Today’s NBA may feature the most talented crop of youngsters the league has seen in decades, or perhaps ever. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Karl-Anthony Towns look to be franchise players. Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, DeAngelo Russell and a bunch of others are budding young stars, or in Porzingis’ case even more. One player in Denver well and truly belongs in the conversation on the best players aged 23 and under – Nikola Jokic.
Many will scoff at this because in his short career, Jokic has struggled to stay out of foul trouble and spent far longer on the bench than he should have done. Let’s get this straight – the biggest slight against a second-round draft pick that has played just 100 or so NBA games is that he fouls too often? The counter to that negativity is to look at what he does when he is on the floor.
Per 36 minutes he ranks 17th in offensive rebounds, 30th in defensive rebounds, 6th in assists (for non-guards), 12th in field goal percentage and 33rd in blocks among players who average more than 20 minutes a game. The catch – he averages just 24.5 minutes per game but has a usage rate of 20.2 and a team-leading player impact estimate of 15.2, good enough for 32nd in the league above players such as Towns, Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry and Eric Bledsoe (among others). The top eight players in PIE are Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Chris Paul, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins so there is no doubting the value of this statistic in an age of numerical saturation.
Put simply, when Jokic is on the floor he is really, really good and often the best player out there. And there are more than just stats to back this up…
Reminder – this kid is 21 years old, was taken in the second round and only plays 24 minutes a game but when he does he is a difference maker! In his (standard) 24 minutes against the Warriors this week he tallied 21 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists and a steal. In games where he has played more than 25 minutes, which is just 13 games this season, he averages 17.7 points, 9.9 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game. Since 4th December he has passed 10 points in all but three (of 14) games and thrown in 9.0 rebounds for good measure while tallying five or more assists in 8 of those games. Throw in the fact he is shooting at better than 60% from the field and Denver have failed to top 100 points in just two of those games and you see how critical he is to this team.
Granted, his defence is not yet great and his defensive rating reflects that – he has the 51st worst defensive rating of any players who play more than 25 minutes a game. However, he has six Nuggets teammates with a worse rating than him so to blame him for being a one-way player would be naïve – the Nuggets concede the fourth-most points per game at 110.5 and the fact that Jokic is their franchise cornerstone means that they must be active on the trade market.
Furthermore, coach Michael Malone seems intent on downplaying Jokic’s role and has referred to him as a role player – this is either a classic case of relieving the pressure valve on a young stud or pure stupidity that will cost Malone his job. The NBA is a star league and coaches need quality to succeed; Jokic is a budding superstar who may well be Malone’s meal ticket to avoid another inglorious sacking. In the last month, the penny has dropped for Malone who has publicly admitted the error in his ways insofar as not starting Jokic.
But back to the case in point - if you are a below average defender you must be elite offensively (see Harden, James and Westbrook, Russell) and Jokic is just that - not as a pure scorer but as a 6’11” facilitator. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he averaged 18 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists a game if he played 30 minutes a game – rather, that would be the expected output for such a natural talent. He will develop into a better defender as his conditioning improves (check out this great read by Zach Lowe http://www.espn.com.au/nba/story/_/id/18400852/zach-lowe-qa-nikola-jokic-denver-nuggets-more-nba , and it’s fair to say that professionalism doesn’t come naturally to this kid) and one would expect that someone with his natural skills will be an above-average defender within the next 2-3 years. Until then, the Nuggets need to pair an elite defender will Jokic who is so versatile he could play power forward or centre.
The Nuggets sit just a game and half back of the eighth seed and quite frankly have a logjam of players and not enough minutes to go around. Word is that they are looking to make a move to catch a big fish, but with the way their young Serbian star is developing they may be better off getting someone who complements him such as Paul Millsap and putting the fate of the franchise in the hands of the man they call the ‘Joker’. Antetokounmpo and Towns are elite youngsters and well and already making an impression on the league and neither Milwaukee or Minnesota would answer the phone to a trade request, but Denver wouldn’t trade Jokic for any of the other under 23 youngsters in the league (yep, including Embiid and Porzingis) and rightly so.