Nikola Jokić’s first playoff experience stacks up to those of the all-time greats
Throughout the Denver Nuggets’ 2019 playoff run, an overarching theme was that Nikola Jokić established himself as a go-to scorer and leader of a Western Conference contender. Despite putting up impressive numbers in each of the past two seasons, Denver had missed out on playoff basketball by one game in both years, which limited Jokić’s exposure to a national stage.
With the Nuggets advancing to Game 7 of the conference semifinals, Jokić’s brilliance was on full display for over a month, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. The 24-year-old center finished his first postseason experience with averages of 25.1 points, 13 rebounds and 8.4 assists per game, all while he shot over 50 percent from the field and played nearly 40 minutes per contest. Furthermore, Jokić led the postseason through the end of the conference semifinals in total rebounds, assists, minutes played and two-point field goals made.
Taking a step back, not only did Jokić lead Denver on the most successful season since 2009, but when compared to the first playoff experiences for some of the greatest centers in NBA history, Jokić more than holds his own.
Shaquille O’Neal’s first playoff experience came at 21-years-old and only lasted three games. Robinson first tasted postseason basketball at age 24, when he enjoyed a 10-game playoff experience. Olajuwon made the playoffs in his rookie season at age-22, but like O’Neal, his run was limited to a first-round exit. Finally, Ewing had to wait until his third season in the league to enjoy playoff basketball, but he was promptly sent home after four games. In comparison, Jokić dominated across 14 playoff games in his first postseason experience.
While Jokić’s breakout performance may have surprised fans, his teammates were more than aware of the damage that the Serbian big man can do to a defense.
"He [Jokić] has been doing this all year,” Nuggets forward Paul Millsap said during the second round. “He's showed poise and fought through adversity. He's shown that he can handle whatever a defense throws at him, and that's the most important thing. He's seeing every coverage there is and adjusting on the fly, making the right reads anyways. He's a basketball player. Whatever it is, he'll figure it out."
Of course, what stands out the most from the above table is Jokić’s elite passing. The first-time All-Star big man had 10 or more assists on four different occasions throughout the playoffs as he continuously broke down defenses and adjusted to the double-teams he faced.
"It's amazing. He's [Jokić] a guy that's so calm and cool, very high IQ,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said. “He loves to get everyone involved and always makes the right play. He loves to play the game the way he plays. Very unselfish, makes everyone feel they are part of the offense. It's a lot of fun to play with him.”
Through the conference semifinals, Jokić led the Nuggets to a 113.3 offensive rating, which ranked third among all playoff teams. Jokić was the clear driving force of Denver’s offense and ranked first in touches per game during the playoffs at 125.4. The second-highest number of touches per game was Russell Westbrook’s 95.2.
However, despite the high workload that Jokić shouldered offensively, he made major strides on the defensive end throughout the postseason, especially in the first round.
Against the San Antonio Spurs, Jokić’s strong defense against LaMarcus Aldridge was key in leading the Nuggets to the series victory. San Antonio’s All-Star shot just 45 percent from the field when guarded by Jokić.
"The thing I’m probably most proud of Nikola is his defense,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said during that first-round series. “The commitment, the energy, the pride he’s taking. Whether its pick and roll, or post up, I see a very engaged Nikola Jokić on that end of the floor. Now, it’s not just Nikola the scorer, the playmaker or the rebounder, it’s also the defensive component that he’s bringing to the table. It’s a big sign of growth and it couldn’t have come at a better time."
As the Denver Nuggets work to build on the breakout 2018-19 season, they can be rest assured that Nikola Jokić is the player to lead them moving forward.
"I would say it [Jokić’s playoff performance] has only strengthened my belief that he is a future Hall-of-Famer, All-NBA player and MVP candidate,” Malone added. “Nikola embraces the moment."