Film Study: How Nikola Jokic drives Nuggets' offense

All-Star center often dissects foes from the high post and in the key

John Schuhmann

John Schuhmann NBA.com

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Jun 12, 2020 12:17 PM ET

Nikola Jokic's deft passing has helped Denver amass a top-10 offense in 2019-20.

There are other big men -- Domantas Sabonis is one -- who act as the hub of their team's offense. There are other bigs -- Bam Adebayo is one -- with license to bring the ball up the floor.

And there are other bigs -- Marc Gasol is one -- who record assists on more than a quarter of their possessions.

But Nikola Jokic is a unique driver of a top-10 offense. He's all that and his team's leading scorer, one of two players in 2019-20 -- Giannis Antetokounmpo is the other -- who lead their team in points, rebounds and assists per game.

The Denver Nuggets' offense is a half-court offense. They rank 29th in pace, 24th in percentage of possessions that take place in transition (according to Synergy play-type tracking), and 29th in effective field goal percentage in the first six seconds of the shot clock (according to Second Spectrum tracking).

That half-court offense runs through the 7-footer who leads the league in overall touches (97.6), frontcourt touches (57.8), and passes (75.3) per game. Jokic has accounted for 38% of his team's assists while on the floor, easily the highest rate among 58 centers who have played at least 750 minutes.

With their hub generally stationed in the post or at the top of the key, the Nuggets' offense is unusual. League-wide, there's a strong correlation between ball movement and player movement. But the Nuggets (per Second Spectrum) rank seventh in the former (340 passes per 24 minutes of possession), while ranking 26th in the latter (10.7 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession). They pass a lot, but don't move that much, relative to the rest of the league.

Note: The Knicks are the only other team that ranks in the top 10 in ball movement (10th) and in the bottom 10 in player movement (21st).

Sometimes, it looks beautiful. Sometimes, it looks clunky. But, despite their lack of proficiency in transition, the Nuggets rank in the top 10 in offensive efficiency for the fourth straight season. When the league went on hiatus, they ranked ninth, but there are just 0.3 points per 100 possessions separating the fifth-ranked Celtics from the 10th-ranked Blazers.

There are a lot of things a team can do with a 7-footer who scores efficiently -- Jokic's true shooting percentage of 60.4% ranks eighth among the 40 players with a usage rate of 25% or higher -- and is one of the league's best passers. The Nuggets' half-court offense isn't the best in the league, but it's maybe the most interesting, given the size and skills of their Kia MVP candidate.

Handing It Off

Jokic ranks second in the league with 8.2 elbow touches per game, according to Second Spectrum. Those touches are just when he catches the ball near the free throw line, so they don't count times when Jokic dribbles the ball into the high post.

A lot of those elbow touches turn into hand-offs for the Nuggets' guards and wings toward the middle of the floor. According to Synergy, 7.4% of the Nuggets' possessions, the league's second-highest rate, have been handoff possessions.

 
Watch how Nikola Jokic's role in hand-off plays helps the Nuggets.

Play 1. The Nuggets run a "pistol" action to get Luka Doncic switched onto Jamal Murray. Murray flips the ball to Jokic and then takes the hand-off. Doncic can't stay with him and Tim Hardaway Jr. (Murray's original defender) leaves Gary Harris to help in the paint. Murray kicks out to Harris for an open 3. Denver got three identical 3s -- onetwo and three -- taking advantage of that weak-side pinch in the first seven minutes of their Feb. 10 win over the Spurs.

Number to know: 93% of the Nuggets' 3-point attempts, the league's second-highest rate, have been open or wide-open, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Play 2. Don't blink or you'll miss Murray inbounding the ball from the baseline and immediately taking a hand-off from Jokic. Courtney Lee gets caught in the screen and Murray hits a wide-open elbow jumper.

Number to know: For the second straight season, Jokic and Murray are the only pair of teammates with at least 100 assists to each other. The 123 from Jokic to Murray are fourth-most from one player to a single teammate and the 107 from Murray to Jokic are ninth-most.

Play 3. Murray enters to Jokic at the right elbow from a higher angle, so he sets up Hardaway with a two steps to the right before coming back left, taking the hand-off, and draining another jumper over Boban Marjanovic.

Number to know: Murray has attempted 286 pull-up 2-pointers, 10th most in the league, according to Second Spectrum. The 46.5% he's shot on pull-up 2s ranks 17th among 95 players who have attempted at least 100.

Play 4. Harris comes out of the left corner to take the hand-off from Jokic, with the other three Nuggets on the weak side. With Shai Gilgeous-Alexander caught in the screen, Nerlens Noel has to switch onto Harris. He forces a tough shot, but Jokic takes advantage of the resulting mismatch with Gilgeous-Alexander to tip in the miss.

Number to know: Denver has scored 12.3% of its points as second-chance points, which is the league's third-highest rate.

Play 5. On a sideline out-of-bounds play, the Nuggets set up the hand-off by having Murray set a back-screen for Will Barton. (This play sometimes works for a lob.) Terrance Ferguson switches the back-screen, but Gilgeous-Alexander is then a little late to react to the hand-off. Murray gets Gilgeous-Alexander on his hip and then drains his go-to: a right-shoulder turnaround jumper.

Number to know: Murray has taken 42% of his shots between the restricted area and the 3-point line. That's the 39th highest rate among 229 players with at least 300 total field goal attempts. His 46% on those shots ranks 13th among the 95 players who have attempted at least 200. Jokic's 53.4% ranks first.

To The Back Door

Some defenses do not want the ball to get to the middle of the floor, so they try to deny the hand-off going that way. The Nuggets, of course, have a counter. And it results in some of Jokic's most brilliant passes.

 
Watch how Nikola Jokic's backdoor passes help Denver succeed.

Play 1. Murray catches Mychal Mulder leaning and cuts to the basket after feeding Jokic at the high post. Jokic's return feed is a basic bounce pass that you appreciate more when you see the second replay.

Number to know: Fifty-one percent of Jokic's assists have been on baskets in the restricted area. That's the 12th-highest rate among 69 players with at least 200 total assists.

Play 2. Dejounte Murray tries to get between Jamal Murray and Jokic. The Spurs' guard is able to stay attached to Murray on the cut and there doesn't seem to be an angle for Jokic's pass, so he just creates one on the other side of his own defender.

Number to know: Only 48 (39%) of Jokic's 123 assists to Murray have been on buckets in the restricted area.

Play 3. Barton gets Alfonzo McKinnie leaning toward the handoff and Jokic tosses a pass over the defender with one hand.

Number to know: Jokic is one of six players with 70 or more assists to at least three different teammates. In addition to the 123 he has to Murray, he has 78 to Harris and 72 to Barton. Phoenix's Ricky Rubio has 70 or more assists to four different teammates and the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James has 70 or more to five different teammates.

Play 4. Matt Thomas stays with Barton on the back-cut, but Jokic makes him pay for failing to see both his man and the ball. When he turns back toward Jokic, the ball is already in Barton's hands.

Number to know: The Nuggets rank third in assist-turnover ratio (1.94).

In The Post

According to Second Spectrum, Jokic has averaged 8.1 post-ups per game, fifth-most in the league. He's also scored 1.06 points per possession on post-ups (per Second Spectrum), the second-best mark among 21 players who have averaged at least 2.5 post-up possessions per game.

The most common way the Nuggets get Jokic into the post is with a back-screen from a guard. It usually doesn't get a switch, but the screen creates space for both Jokic to establish position and for the guy with the ball to make an easier entry pass.

 
Watch how Nikola Jokic's post-up plays have helped Denver.

Play 1. Jokic initiates the play with a pass to Barton on the right wing and Murray comes up from the block to set the back-screen. Jokic takes Noel into the paint, scores and draws a foul, barely leaving the floor.

Number to know: Jokic's free throw rate of 27.7 attempts per 100 shots from the field is down from 30 over the previous two seasons and ranks 77th among 229 players with at least 300 field goal attempts.

Play 2. Two possessions later, Murray calls for Harris to slide up to the wing so they can run the same action. This time, Jokic spins baseline and puts Noel in the blender.

Number to know: Jokic has shot 69.4% in the restricted area, the best mark of his career and the 22nd-best mark among 89 players with at least 200 restricted-area attempts.

Play 3. When you handle the ball yourself, there's no need for an entry pass. Jokic grabs a rebound and dribbles all the way into a post-up against Steven Adams on the other end of the floor, scoring on a drop step.

Number to know: For Jokic, 43.8% of his baskets have been unassisted. That's down from 46.1% last season, but up from 38.5% through his first three seasons.

Play 4. Sometimes, it's Jokic setting the screens that initiate the post-up. This is a play the Nuggets run often where he sets a pin-down screen for Jerami Grant to catch on the wing and then sets a strong-side baseline screen for Harris. That second screen gets Jokic's own man off his body, so that he can establish position in the post. The result is a very Jokic-y shot over Dragan Bender.

Number to know: Only 3% of Jokic's points have been fast break points. That's the third-lowest rate among 265 players who have scored at least 300 total points this season.

Play 5. This is a "hammer" play the Nuggets will run to get a corner 3-pointer in a late-game situation. Jokic gets a back-screen from Harris into a post-up on the right block. Paul Millsap then sets a back-screen for Harris to flare to the left corner as Jokic drives baseline for the hammer pass. Eric Paschall is able to switch out to Harris and run him off the line, though Harris drives past for a layup.

Number to know: Jokic has 448 career assists to Harris, including postseason. That's the most he has to any single teammate, 18 more than he has to Murray.

Role Reversal

Jokic ranks 10th in the league with 4.3 screen assists per game, but the Denver offense really gets fun when he's the screenee (probably not a real word) instead of the screener. This isn't about the back-screens that the Nuggets will often set for Jokic to get position in the low post. This is about Jokic acting as a guard, receiving a ball-screen as a ball handler or coming off a pin-down like a shooter.

 
Watch how Nikola Jokic acts as a guard, receiving a ball-screen as a ball handler.

Play 1. A sideline out-of-bounds play starts as a handoff to Murray, but then has Murray set a pin-down screen for Jokic. With Adams trailing Jokic around the screen, he curls tight to the basket. That draws help from Ferguson and Murray is wide open at the 3-point line.

Number to know: Though Jokic ranks eighth in total assists (446), he's tied for 30th in assists on 3-pointers (127) .

Play 2. Here, the "pistol" action has Harris and Murray setting ball screens for Jokic. The second gets him deep into the paint, where he gathers himself for a short jump hook.

Number to know: Jokic has shot 60.5% on non-restricted-area paint shots, the best mark among 95 players who have attempted at least 100.

Play 3. Jokic is again bringing the ball up the floor himself and gets a high ball screen from Murray. The Clippers, in a role reversal themselves, don't handle it very well. So Jokic steps into a pull-up 3 like he's Stephen Curry.

Number to know: Jokic's 31.4% from 3-point range ranks 124th among 135 players with at least 200 3-point attempts.

Play 4. Another "pistol" action has Monte Morris setting a screen along the left sideline for Jokic. Derrick White tries to poke the ball away, Morris breaks free, and none of the other Spurs make the effort to stop his drive to the rim.

Number to know: The Nuggets rank 27th with 38.9 drives per game.

Play 5. Play of the Year. Nothing else to add.

Number to know: Jokic has averaged just 3.1 drives per game, but the 59.5% he's shot on drives is the best mark among 218 players with at least 50 field goal attempts on drives, according to Second Spectrum.

Straight To The Dime

One advantage to having your best passer also be your leading rebounder and the guy who brings the ball up the floor is if the defense leaves somebody open, no extra action is needed to get him the ball.

 
Watch how Nikola Jokic's long assists have helped the Nuggets.

Play 1. After a rebound, Jokic has his eyes on Harris, but somehow sees Barton running up the floor with only the 6-foot-1 Terry Rozier between him and the basket. The pass ahead is a little high, but still gets Barton a layup.

Number to know: The Nuggets have averaged just 96.9 possessions per 48 minutes with Jokic on the floor. That's the second-lowest on-court pace mark (higher than that of only Rozier) among 226 players who have averaged at least 20 minutes in 25 games or more.

Plays 2, 3. When a Nuggets player contests a 3-pointer, he knows to leak out. Jokic has both the guts and talent to throw 75-foot passes to those guys -- Millsap and Harris in these examples -- on the run. Kyle Lowry sees what's coming in the second example (he's running back before Jokic lets go of the pass), but still can't stop it.

Number to know: The Nuggets' starting lineup -- Murray, Harris, Barton, Millsap and Jokic -- has played 735 minutes, most in the league. It's averaged 19.3 minutes per game, most among 1,401 lineups that have played in at least five games together.

Play 4. The Mavs set up in a zone, but don't account for Morris in the left corner. Jokic tosses a one-handed dime for the corner 3.

Number to know: The Nuggets have scored 1.17 points per possession against zone defenses, according to Synergy play-type tracking. That's the best mark among the 22 teams that have played at least 100 possessions against zone.

A Unique and Reliable Weapon

When Jokic is in the middle of the floor, he's difficult to double-team. Every teammate is one pass away and the Nuggets don't have any non-shooters in their rotation. (Harris was having a rough season offensively, but warmed up after the All-Star break.) He sees over the defense and he sees everything.

If the Nuggets are having issues within their offense, Jokic is an escape valve. His size makes it relatively easy to get him the ball, and he has the ability to make something out of nothing, either as a scorer or as a playmaker.

The Nuggets have the 12th-best effective field goal percentage overall (53.2%), but they rank sixth in eFG% in the last six seconds of the shot clock (45.5%). Jokic ranks seventh in the league with 190 field goal attempts in the last six seconds of the clock, with only LeBron James and five guards ahead of him. Among the 67 players who have attempted at least 100 shots in the last six seconds, only Bradley Beal (48.5%) has a higher field goal percentage on those shots than Jokic (48.4%).

Jokic has also been remarkably clutch late in games. He has shot 49% in the clutch in each of the last two seasons, and since December of 2018, he's a remarkable 11-for-15 on shots to tie or take the lead in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime.

* Clutch = Score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.

Unfortunately, his clutchness hasn't carried over to the postseason. In last year's playoffs, Jokic was 3-for-16 on clutch shots, missing both of his shots for the win in the Nuggets' quadruple-overtime loss in Game 3 of the conference semifinals. The Nuggets outscored the Blazers by 13 points in that series, but were 1-3 in games that were within five in the last five.

The Nuggets are seemingly on a level below that of the Lakers and Clippers in the Western Conference. But they have a high ceiling, and they have a matchup advantage at the center position.

Perhaps, being in better shape will help Jokic in the postseason. The way the Nuggets defend pick-and-rolls, mobility is extra important. Maybe his being a little lighter will make his footwork even tougher to keep up with on defense. Maybe his lack of beef will affect his ability to set screens and create space for his soft shots in the paint.

No matter what, it will be fun to watch.

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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