This offseason the Denver Nuggets made it their mission to change the culture of their organization, hiring former Sacramento Kings coach Mike Malone. While Malone didn’t get much of an opportunity in his first coaching stint, having been fired in the midst of his second season, he was able to create a positive atmosphere in the locker room, establishing a strong rapport with star DeMarcus Cousins.
DMC on Michael Malone hiring in Denver: “I was extremely happy. I think he’s one of the better coaches in the league. He’s a great man.”
— Jason Jones (@mr_jasonjones) June 18, 2015
Then the team cut ties with disgruntled point guard Ty Lawson. Though Lawson has consistently been one of the Nuggets most valuable performers, he repeatedly clashed with former coach Brian Shaw and was arrested twice on suspicion of DUI, prompting the team to trade him to the Houston Rockets for roster filler and a protected 2016 first round pick.
Now only two seasons removed from a remarkable 57-win season in 2012-2013, the Nuggets look to begin a new era with a combination of veteran holdovers in Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, and promising young players in Emmanuel Mudiay and European big men Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic.
Taken with the 41st pick in the 2014 draft, Jokic signed a four-year, $5.5 million contract with the Nuggets after averaging 15.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game on 50% shooting for Mega Leks of the Adriatic League, combining production and efficiency to win MVP. and should have a great opportunity to make an immediate impact for two reasons:
- The lack of depth in the Nuggets frontcourt.
- Jokic’s offensive versatility
For better or worse, Jokic doesn’t really have a singular strength on the offensive end, working as a jack-of-all trades, master of none. While Jokic is pretty solid from jumpers to post-ups, it’s his shooting touch that could definitely be his most useful trait to the Nuggets this upcoming season.
Playing with Mega Leks of the Adriatic League, Jokic shot 35 percent from beyond the arc on more than four attempts per game, showcasing a smooth, quick shooting stroke that can easily be replicated. Jokic combines that ability with good mobility, making him an intriguing threat in transition and in half court pick and rolls, where he shot 69 percent on dives to the rim according to Synergy Sports.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Jokic’s skillset is his incredible court vision. Jokic is fantastic at delivering pitch perfect dishes to his teammates from a variety of spots on the court—near the top of the key, from the low or pinch post, and even on long outlets passes. The 6’11” forward does a nice job of quickly recognizing cutters or open perimeter targets. And while sometimes he can get a little overzealous, he usually does a nice job of making the right decisions as evident by his 1.51 assist-to-turnover ratio.
While he doesn’t have a bevy of moves that he’s able to utilize, Jokic is pretty solid in the post, using decent footwork and a solid 253 pound frame to get close to the rim for easy looks via a quick drop step and baby hooks with either hand.
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Defensively is where Jokic could struggle the most with in adjusting to the NBA. As with most rookies and incoming foreign players, the question rests with how he’ll be able to defend against quicker, more athletic players than he’s ever faced in Europe.
Even during his stint with Mega Leks, Jokic had issues defending against cutting opponents, his weak defensive positioning and inability to keep up surrendering easy baskets.
Jokic looks much better when moves closer to the paint. While he isn’t exactly a rim protecting force (averaging .9 blocks in 30 minutes per game), thanks in part to his big frame and lengthy 7’3″ wingspan, Jokic does an amazing job of containing opposing bigs and preventing them from pushing closer to the paint.
The most intriguing aspect of Jokic’s work in defending the post would be his ability to force turnovers, using those long arms to quickly punch the ball out of the hands of the opposing post-up threat on 23 percent of such possessions per Synergy Sports. While it was against European competition, the low PPP (.533 PPP according to Synergy Sports) that opponents averaged against Jokic is a promising sign of his potential value against NBA bigs.
With a lack of depth up front, Jokic should get plenty of opportunities to learn on the job. Among the frontcourt rotation, only Faried averaged more than 20 minutes per game last season. Although it’s expected that Nurkic will exceed that threshold if he can remain healthy, there’s plenty of room in that rotation for Jokic to be an immediate role player for the Nuggets.
Jokic’s offensive skillset could allow him to be a great fit next to Mudiay in pick and roll and transition. As mentioned, Jokic is an incredible outlet passer, looking like a quarterback with how he’s able to deliver incredible passes to guard or wings in perfect stride.
Of course, the primary benefit in the potential Jokic-Mudiay pairing would their work in pick and roll. With a young and inexperienced guard like Mudiay, having multiple versatile big men would become an immediate benefit, opening up driving lanes for Mudiay as he drifts out to the perimeter or giving a big body to target with passes.
Although there still remains questions about how he’ll be able to defend on the NBA level, there’s a lot to like about Nikola Jokic. While Jokic probably won’t turn any heads with the Denver Nuggets, he should be able to fit into a role as a solid offensive weapon for the foreseeable future.