Why Nikola Jokić Is the Best Center in the NBA

Isaiah J. Downing – USA Today

Over the past couple of years, the conversation over the best center in the NBA mostly consisted of two young stars: Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. The praise wasn’t undeserved for either player — Towns averaged 25 points per game in his second season for the Minnesota Timberwolves, while Embiid has scored an average of over 27 points per game this year while also offering elite interior defense for the Philadelphia 76ers. There isn’t a general manager in the league that wouldn’t love to have either of these players on their squad. However, the most recent NBA season has made it clear that neither of the two young stars deserve to be known as the league’s best center. In reality, this title solely belongs to Nikola Jokic.

In the past NBA season, we saw some elite centers fail to meet expectations. Embiid came up short for the 76ers in the postseason, scoring a mere 17.6 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 42.4% in a seven-game series loss against the Toronto Raptors. The Timberwolves were unable to even make the playoffs as Towns’ scoring efficiency, the most important facet of his game, dropped significantly from an effective field goal percentage of 59.6% to 57.2%, a worrying regression for a young player who should be improving. Meanwhile, Jokic simply flourished. The Denver Nuggets’ star player didn’t just meet expectations — he crushed them.

After the 2017-18 season in which Jokic averaged a stat line of 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists per game, it was clear that the young Serbian was special. Only three other players had ever averaged such a stat line over an entire season: Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Russell Westbrook. That’s very impressive on its own, but the more impressive fact may be that Jokic averaged more assists per game in a season than any center other than Wilt Chamberlain. Jokic did it before his 23rd birthday — Wilt didn’t do it until he was 30 years old. In short, it was already clear that Jokic had the potential to be the greatest passing big man of all time after his third season.

Of course, Jokic isn’t the type of person to be satisfied with statistical milestones. The Joker wants to win, and Denver didn’t do enough of that. In the final game of the regular season, the Nuggets traveled to Minnesota to take on Towns and the Timberwolves in what was essentially a play-in game for the eight-seed in the Western Conference. It was a chance for the Nuggets to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2013 season. Jokic thrived, notching 35 points on superb efficiency, but the Nuggets lost in overtime.

How did Jokic respond? He had a great game and a career season. Jokic easily could have continued to play at the same level and nobody would have complained. But no, he did what all legends do — improve.

In the 2018-19 season, Jokic averaged 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game. While the all-around statistical improvement is certainly impressive, the most important part of Jokic’s growth has been the positive impact he has on his team’s chances of winning. The Nuggets bounced back from their heartbreaking elimination last season to win 54 games in the regular season, earning them the second seed in the Western Conference. Suddenly, fans across the league questioned if the Joker would be able to handle physical playoff basketball. In reality, they should have asked if the rest of the league would be able to handle playoff Jokic.

In his first postseason, Jokic surpassed all expectations. Through 14 games, Jokic averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds, and 8.4 assists per game, along with an effective field goal percentage of 54.8% — all improvements over his regular season averages. His advanced stats were even better — as of now, he is leading all players in postseason Win Shares (3.1), Box Plus/Minus (11.9) and Value Over Replacement Player (1.9). Jokic’s incredible postseason performance led the Nuggets to the second round, where they fell in seven games to the Portland Trail Blazers, capping off an incredibly successful season for the eighth-youngest team in NBA playoff history.

Throughout his young career, Jokic has consistently cast off the doubt of critics who don’t think his unique playstyle can consistently translate to success. Though in all honesty, it’s not even completely absurd for people to question Jokic. There’s no player in NBA history who we can compare him to. He basically has the position of point center, always orchestrating the offense when he’s on the floor.

Also, let’s address the elephant in the room — given his chubbiness and the fact that he always looks like he’s about to pass out, Jokic doesn’t exactly look like your prototypical NBA superstar. Of course, that doesn’t matter — he is one.

Nikola Jokic puts up great stats, but so do players like Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid. Why aren’t their stats translating to team success? What makes Jokic special? Well, true superstars make their teammates better, and Jokic does that as well as anybody in the league. On average, Jokic added 2.24% to his teammates’ true shooting percentage this season. That’s a two percent increase to each individual player.

Jokic’s value to the Nuggets offense is simply otherworldly. In fact, the offense literally revolves around him.

Jokic averaged 92.5 touches (number of times a player touches/possesses a ball) per game this year, most in the NBA. Russell Westbrook comes in second at 91.2 touches per game. However, Jokic played fewer minutes per game than most other players who get a lot of touches. Jokic averaged a whopping 106.4 touches per 36 minutes, by far the most in the league (Trae Young comes in at second with 94.7 touches per 36 minutes). A 23-year-old is taking the biggest workload in the NBA for a team that won 54 games. Let that sink in.

So, how exactly are all of these touches correlating to success for the Denver Nuggets? Well, Jokic’s touches are fairly evenly distributed. He’s among the top in elbow touches, post-ups, and paint touches. There’s not one category that he dominates — he gets the ball on every spot of the court and flourishes. Give the Joker the ball and he’ll find you.

Let’s take a look at some of the ways Jokic is able to create open shots for the team.

Everybody has seen those clips of Jokic completing crazy passes to players cutting towards the basket, so there’s no need to beat the dead horse with those. In fact, NBA defenders have also seen those clips and they sometimes over adjust. On multiple occasions, Jokic anticipates an opposing player trying to help on the cut to the basket, which just leaves a man wide-open on the perimeter. Here are a few examples.

Sometimes, a defender plays lazily and makes it extremely easy for Jokic, like what Kyrie Irving did in the first clip. However, DeMarcus Cousins just hesitates for one moment in the third clip, which still provides enough separation for Beasley to drain the shot. There is very little margin for error against Nikola Jokic.

Those were plays where Jokic was primarily looking to pass, not to score. When defenses have to worry about the threat of Jokic scoring, their job becomes even harder. While his claim to fame is his facilitating ability, Jokic just averaged 25 points per game through 14 playoff games — he’s no scoring slouch.

In the first two clips, the defense double teams Jokic, leaving Mason Plumlee wide open for an easy dunk. That’s bad help defense. In the two clips after that, the defense rotates properly to double team Jokic and take away the pass underneath the basket, but they’re not quick enough to react to the wide open player on the perimeter. Once again, it’s an easy find for the Joker.

One change in Jokic’s stats this year is that he is averaging nearly three more elbow touches per game compared to last year. In addition, his assist percentage on these touches has increased by 10% even though his pass percentage has decreased by 8%. Why? Jokic’s field goal percentage off of elbow touches has increased from 45.3% to 56.5%, so it’s possible that his passes are more meaningful (not just dump-offs to the nearest player, but passes that actually create good looks) now due to defenses having to focus more on his threat as a scorer. Or maybe his teammates have just gotten better at hitting their shots. In any case, Jokic’s playmaking efficiency on these elbow touches is one of the highest recorded since the data began to be tracked in 2014.

No player has been as efficient of a passer as Jokic with his volume of elbow touches. A couple of point forwards (LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony) have exhibited great playmaking ability in recent years, but no big man has come close to Jokic’s production.

At this point, it should be pretty clear that Jokic is one of the greatest offensive threats in the league when he has the ball in his hands. However, his offensive prowess extends even further.

Nikola Jokic averaged 4.4 screen assists per 36 minutes this season, the 8th most in the NBA. Why am I mentioning a statistic where Jokic ranks in the lower half of the top-10? I mean, that’s not that great, right? Well, we have to remember that Jokic led the league in touches by a wide margin. He usually has the ball in his hands, so it’s fair to assume that he doesn’t get as many opportunities to rack up screen assists as someone like Rudy Gobert might.

Jokic leads the league in neither regular assists nor screen assists, but he does rank number-one in total assists. That’s pretty impressive in its own right. In fact, Jokic’s 12.8 total assists per 36 minutes this season is the most by a single player since screen assists began to be tracked (2016-17). It’s even the second-most if you don’t adjust for minutes played, although we’ll take a look at the per 36 numbers.

At the top left, you find less versatile (but still excellent, of course) big men like Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Jordan. At the bottom right, you obviously see ball-handling guards who are usually the ones getting assisted on screens, not the ones doing the assisting. Finally, in the center, there is … Nikola Jokic.

Finally, let’s address the most common knock on Jokic’s game: his defense.

I’m not gonna act like all of the criticism is completely unwarranted and Jokic is actually the best defender in the league. In fact, a lot of the criticism has been warranted.

Based on our expected effective field goal percentage statistics, Jokic allowed an eFG% 4.68% higher than expected in the 2017-18 season. What does this mean? If a league-average player replaced Jokic defensively, they would have allowed an eFG% 4.68% lower than Jokic. In the 2016-17 season, he allowed an eFG% 3.72% higher than expected. That’s extremely bad. In the two previous seasons, Jokic was a significantly below-average defensive player.

This year, however, Jokic has taken a huge leap on the defensive side of the ball.

Jokic allowed an eFG% of 52.73%, a decent bit lower than expectation (53.79%). While he isn’t in the tier of elite rim-protectors like McGee, Gobert, Nurkic, Turner, and Favors, Jokic is still in a very respectable tier of above-average defenders. The above graph shows all the players who faced at least 900 shots, and Jokic has distanced himself away from the expectation curve. There’s still room for improvement, but he’s not even close to a defensive liability.

To answer the question concisely, Nikola Jokic is the best center in the NBA because he directly makes his teammates better and consistently leads his team to success. The future is bright for the Denver Nuggets. If the 22-year-old Jamal Murray lives up to his potential of becoming a consistently elite scorer in the NBA, the Nuggets could have the league’s best big man/guard combo since Shaq/Kobe. If that’s not a reason for optimism, I don’t know what is.

Jokic deserves to finish 3rd in MVP voting this year and he’s shown gradual improvement every season since he’s entered the league. The sky is the limit for Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets.

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