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Denver Nuggets Nikola Jokic deserves to be in Rookie of the Year discussions

Harrison Wind Avatar
December 27, 2015


After posting a cool 22 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists in just over 26 minutes of playing time last night against the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets rookie Nikola Jokic has officially entered his name into the Rookie of the Year arena.

In fact, if you haven’t been paying attention, Jokic has been doing this for quite a while. Over his last eight games, the rookie has seen his playing time upped to 23.6 minutes per game and averaged 13.0 points, 6.9 rebounds 2.6 assists and half a block during that stretch.

When comparing Jokic to other Rookie of the Year contenders like Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzinigs and Jahlil Okafor, the Serbian’s stat line doesn’t stand a chance. He’s averaging just 18.7 minutes on the season compared to Towns’ 28.7, Porzingis’ 27.5 and Okafor’s 32.2, so his numbers aren’t going to look nearly as impressive. Even D’Angelo Russell, who’s coach has been chided for not giving the No. 2 overall pick consistent playing time is averaging 28.1 minutes per game, nearly 10 more per game than Jokic.

However, if you look at how the top rookies are performing when their stats and +/- are expanded over a per 48 minute basis, Jokic belongs among that first tier.


Even with the gradual spike in minutes, Jokic’s time spent on the court is still a ways behind the league’s top rookies, simply because expectations weren’t as high coming into the season for the 2014 second-round pick.

“Will he got a lot of minutes this year?” coach Michael Malone pondered at media day. “[That] may be tough because he we have a number of bigs in front of him. We talk about playing small at times, but we’re going to try and get him as many minutes as possible.”

As the season has gone on, Malone, his staff and the rest of the league have recognized Jokic’s potential. Malone is slowly allocating him more minutes and the rookie could vault into the starting lineup sooner rather than later, with last year’s starting center Jusuf Nurkic still working himself back into playing shape after offseason knee surgery. 

The increase in minutes isn’t due to injury or because Denver recognized they’re in a rebuilding year and want to develop their young talent and potential foundation for the future. A portion of that is true, but Jokic has earned these minutes because of how quickly he has adapted to NBA play and how much he’s improved as the season has progressed.

A reliable post game

Jokic is become more comfortable going after guys in post up situations like he showed last night against a fellow Serbian, 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic who is five years Jokic’s elder.

Touch as soft as sheep’s skin

Jokic will never have the athleticism of Towns or Porzingis, but he’s also shown an uncanny touch in the restricted area that he effectively uses as a weapon when rolling to the rim.

But at times his lack of athleticism does hinder his post game, especially against bigger opponents.

Stretching the defense

Jokic also has a three ball in his arsenal, but was shy from beyond the arc to start the season. That reluctancy may have had to do with Jokic or Malone could have had the stranglehold on the rookie launching from deep — and Malone has discussed wanting to bring Jokic’s offensive game along in segments. After attempting just seven threes in his first 22 games, Jokic has gone 3-9 from three over the course of his last six, where his minutes have increased.

His ability to stretch the floor may actually give the potent pairing with paint-tied Kenneth Faried potential to work in the future. Jokic at the five and Faried at the four is a formidable modern-day NBA front court.

Developing a defensive presence 

Jokic is allowing opponents to shoot 50.4 percent from the rim, according to NBA.com/stats, which puts him securely in a tier with: Dwight Howard, Clint Capela, Roy Hibbert, Zaza Pachulia and Joakim Noah, and slightly behind Towns and Porzingis. Nylon Calculus’ rim protection statistic puts Jokic in a similar defensive standing as well.

Here’s Jokic admirably defending a Spurs pick and roll last night.

However, Jokic is still rail thin. When the rookie came to the Nuggets this past summer he lost 30 pounds in just three months. He cut out soda and was eating six meals a day consisting of salmon, yams, chicken, steak, salad and eggs. Jokic is still rail thin, compared to NBA standards, and as he spends more time in the weight room he will get stronger and has a body that should be able to put that weight back on, except in the form of muscle.

Jokic’s defense has been the rookie’s weakness. He’s simply too thin and inexpereicend to defend a lot of rim protecting, physical fives and frequently gets caught way behind and gets buried under the hoop by the likes of Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, and Towns to name a few.

Yet, when Jokic is on the court the Nuggets allow a respectable 99.2 points per 100 possessions to 109.1 points when he’s on the bench. The bulk of Jokic’s minutes coming against opposing teams’ second units and late in blowouts may have skewed that margin slightly.

20-20 vision

Jokic’s ability to pass the ball is something that was well-advertised in his scouting report, but seeing it in action is something else. Imaging entering the ball to Jokic at the high post and feeding cutters and swinging the ball from one side of the floor to another isn’t a stretch at all.


Jokic will never get the media attention that Porzingis does in New York, or post the offensive numbers that Okafor does – as the sole focal point and conductor of the 76ers offense. He’s also flat out not as good as Towns, who is currently the leader in the house for the award. Yet, if Jokic continues to see his minutes increase, his production should come close to his fellow rookies at the head of the class.

The Serbian’s skill set was evident during Las Vegas Summer League where we were first introduced to the Nuggets newest European import (Denver has five Europeans on their roster), but it’s becoming more clear, game by game, that his ceiling may be right up there with fellow rookie Emmanuel Mudiay‘s.

As Jokic receives more playing time, he will begin to knock down the figurative walls surrounding the box his coaching staff put him in. That box isn’t meant to demean Malone and his staff in any way, but simply to represent the rawness of a rookie who has played only 27 games in his NBA career and the desire of a staff to not throw too much at him too quickly.

When the calendar is flipped to 2016 and the season continues to evolve and proceed towards the playoffs, those walls surrounding Jokic’s game will crumble little by little and the full extent of what he can do will be revealed.

Stay tuned.


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