I’ll just admit this up front, I’m a Nikola Jokic apologist. He’s by far my favorite player and I’ve loved his style of play from the moment I watched the few grainy clips of him in that pink jersey on draft night 2014. Even that early in his career, his instincts and basketball IQ stood out and it became clear that he had the brain for the NBA, what was much less of a sure thing was whether he’d even have the body for the NBA.
Fast-forward 4 years and not only does he have an NBA body (barely), but he’s become one of the most exciting young big men in the game. He’s also quite possibly the most divisive players in the league. NBA twitter can never quite agree about just how good he is and those who love him tend to really love him and those who dislike him really just dislike him because they dislike those hardcore over the top Jokic fans. That said, I think there’s a very reasonable argument to be made that not only is he the best passing big man in the league right now, but there’s an argument that can be made that he’s the best of all time.
The first thing to consider is that being good at passing is more than just getting a lot of assists. Many words have been written about Jokic’s prolific assists and the triple doubles these assists lead to. However, his assist numbers only scratch the surface of his passing skills. Nikola Jokic sees the court like few players ever have. He has the ability to grasp the geometry of the court and where every player is and will be almost instantly. This allows him to attempt passes most players would never consider trying and because of his soft touch they find their mark more often than not.
One of my favorite passes that Jokic makes fairly regularly is a give and go with his guards. The best way I know how to describe it is that he’s essentially throwing a lob pass to a receiver on a fade route and he manages to drop it in right over the defenders shoulder. Or to borrow from yet another sport it often looks like a soccer player lobbing it up over the defense to a streaking teammate trying to avoid an offsides penalty. But really you should just take a look.
He places this ball in a place that only Murray can get to and still manages leave it in the perfect spot for Murray to convert the layup. There’s a running joke in Denver that Jokic is the best quarterback in the city and after seeing passes like this I’m not sure how much of a joke it really is.
It’s not just his vision that makes him such an incredible passer, it’s that he can genuinely orchestrate the offense in a number of different ways. He can post up and look for cracks in the defense as he backs his man down and find cutters or open shooters like this one and the one above:
He can also make plays off the dribble:
Or orchestrate things from the perimeter:
But what really elevates his game is his ability to run the fast break like a guard:
And then of course there’s this insanity:
Jokic makes passes so reminiscent of great passers throughout the history of the league, yet knowing what we know about his personality, I find it unlikely he’s sat down and studied them. He just has a natural basketball instinct that allows him to make unbelievable plays. He’s got the low post passing skills of Bill Walton, the off the dribble passing skills of Wilt, the outlet passing of a Kevin Love, and runs the break more like Steve Nash than any other big I’ve seen run it.
Not only does he pass with style and skill, he places the passes right where they need to be in order to give his teammates a good chance to score and this shows up in a big way in the stats.
Nikola Jokic stats:
1. Nuggets shot 65.1% when his passes led to shooting attempts that, if made, would've registered as assists.
2. Nuggets not named Jokic shot 47.3% with him on the floor.
3. Nuggets not named Jokic shot 42.6% when he was on the floor but didn't set them up. pic.twitter.com/SsyD8cddrk
— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) August 21, 2018
Good passers make the right pass at the right time. Great passers make the right pass at the right time and put the ball in the right spot. Elite passers create an open shot out of nothing and put the ball in the right spot. Jokic belongs in that third group and it’s not a very large group.