DENVER — About midway through the third quarter of a game in early April, Nikola Jokic was pushing the ball up the court after grabbing a defensive rebound for the Denver Nuggets.
Right before he reached the midcourt line, he lobbed a perfectly placed pass over the heads of four San Antonio Spurs defenders and into the hands of his teammate under the basket, forward Aaron Gordon, who pushed in the easy layup.
It was the kind of pass that few people in the NBA — and perhaps no other center — could make, and it’s a key reason Jokic, the reigning most valuable player, is again a top candidate to win the award.
Jokic, a 27-year-old Serb, isn’t just an exceptional passer for a center, however. He’s one of the best passers in the NBA and may end up being remembered as one of the best, ever.
Everything in the Denver offense runs through Jokic. He is never the fastest or most athletic player on the floor, but his passing ability is an equalizer. He can find cutters, with or without looking, and he threw more passes than anybody else during the regular season: 5,432, according to the league’s tracking stats, 615 more than the next player. His 42.6 assist percentage — a measure of how many of his teammates’ shots he helped create — was the fourth best during the regular season. It was higher than that for players known for their passing, like Golden State’s Stephen CurryCharlotte’s LaMelo Ball and the Lakers’ Lebron James.
Now, Jokic is facing Curry and his Warriors teammates in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs — and Curry is having a much easier time racking up assists. Golden State has been able to limit Jokic’s effectiveness by swarming him with defenders and cutting off passing lanes. And at times, Jokic has been smothered by Draymond Green, who once won the Defensive Player of the Year Award. Denver is trailing the series two games to none.
But Jokic can also score at an elite level. Because of Jokic’s deft touch around the rim and ability to create for others, Nuggets Coach Michael Malone made Jokic the focal point of the Nuggets’ offense in 2016-17, Jokic’s second NBA season. The year before, the Nuggets were a bottom-tier offense. Since then, the Jokic-quarterbacked Nuggets have been among the best offensive teams every season.
“You have a center that is not only unselfish, but has a tremendously high IQ and takes great pride in making every one of his teammates better,” Malone said.
Even as basketball has become increasingly positionless and best suited for the versatile, Jokic stands out for being a point-center — a big man who can run the offense from anywhere on the court.
Here is a look at some of what he can do.
Late in overtime against the Los Angeles Clippers in January, Jokic was being double-teamed beyond the 3-point line. He rifled a crosscourt pass into the chest of Gordon, who was standing in the opposite corner with two defenders nearby. Gordon hit the game-winning jumper.
It made sense for the Clippers to load up on Jokic’s side of the court, leaving Gordon open in the corner, because it was reasonable to assume no one could make that kind of pass. It required the strength to push the ball into the corner and the precision to make sure it didn’t fly out of bounds or get intercepted. But this is where Jokic being a center makes him different. His 6-foot-11 height gave him an advantage, allowing him to see over the outstretched arms of his defenders and spot the wide-open Gordon.
The Clippers hardly could have defended the Nuggets any better, yet Jokic found an angle to get the ball to his teammate. It was one of the most remarkable passes of the season.
“I think it just puts the defense in an impossible situation, especially when you have guards that can score and take advantage of it,” said Nuggets General Manager Calvin Booth, who was a center in the NBA from 1999 to 2009.
Denver is one of the slower teams in the league, but Jokic can run a fast break. Historically, whenever a center has grabbed a rebound, the ball is immediately thrown to a guard, who decides how to initiate the offense. One reason shorter guards have been tasked with running breaks is they are lower to the ground and less susceptible to having their dribbling disrupted. Jokic is the embodiment of the modern NBA, where more and more centers decide to bring the ball up themselves.
“I’ve just played like that since I’ve known basketball,” Jokic said. “Passing is something I really like to do.”
But Jokic isn’t just any center. During a game against the Sacramento Kings in January, four defenders’ eyes were on him on the break, which allowed forward JaMychal Green to sneak behind the defense. Jokic’s head went one way, suggesting to the defense that he was going to throw a pass to the wing, but he instead threw a no-look pass to Green under the basket. Jokic had to thread the pass between those four defenders perfectly to hit Green in stride without getting the pass deflected.
“People have to understand that he will basically tell you what to do to get an easy basket,” said Vlatko Cancar, a third-year forward for the Nuggets. “That’s how advanced his passing is. He will read the defense, like, three steps ahead of you.”
He added, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a big man that can read the game as a point guard.”
There have been other tall players with excellent passing ability, such as Arvydas Sabonis, the 7-foot-3 Lithuanian center who entered the NBA in his 30s; the 6-foot-9 Celtics forward Larry Bird; and Jokic’s contemporary, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the 6-foot-11 Milwaukee Bucks forward. But no one who plays exclusively at center has shown Jokic’s passing prowess.
A big benefit of Jokic’s passing ability as a center is the Nuggets can initiate offense from anywhere on the floor at any point in the game. Jokic can start a set on the move into the post or he can bring the ball up into the frontcourt. Or he can simply do a traditional set, post up and look over his defender for the best pass. Guards typically set up the offense outside the paint, which makes it easier for set defenses to predict what will happen. It’s rare that a point guard posts up, whereas Jokic is just as dangerous inside and outside the paint.
In a game against Detroit in January, he caught the ball mid-post and threw a pass over his shoulder and behind his head to a cutter for an easy basket. Jokic’s height made it easier for him to get the pass into the middle than it would have been for most other players.
Being such a skilled passer opens up the rest of Jokic’s game, too. It’s much more difficult to double-team him because he can easily find open teammates for easy points.
“Did I teach him to do that? No, I didn’t,” said Dejan Milojevic, who coached Jokic in Serbia, and is now an assistant coach for Golden State.
Milojevic continued: “When we talk about how to teach a big man to pass, yeah, you can teach him the basics of passing and the way that he can pass. When, to whom and at what moment and which way, you can talk about it. But a lot of this is a natural gift that he has.”