2017-18 Nuggets Player Breakdown: Nikola Jokić
The Nuggets view, through a Nikola Jokić lens…
When Nikola Jokić:
- Scored at least 25 points, the Nuggets were 10-6.
- Had a double-double, the Nuggets were 27-11.
- Had a triple-double, the Nuggets were 9-1.
- Had 10 or more assists, the Nuggets were 11-2.
- Played 35 or more minutes, the Nuggets were 15-11.
- Made 2 or more 3-pointers in a game, the Nuggets were 18-12.
No matter how you sliced it, Jokić’s production meant Nuggets victories. The team’s starting center was a scorer, a rebounder, and a playmaker with career-high averages of 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists. And yet, he never cared about the scoring more than he did the playmaking. His assists average put him in the top 15 in the NBA -- for any player. And as long as the result was a victory, Jokić brushed off his final point total more easily than many in the media that surrounded him after each game could. It was a more mature approach from a 23-year old than some of those who covered him.
And it was pure Jokić.
Team success, for him, was held above all else. And it didn’t mean at times he didn’t need a pep talk to keep him being as productive as possible. In the May edition of Nuggets 360 with Coach Michael Malone on Altitude Sports, the coach recounted a conversation he had with Jokić late in the season after there were some snags following the reimplementation of Paul Millsap – who had missed 44 straight games – back into the lineup.
“You could see that Nikola was deflecting,” Malone said. “He was not being aggressive. I had many one-on-one conversations with Nikola this year, and I grabbed him in my office after we lost to Dallas on the road, and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ I said you look like you’re just out there, not going through the motions, because that would be unfair; but not being aggressive. Not playing the way Nikola had been playing for 44 games. And once I told him, ‘Look, you’re our best player. I don’t want you deflecting to anybody. I want you to be aggressive. And for Nikola, being aggressive is not always just scoring, it’s playmaking, getting to the foul line, and rebounding.
“And I thought, once we had that conversation, you saw Nikola say, ‘You know what? I have to be that guy. I can’t worry about Paul or Gary (Harris) or Will (Barton) or Jamal (Murray), or anybody. I have to play my game.’ Once did that, he was phenomenal.”
Jokić settled into a groove, put the Nuggets on his back and nearly led them to the playoffs. From that conversation after the Dallas game on March 6 to the end of the season Jokić was on fire. In the final 18 games of the season he averaged an eye-popping 24.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. The Nuggets went 8-3 in the last 11, and 6-1 in the final seven. Jokić was the rock that the team counted on each and every night, and he delivered.
OFFENSE: As has been his track record, Jokić rated high in nearly every type of offensive action. He averaged over a point per possession in pick-and-roll, spot-up shooting, cuts, offensive rebound put backs, and in isolation. Jokić was in the top 10 percent of the NBA in spot-ups, put backs and isolation.
He shot at least 44 percent in post-ups (44.1), pick-and-roll (48), spot-ups (44.7), cuts (58.7), offensive rebound put backs (67.4), isolations (58.5) and off-screens (50). When assists are factored in, Jokić’s 1.36 points per possession ranked in the top 10 percent of the NBA, according to Synergy stats.
He was just a devastating offensive player. And yet, he can get better. Because his jump shot is so reliable, Jokić leaned on it a lot, especially toward the end of the season when it was dropping at an extremely high rate.
Yet, he was more effective in the paint, shooting 58.6 percent in attempts from eight feet or less. So, more rolls to the basket in screen-roll plays could be in order next season. And in post ups, Jokić still has growth in his footwork, his strength, his poise in finishing through contact, and concentration in finishing layups off of quick moves to the rim. It’s not unrealistic that he could boost his post-up shooting percentage from 44.1 percent this season to at least 50 percent next season.
DEFENSE: Coach Michael Malone noted Jokić’s progress made on the defensive end, year-over-year, calling him a much more “committed” defender this season. And Jokić did make strides over the course of the season. Yet, opponents continued to test him out in the area that was most challenging – pick-and-roll defense.
In an NBA where offenses are increasingly spread, Jokić, a center, faced this stunning stat: Defending post-ups was his THIRD-most defended action. Third.
Pick-and-roll was first, by a mile. Jokić was put in those situations 50.5 percent of the time. Second, was defending spot-up attempts – at a “mere” 17.9 percent of the time. Defending post-ups was a distant third at 10.4 percent. Jokić can likely expect a repeat of that next season, and having to defend pick-and-roll will only decrease as he continues to improve in defending that action.
His hustle stats were high. Jokić averaged a career-high 1.2 steals per game. He was second on the team in average deflections (2.4), led the team in contested two-point shots (9.5), was third in contested 3-point shots (3.0), and led the Nuggets in total contested shots per game (12.6). Simply, his activity level on the defensive end was high.
Where does it all go from here?
“To get better, of course,” Jokić said. “I think I did a really good job last summer of working on my body. I had really nice rest; improving on my skills. So, just to keep going and to be consistent.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.