It is no doubt that the center position has been under heavy scrutiny since the NBA made a shift to an outside shooting league. Many players coming in from college who played a traditional role at the 5 have either had to remold their game to suit the new league standard, or flat out fell apart because they couldn’t adapt. Players like Jahlil Okafor come to mind when one thinks of big men who had a bright future, but their lack of skill set and adaptability to the faster shooting league left their careers in the dust. Although traditional big men are still very much around today like the Jarrett Allen and Andre Drummond’s of the world, a new kind of big man has taken the league by storm. In fact, the two favorites to win the MVP this year both play the 5 and would be the first since Shaq in 2000 to win the prestigious award at the center position. So who exactly is this guy who revolutionized the center position and set the bar high for anyone coming into the league? Nikola Jokic.
The 26 year old Serbian national was not the biggest star when he was drafted. Picked up as the 41st pick in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft, the “Joker” was an unathletic big man who loved junk food but played the game well. He left the Serbian league to pursue NBA dreams after averaging over 15 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists en route to a league MVP in the Adriatic League (ABA). In the summer of 2015, a whole season after he was drafted, Jokic officially signed with the Nuggets. He averaged over 8 points and 6 boards in 5 summer league games before he signed with Denver, and before his legend was created. He was addicted to Coca-Cola and junk food but made nutrition a priority as soon as he got to the NBA. He quickly lost weight (Pictured below) and adapted to the league with his scoring, playmaking, and floor spacing. Everyone knew he could potentially be something, but no one expected him to mature his game and dominate the league.
He Can Score and Create With Ease
When it comes to scoring, Nikola Jokic has averaged more points per game after each season, and this season he has doubled that of what he scored in his rookie year. This season, he is averaging a career high 27 points a game on 56% shooting. He is still a big man meaning he can still impose his will in the paint. This season, he is averaging a bit over 14 points in the paint which ranks 3rd in the NBA and is 6 points away from what Shaq averaged in his 2000 MVP run. If he’s not getting it on the inside, he can shoot on the outside too. He ranks 3rd among centers in 3 point percentage shooting just under the 40% mark from deep. In fact, he has a better 3 point percentage than players like Bradley Beal, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, and Devin Booker, to name a few. He also ranks 3rd in offensive rating for players averaging over 30 minutes a game, sitting behind former MVP Kevin Durant and former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. He is also shooting free throws at a higher percentage than before (around 86% this year) which ranks first amomg all centers. Not only has his scoring improved, so has his ability to create offense. He ranks first among centers and 6th overall when it comes to assists per game at 8.4. He has quadrupled his production compared to his rookie season and has increased his assist totals each season he’s been in the league, much like his shooting numbers. He is such a natural passer and makes ridiculous highlight-reel type plays game in and game out, like these …
Not only is the Joker absolutely killing it on offense, he has improved immensely on his rebounding and his pick pocketing ability. This season, Jokic has seen a career high in rebounds (around 11 a game) and steals as well (1.3 average). His shooting and passing isn’t the only thing improving, it’s every aspect of his game. He’s bumping up his production at just about every level on a seasonal basis and he has finally been given the attention and respect he deserves.
His Play Has Elevated the Nuggets
Denver lost its star PG, Jamal Murray, to an ACL injury in early April. Since then, however, Denver has been 11-4 in the 15 games without Murray and that’s thanks to the play of Jokic affecting everyone around him. The Nuggets ranks 4th in assists as a team with around 27 a game (around 8 of those come from Jokic alone). They also rank 3rd in field goal percentage at 48.6% which is easy when players like Jokic find open teammates or takes it to the paint himself. These rankings land Denver in the top 6 in team offensive efficiency, which has been the story for the Nuggets since 2016, the year Nikola started playing a lot more minutes and starting a lot more games. It is a team sport, of course, but to overlook the impact and improvement the “Joker” has made in his game and for his team is ridiculous.
So how exactly has Jokic changed the way we view the center position? He proved big men can adapt to the league and run it. We haven’t seen a big man lead a team or sit at the top of MVP votes since Dwight Howard came in second for MVP votes a decade ago. The paint-bully centers of the past still live on in today’s big men, but the ability to space the floor and create is something many teams yearn for thanks to Jokic. This year alone he ranks second in most triple doubles this season (15), only behind the triple-double king and all-time leader Russell Westbrook. A 7-foot center who can shoot at a high percentage, dominate on the interior, space the floor, pass the ball around, and pick your pocket is the new meta. Jokic could have easily let his weight and his lack of skill at the start of his NBA career define him. Instead, he improved every aspect of his game (and continues to do so every season) and has changed the perception big men have now. No one expected a center to dominate in the current shooting league, but Nikola Jokic has done just that, at an elite level of play. He’s not only this years MVP, he put big men back on the map.