NBA Daily: Nikola Jokic’s Breakout Year Is Upon Us

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The center position in today’s NBA is an incredibly interesting topic.

On one hand, the talent there is undeniable. Joel Embiid shows incredible versatility on both ends of the court. Rudy Gobert dominates on the defensive side of the ball. Karl-Anthony Towns spreads the floor on offense. The latest rookie class is chock-full of indisputable potential. And yet, almost daily, we wonder if having a dominant center is even necessary (or helpful) to win a championship.

Take a look at the last couple of championship teams. The Warriors didn’t have any ultra-talented centers. The 2015-16 Cavaliers relied on strong backcourt play and three-point shooting to help them raise the trophy – with a little help from LeBron James. Going back a few more years, we had the San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan as their big man, but he was more of a power forward in the twilight of his career.

So can Nikola Jokic stick out amongst all the great talent at center in today’s NBA and potentially lead his team to the NBA Finals? If his play through so far is an indicator of things to come, it is very clear he’s on the right path.

In their first four games, the Nuggets cruised to a road win against the Los Angeles Clippers, earned an impressive home win against the Warriors and routed both the Suns and Kings. Denver has looked uber-impressive in these victories, but Jokic has looked otherworldly.

Jokic’s per-game averages through four games are 23.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 7 assists and 1.5 steals with only 1.8 turnovers. He’s done all this in just 30 minutes per game.

He’s also boasted splits of 61.2 percent from the field, 50 percent from three and 82.4 percent from the free throw line.

Russel Westbrook is the only player in the league who has kept up with Jokic in those three main categories, but he’s only played in one game. Take away assists and the only centers in the league who have matched Jokic are Embiid and Anthony Davis – and those players play more minutes per game and have a considerably higher usage percentage.

Diving into more advanced statistics, Jokic’s numbers still pop out. The only center in the league that is playing at least as many minutes with a better defensive rating is Marc Gasol.

The only center with at least as many minutes and a better offensive rating is Anthony Davis. Same goes for net rating.

Jokic is leading all centers in assist percentage, and he comes in at sixth for true shooting percentage at 72.7 percent. He also attempts quite a few more threes than the five players ahead of him.

Jokic can score, grab rebounds, and his defense is ever-improving, but it is his passing that sets him apart from the rest. He is second out of all centers in passes made per game at 66 and first in points created from assists at 16. This shows that he isn’t simply passing the ball, but that he’s setting up his teammates with legitimate opportunities to score.

He creates 16 extra points a game simply due to his passing ability. Assists have historically been generated primarily by the backcourt – especially the point guard – so having a center that can facilitate the ball in such a way adds an entirely new dynamic to the offense.

Jokic’s second game of the season against the Phoenix Suns was the stuff of legends. He scored 35 points on 100 percent shooting from the field on 11 shots, in addition to grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out 11 assists to round out the cleanest triple-double since Wilt Chamberlain. Just for fun, he also nabbed four steals and decided to not turn the ball over once. The only blemish was going 10-for-11 from the charity stripe. Jokic won’t have games like this every night, and it’s somewhat important to note that this was against the struggling Suns, but one thing is certain – not many players in the league today can do what Jokic did on that night.

It is not too soon to say that this could be Nikola Jokic’s first year as a Western Conference All-Star. Other elite bigs that he’ll be competing with in the west include Karl Anthony-Towns, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Draymond Green, just to name a few. Looking at the list, the only player that one could say is actually better than Jokic would be Davis. Sure there is plenty of talent there, but to say anyone else on that list is completely superior to Jokic is highly arguable. With Cousins missing significant time before the All-Star break, Jokic could conceivably play his way into the starting five on All-Star night.

Alas, the season is incredibly young, and there is still plenty of time for his game to level out. On the other hand, it is still early on in his bright career, only entering his fourth season. He’s improved his traditional splits season by season in just about every category since he entered the league, so there isn’t really any reason to suspect his numbers won’t continue to improve.

Nuggets head coach Michael Malone seems to be putting Jokic in the best position to succeed defensively. His lack of NBA-level athleticism certainly hurts his ability to protect the rim, but with the right scheme, he’s long enough and has a keen-enough basketball IQ to be a plus on D. If his defense continues to develop as nicely as his offensive game has, he’ll blossom into an elite two-way center – maybe even the best in the league.

This is the year the general NBA fanbase will take note of Jokic’s talents. He has proven in his young career that he’s able to dominate in various advanced statistics, but his almost lethargic approach to the game has kept many average fans at bay. As soon as the Nuggets start to pile up the W’s, Jokic will begin to get the love that he has well-merited for quite some time.

The Nuggets missed out on last year’s field of 16 in the NBA playoffs, so Jokic and company still have a lot to prove. If he continues to perform at this elite-level – night in and night out – Denver not only has a chance to make the playoffs, but to generate significant buzz deep into a postseason run.