Denver Nuggets Friday Film Study: Nikola Jokić’s defense

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

The 2019-20 NBA season will mark Nikola Jokić’s fifth season in the league. Jokić quickly established himself as one of the most unique offensive talents in the league and when he was cemented as the Denver Nuggets’ best player, he led the team to new offensive heights through his unique blend of scoring and playmaking from the center position.

Jokić was voted as the All-NBA First Team center as a result of his 2018-19 campaign in which he averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists. For the third consecutive season, the Nuggets had a top-seven offense in the NBA and as a result of a significant jump on the defensive end, they were able to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Jokić’s offensive arsenal and talent is no longer questioned by fans and analysts. The Serbian big man had to convince doubters over his first three seasons that he could not only lead Denver near the top of the offensive ranks, but that the Nuggets could win enough games to be considered a playoff contender.

While Jokić’s offense has received plenty of praise over the past year, the doubts and concerns that grew early in his career have maintained on the defensive side of the ball. In the 24-year-old’s first three seasons in the league, the Nuggets ranked 25th, 29th and 23rd defensively. Last season, as a result of growth from Jokić and a healthier season for Paul Millsap, Denver jumped to 10th on the defensive end. In this week’s film study, we are going to take a closer look at Jokić’s defense, an area in which he has quietly become underrated.

First, we must dispel the notion that big men must provide defense in the form of shot blocking and rim protection. As a result of Jokić being a seven-foot center, the assumption is that his defensive contributions must come from those skills, since nearly every other center contributes in that way.

However, like the former second-round pick’s offensive game, Jokić makes defensive contributions in a fashion more similar to that of a guard or wing player. Most centers don’t average over seven assists per game on offense or act as a primary ball-handler, yet Jokić does just that. On defense, most centers don’t average more steals than blocks and disrupt passing lanes more often than they defend the rim. And yet, Jokić does just that. A center can still be a positive-impact player on defense without blocking a lot of shots or serving as a rim protector.

Denver’s All-Star big man is usually in strong defensive position, which allows him to get a hand on a pass or grab a defensive rebound, which is an underrated aspect of team defense. Just because Jokić doesn’t block shots or defend the rim like most centers doesn’t mean he is a poor defender. Let’s take a closer look at just how Jokić contributes to Denver’s improving defense.

Quick hands and awareness generates steals

Perhaps Jokić’s best skill on defense is his active hands, which, when coupled with an impressive basketball IQ and court awareness, allow him to be a pest in passing lanes and generate plenty of steals. Last season, Jokić ranked second in the league among centers in total deflections, a sign that he is active and engaged defensively when teams are trying to move the ball. Furthermore, Jokić’s 1.4 steals per game ranked third among centers, as his quick hands and good anticipation allowed him to disrupt plenty of offensive actions.

In the play below, the former second-round pick uses his hands and long arms to strip DeMar DeRozan as he went to pass to San Antonio Spurs big man Jakob Poeltl during a drive towards the rim.

In the two plays below against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jokić generated two steals in vastly different fashion. In the first clip, Jokić recognizes what pass Minnesota big man Gorgui Dieng is focused on making, so he reaches in and gets the steal. In the second clip, Andrew Wiggins is looking to get a mid-range shot off but is stripped by Denver’s star center as a result of his anticipation and extended reach.

While Jokić excels in causing turnovers for his opponents in the passing lanes and the crowded paint, he can also use those hands to strip big men on the perimeter if they are sloppy with the ball. That is exactly what he does to Marc Gasol in the clip below.

After watching film of Jokić’s defense, it’s clear a healthy portion of plays that were recorded as blocks could have been logged as steals, given that Jokić will often look to strip an opposing guard or big men when they have the ball down low to the ground. Jokić’s 2.1 steal percentage could have been even higher last season. Nonetheless, it highlights the impact he can have on a team’s ball movement.

Rim protection

Yes, it was discussed earlier that Jokić doesn’t thrive as a traditional rim protector. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t block his fair share of shots around the rim, especially given his height and reach. Jokić only blocked 0.7 shots per game last season, but when he is in the right position around the rim, his reach can impact plenty of shots, especially against smaller guards that can’t use their body to shield him from the shot attempt.

Against the Portland Trail Blazers in the playoffs, Jokić had several key blocks in Game 7 that showed his ability to defend the rim. In the video below, Jokić is credited with four blocks, despite his swat of Damian Lillard’s shot serving more as a strip on his drive to the rim. Regardless, Jokić still presents a size difficulty that most opposing guards and wings struggle to deal with around the rim.

Sure, opposing guards don’t look at Jokić and fear their drives to the rim will result in the ball being swatted to the second row. However, Jokić is usually in the right position (more on that in a moment) on defense and is physical with his seven-foot, 250-pound frame, which can throw off a lot of shot attempts.

Strong defensive positioning and physicality

After his quick hands and anticipation, Jokić’s general basketball IQ and defensive awareness are his next-best traits on defense. There’s no dancing around the fact that the Serbian is a big presence when on the court. He is a seven-foot center with enough weight to more than hold his own against opposing big men that try and post up against him.

As a result, it’s not a surprise Jokić had a lot of success when guarding Spurs All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge in the first round of the playoffs. Over the course of the seven-game series, Jokić held Aldridge to 44.2 percent shooting from the field, which represented a steep drop-off from the 52 percent that San Antonio’s big man shot in the regular season. The seven-time All-Star’s ground-bound style of play that relies on mid-range post-ups played perfectly into Jokić’s hands.

While the first-time All-Star impressed on the defensive end in the playoffs, the advanced metrics have painted a positive picture of Jokić’s defense throughout the four regular seasons that he has played in the NBA. According to Cleaning the Glass, Denver’s defense has been better with Jokić on the floor in all four of his seasons. Jokić’s low foul rate and impressive defensive rebounding are certainly key reasons for his positive impact on the team’s defense throughout his career. Even though it was a limited sample size in the playoffs, Denver’s defense was 24.2 points per 100 possessions better with Jokić on the floor.

A further look into the advanced statistics also reveal that Jokić has graded out as an above-average defender over the past couple of seasons. The 24-year-old center owns a career +2.7 defensive box plus-minus, while his defensive real plus-minus graded out as +1.95 in 2017-18 and +2.59 in the most recent campaign. Although defensive metrics can certainly be noisy, the combination of the various statistics with the smart and subtle plays that Jokić makes on the court give some credence to their viability when evaluating his defense.

While his physical style of play certainly helps him on defense, Jokić also excels at studying an opponent’s offense and reacting to where the ball is on the court in a given position. In the clip below, the 41st pick in the 2014 draft understands that the ball is on the far side of the court, which would make it extremely difficult to make a pass to the opposite corner. As a result, he shifts to the paint to take away DeRozan’s cut to the rim, after which he then recovers back to his primary assignment. Following that, Jokić rotates towards the rim as DeRozan drives toward the basket, which allows him to deflect the pass out of bounds and stifle the possession.

Ultimately, Nikola Jokić’s contributions on the defensive end are more typical of those from a guard or wing player. An impressive ability to rack up deflections and steals overshadows any rim protection that the Serbian offers. However, given where the NBA is going with position-less basketball, this notion that big men must be impressive shot-blockers in order to be positive defenders must be etched out of defensive analysis moving forward. The numbers and the film showcase Jokić’s unique ability to be a positive-impact defender for the Denver Nuggets.

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