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Nikola Jokić Has Defied the Odds. Now, He’s Setting New Expectations for NBA Centers.

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić attempts a shot during an NBA basketball game.
2020-21 MVP Nikola Jokić | Image via AP/David Zalubowski

On Tuesday night, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić was announced as the MVP of the NBA’s shortened 2020-21 season. Drafted 41st overall in 2014, Jokić became the lowest drafted player in NBA history to win MVP. The next-lowest is two-time winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, selected with the 15th overall pick in 2013. The Nuggets franchise cornerstone played in all 72 regular season games, averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game while converting 56.6% of his field goal attempts and 38.8% of his 3-point attempts.

Jokić became the first center to win MVP since the great Shaquille O’Neal in 2000. He didn’t only win the league’s most prestigious award—he ran away with it. Jokić received 91 out of 101 first-place votes, and for good reason. The Joker made sure the Nuggets would remain in good standing for the playoffs, even after Jamal Murray tore his ACL and Will Barton pulled his hamstring.

It wasn’t just happenstance that it took 21 years for another center to win MVP. With the rise of analytics, offensive strategy in the 21st century NBA has leaned away from mid-range shots and embraced layups and 3-pointers. This emphasis on efficiency began to limit the impact of traditional centers like O’Neal. Watch any Nuggets game this season and take a look at Jokić’s location on the court. You’ll see all sorts of configurations—near the basket, on the baseline, setting a screen, or even bringing the ball up himself like a 6-foot-11 point guard.

This video is nearly 12 minutes of the Joker’s best passes, but simply watching the first few will give you an idea of his on-court wizardry.

Jokić is a shining example of what type of center thrives in today’s NBA: one who can get buckets, both in the paint and behind the arc. One who can box out and grab rebounds. And one who can create open looks for his teammates. Perhaps his most unique trait lies within his uninhibited creativity and craftiness on the court. Jokić isn’t the premier athlete one would expect from the MVP of the NBA, but that certainly does not prevent him from dominating defenders.

Domination was certainly not an outcome expected of Jokić when he was drafted. No scout saw the Serbian as a star, as evidenced by his selection in the middle of the second round in 2014. Daniel O’Brien of Bleacher Report questioned before the draft whether Jokić would survive in an NBA rotation.

“Jokić would probably be the fourth or fifth scoring option when he's in the game, but all that matters is whether he plays efficiently,” O’Brien said. “Unfortunately, his defense will likely prevent him from ever playing 30-plus minutes or starting. However, there's no shame in being a respectable reserve on a winning team in the future.”

Yikes. Of course, hindsight is 20-20, but how were Jokić’s passing skills overlooked? It’s always been an integral part of his game, even when he played in the Adriatic League before being drafted to the NBA. O’Brien also harped on his lack of athleticism, saying “[his] slow-footed tendencies will also hurt his chances to create offense. Even on closeout drives, his slashing will get corralled pretty easily by help defenders, and he won't be able to elevate over upper-echelon defenders.”

I suppose O’Brien got one thing right about Jokić as an NBA player—he’s not a slasher. But in a way, drives have become his strong suit. Jokić is adept at finding the open man off a drive that looks like he’s about to attack the basket. Perhaps the most laughable comment was about his inability to score over NBA defenders. Enter the Sombor Shuffle, a move that resembles the legendary Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway. Feast your eyes upon one of the league’s most confounding yet effective shots.

Watching Nikola Jokić play the game of basketball is an experience like no other. He heaves full-court passes and twirls on his pivot foot like a ballerina. At times, it appears that he has multiple pairs of eyes—give him the ball, and he’ll immediately look to dish it at an angle that only he believes makes sense. While he may not offer elite rim protection like Rudy Gobert or Myles Turner, what Jokić provides for the Nuggets offense cannot be overstated. He’s truly a special player, and being named MVP only scratches the surface of what he can accomplish in the NBA.


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