Nikola Jokic has shown the world his classy and elite skill-set during the current NBA playoffs at the most pressurised and toughest stage of the NBA season. Everyone could see the 7ft Serb had potential after coming third in the 2016 rookie of the year award voting but many did not expect Jokic, now 25, to be carrying the Denver Nuggets to a conference final vs a Lebron and AD’s Lakers team. This has led many to believe that Jokic is the best Center in the NBA – and possibly the greatest passing center of all time.
After a triumphant comeback against one of the NBA’s best teams, the LA Clippers lead by last year’s finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, Jokic proved his worth. The heavily-built big man’s unorthodox style of play and elite passing IQ alongside a strong squad including Jamal Murray and co. completed one of the league’s most memorable comebacks ever. The Nuggets became the first team in NBA history to comeback from multiple 3-1 deficits in a single playoff run.
Jokic, growing up in Serbia, played many different sports and did not start with basketball until he was a teenager. This is something that is reflected in his game today: his passing is like that of a water-polo player, the power of a volleyball player and vision of a football (soccer) player. However during the draft, Jokic was looked over – he seemed to have a low ceiling, a player who, from the outside, didn’t look fit, had poor movement and lacked speed and athleticism – it was too much of a gamble for most teams to take him. Jokic fell to the 41st overall pick. What the scouts, media and analysts looked over was his incredible playmaking and offensive ability.
During his time in the playoff bubble this year Jokic has averaged 25.2 points, 10.2 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game all while maintaining a 58.1% eFG% – the NBA average is 51.8%. Despite an extremely awkward, gangly jump shot – Jokic has also averaged 43.9% from beyond the arc. His 7ft 3′ wingspan coupled with his no-look, crafty passing is almost impossible to stop for the teams he has come up against. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Michael Porter Jr.’s off-ball runs are leading to some of the best Jokic highlights to date – over the head, quarterback passes, you name it – Jokic has it in his locker. He goes against the typical mould of an athletic, defensive center that is so popular in today’s NBA, perhaps his success will encourage GM’s and coaches to go for a different type of center in the coming years.
The Joker was too much to handle for the clippers forwards in the 2nd round of the playoffs; although a matchup in this round against Anthony Davis, Javale Mcgee and Dwight Howard – bigger forwards with more of a defensive ability and a bigger offensive threat than that of the clippers, may pose too much of a challenge for Jokic and his Nuggets. Last night, Jokic and co. clawed back a victory to take back a game after two defeats in a row – the series now stands at 2-1. It seems that the Nuggets have benefitted in their last two series from being down and out, being the underdogs – if they were to do it again against a better team in the Lakers it would be truly miraculous albeit not overly surprising with the way that Denver have been playing in the bubble.
Now onto the debate – is Jokic the best center currently playing in the NBA?
Jokic’s main competitor in this widely-debated topic is most definitely the 76er’s 3x all-star Joel Embiid – for the sake of the argument we are counting Anthony Davis as a power forward, only 38% of his minutes were at the center position this year . When fit, Embiid is one of the scariest matchups for any player to come against in the league – with a dominant post game, ability to shoot threes and one of the best defensive skill-sets in the league. Embiid is a better scorer than Jokic – over his career the seven-footer has averaged 23.9 points per game and 28.3 points per 75 possessions, this is fifth in the NBA over the past three seasons.
However, it can be argued that Jokic is a far-more efficient scorer, taking less shots and having a higher field-goal percentage. Some will also argue that Embiid cannot initiate an offense in the way that Jokic does – bringing the ball up from a rebound or running plays as a smaller, more agile point guard would. As for playmaking and passing – Jokic is a step above Embiid – Jokic’s 5.1 assists per game ranks him first all-time among seven foot players. A simple eye test and the tremendous highlights of Jokic’s mesmerising playmaking ability will also show you this.
Defensively, there are a number of centers in the league who’s elite defensive ability trump’s Jokic’s.
Embiid has twice been on the NBA All-defensive second team and finished second in defensive player of the year voting in 2018. The Utah Jazz’s 7ft 1′ Rudy Gobert is a two time NBA defensive player of the year and a four-time NBA all-defensive first team. Gobert also averaged 13.5 rebounds and 2 blocks per game this season compared to Jokic’s 9.7 and 0.6. Gobert’s defensive ability brings him into the conversation of the best center’s in the NBA however in this debate he must be ruled out due to his ability on the offensive end – which is not bad, it must be said, at 15.1 points per game and a 69.3% field goal percentage.
Karl Anthony Towns is also in the conversation – he has one of the best stat lines of any centers in the NBA. This year KAT averaged 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game alongside a 60% eFG.
Yet, Minnesota have not shared the same success as Jokic’s Nuggets – Jokic makes the players around him better with his elegant passing and playmaking ability. The same can not be said of any other center in the league. Jokic is a very special player and is proving this in the bubble – no other center has had the same success as Jokic over the past year.
This is a debate which can be argued in a number of different ways for a number of different players – but Jokic’s success here in the playoffs has reconfirmed to me that Jokic is currently the best center in the NBA.