You have to take away something,” the Western Conference assistant coach said. “Might as well take away his teammates cutting, because if he is passing and finding his teammates and scoring 30, you’re in trouble.”
That strategy is becoming outdated. Jokic is looking for his shot more this season, especially when the Nuggets have been short-handed because of injury. During a mid-January stretch in which opposing defenses tried to take away Jokic’s passing lanes, clog the back doors and prevent teammates from cutting, he adjusted — upping his scoring average while going nine straight games without reaching double digits in assists.
“I think they are trying to make me a little bit more of a scorer,” Jokic said. “Sometimes the guy is just there, he’s not even digging, he is just like kind of [standing] in the driving lane.”
Jokic has increased his scoring average by 7.4 points per game, the fourth-largest increase by any player over last season, according to ESPN Stats & Info research.
“His teammates said, ‘Hey, sometimes your unselfishness can be selfish,'” Connelly said. “Because [he’s] so effective as a scorer.”
Teams have tried it all, sending help from different directions and in different sizes of defenders. Others have tried getting physical with Jokic. No center has been doubled more outside of Embiid this season, according to Second Spectrum. But Jokic has stayed aggressive, burying 55.6% of shots when contested, which ranks eighth out of 212 players with a minimum of 100 attempts. That is up from 51.8% last season. That aggression hasn’t compromised Jokic’s shooting — his true shooting percentage is up to 65.5% this season from 60.5% last season — making his passing and other aspects of his game even deadlier.
On Tuesday, Jokic collected his 50th career triple-double with 37 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds in a 128-97 over Milwaukee to become only the second center ever behind Chamberlain (78) to reach 50 career triple-doubles according to ESPN Stats and Info research.
“There is really nothing they can do,” Nuggets forward Will Barton said. “He can shoot the 3. He has post moves. Finishes around the rim. Has touch shots. Can bring the ball up. Midrange game. Face-up. To be honest with you, it is really up to him every night. You can’t stop him.”
AT THE START of training camp, Jokic held his hand up on a Zoom call with reporters to show his newest prized possession, only to realize his wedding band was still tied to his shoelaces.
During the shortest offseason in NBA history, Jokic recharged back home in Serbia and got married, wedding his longtime girlfriend Natalija Macesic in a small ceremony. Video from the union made its way onto the internet showing Jokic, in a sharp blue suit, showing off his dance moves with his new bride.
After the Nuggets stunned the Clippers in the bubble to win the Western Conference semifinals last season, Jokic celebrated with the rest of the team into the early morning at an outdoor restaurant at the team hotel. He taught other Nuggets some Serbian dance moves, locking arms with team members in a group and putting two feet in, then two feet out.
At 26, Jokic is in peak rhythm on and off the court. After growing up in Serbia guzzling three liters of Coke a day, Jokic now is in the best shape of his life. He has extra spring in his step, dunking 20 times so far this season after a total of just 15 jams all of last season. And if there is ever any doubt about his fitness, Jokic is logging a career-high 35.9 minutes a game, nearly four more than his previous career high.
“The Magic Johnsons, Larry Birds, those guys were always coming back with something new in his game,” Denver head coach Michael Malone said. “Nikola, it is not necessarily a new shot or a new move. It is continuing to stay in great shape.”
Jokic has also taken on the responsibility of being the team’s leader and trying to set an example with not only his play but also his actions. That evolution will be key in his MVP push, as he spends the second half of the season working to get the 20-15 Nuggets higher in the West standings.
During a 125-112 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks, Jokic confronted Michael Porter Jr. during and after the game about his poor shot selection.
“He has taken a step from past years, just being more vocal and just taking that leadership,” said point guard Monte Morris, who has played with Jokic for the past four seasons. “I am glad he took what he did in the bubble and showing everybody that he continues to get better.”
Once Malone finishes addressing the team after every game in the locker room, Jokic immediately goes to the weight room to work out. Half the team typically joins.
“I definitely think there is a motivation that we have unfinished business,” Malone said. “That Nikola has unfinished business.”
Connelly no longer has to wonder where all those cool passes are. Jokic is now dishing the kind of passes that — combined with a few winning streaks — might lead to an MVP trophy.
“He’s a guy who has taken such an atypical path to superstardom,” Connelly said. “I think he is now realizing how good he is and how much he impacts the game on all three levels.”