On Friday, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic took on former teammate Jusuf Nurkic and the Portland Trail Blazers.
After getting manhandled by Nurkic in their first two meetings, Jokic dominated and took over the game, scoring 27 points with nine rebounds and six assists to lead the Nuggets to a 102-85 victory.
“In the past, Nikola had not been as aggressive as he needed to be (against Nurkic),” coach Mike Malone told reporters after the game, per Gina Mizell of The Denver Post. “Tonight, I think he got over a mental block. He went out there and attacked and was so effective all over the floor — scoring, rebounding and playmaking — which is obviously is what makes Nikola the great player that he is.”
“Nikola had great poise,” the coach said. “He embraced the challenge. It was just Nikola Jokic continuing to mature in front of our eyes.”
“I got open shots in the beginning, and then I just keep going just to score,” Jokic explained after the game. “I was aggressive … we shared the ball, so the ball will find me.”
At 17-15, the Nuggets have been one of the most confusing teams so far this season. Some nights, they have looked unstoppable and on others, they’ve looked downright overmatched. Jokic's performance on Friday was a reminder that when he's at his best, not many other centers in the league can stack up against him.
In many ways, this Nuggets season depends completely on whether or not Jokic can turn the corner and become the consistent superstar that Denver is expecting him to become. After breaking out by averaging 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game with 39 double-doubles and six triple-doubles last season, he will need to improve on the 16.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists that he’s currently averaging.
Nikola The Facilitator
In many ways, the addition of high-profile free agent Paul Millsap made the beginning of the season a very odd time for Jokic. After posting back-to-back seven-assist games to start the year, he then had five, zero, five, four and two in the remaining October games trying to fit in alongside his new frontcourt teammate.
In November, Jokic had three games of eight or more assists, but seven games of three or fewer dimes. Therefore, there has seemingly been no consistency with how the team is utilizing him on the offensive end. Recently in December, he has posted between two and six assists in each of his games played.
In February of last season, he averaged 6.3 assists per contest, posting double-digit assist nights three separate times. In March, he averaged 6.2, again having three double-digit nights. He closed the season out by averaging 5.7 per contest in April. Although the team's roster is different, it's still worth mentioning.
There’s a reason why Denver went 6-1 in the games in which Jokic had double-digit assists last season and 27-48 when he didn’t. With elite vision at the top of the key and in the post, Jokic thrives with the ball in his hands and can consistently find the open man. Since Jamal Murray is more a perimeter shooter than a traditional point guard, assigning Jokic more of a responsibility on offense should be something that Coach Malone looks into.
Nikola The Defender
Although he’s far from an elite defender, Jokic has been playing at a higher level on that end of the floor this year. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he has a Defensive Rating of 105, an improvement over his 109 mark last season.
Jokic’s improvement on that end of the floor has not been accidental.
“We’ve made some changes in our coverages, we’ve tried to simplify things, we’ve tried to become a little more aggressive. But the most important factor while we’re a little bit improved is because guys like Nikola (Jokić), guys like Will (Barton) and guys like Jamal (Murray) have really committed and bought in to playing on that end of the floor; accepting the challenge. To be a better defensive team, guys have to want to defend, guys have to commit to that. And I think we’re seeing that,” Malone told NBA.com in mid-November.
At that time, Christopher Dempsey of NBA.com explained the metrics behind Jokic’s development on that end of the floor.
“This is about Jokić’s increased activity on the defensive end,” he wrote. “The NBA tracks average speed per game on both offense and defense, and Jokić gets around the defensive side of the ball at 3.70 miles per hour, which is up from 3.64 last season. And before you think the difference is negligible, think again. That extra tenth could be the difference between getting a block or not or getting a good hand up to contest the shot or not… Playing up in screen-rolls more is getting Jokić in the action more, and he’s got quick hands. He’s getting more hands on the ball this season. His deflections are up. His steal rate per 100 possessions has increased from 1.4 last season to 2.4 this season.”
Merely looking on box scores won’t indicate any of that. Those numbers indicate that he's a changed man on that end of the floor.
Nikola The Scorer
Perhaps the most confusing part of Jokic’s game is his scoring ability.
On October 21, he went 0-for-3 shooting with no points in a 96-79 victory over the Sacramento Kings.
Just a few weeks later on November 7, he dropped 41 points in a 112-104 victory over the Brooklyn Nets, going 16-of-25 from the floor, including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc.
There was a bit of a difference between the two outputs. In the first example, Jokic was essentially complacent on the offensive end of the court and failed to make any impact. In the second example, he was the center of the offense, as he caught fire and attacked at a high rate.
What makes Jokic unlike any other big man in the league is his elite passing skills that in many ways resemble a point guard. However, if he wants to take the next level, he will have to figure out how to stay involved consistently on the offensive end and pick and choose when to be aggressive in high-percentage situations.
If Jokic can put it all together, the Nuggets could be a surprising playoff team in the loaded Western Conference. With a young core around him and with Millsap most likely slated to return sometime in February, Jokic has the potential to be the face of a talented and deep roster.