DENVER — With 47 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a Dec. 19 contest against the Dallas Mavericks, Nikola Jokic hauled in his 15th rebound of the night. After dribbling down the floor, he handed the ball off to Emmanuel Mudiay and watched as his point guard launched a quick three-pointer.
The shot, which would have given Jokic his 10th assist and the first triple-double of his young career, was off target, much to the chagrin of the entire Denver Nuggets bench. But it was ultimately irrelevant since the whole team was able to celebrate the 117-107 win, which made three consecutive victories and served as the latest step in Jokic’s inexorable march toward stardom.
Though he couldn’t get that final dime—and there was no doubt he was aware of the situation, given his postgame admission that Darrell Arthur had clued him in—he still finished with a sensational line: 27 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists on 13-of-17 shooting from the field.
“Maybe. Probably,” he said when asked if it was the best performance of his NBA career. But then he immediately shifted the attention back to the team, focusing exclusively on the success of the homestand. “That [a triple-double] doesn’t really matter. The game is more important than your name.”
While that may be true, Jokic’s name is quickly gaining attention.
The 21-year-old Serbian enjoyed a fantastic rookie season in 2015-16, but it largely flew under the radar, lost in the hype surrounding Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis. Now, it’s impossible to deny just how much he means to the Nuggets. His stock is rising higher than ever, to the point he could fill the superstar void Carmelo Anthony left in the Mile High City after his 2011 exit to the New York Knicks.
At this point, the numbers are undeniable. Jokic’s per-game averages (11.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists) aren’t overwhelming, but the quantifiable impact he has on the proceedings is.
ESPN.com’s real plus/minus has him sitting 27th, sandwiched between two higher-profile names: Anthony Davis and Gordon Hayward. Denver’s net rating increases from minus-8.5 when he sits to 2.5 when he plays. NBA Math shows he’s on pace to join some impressive names by virtue of his two-way ability:
Nikola Jokic is on pace for 154.93 OPA and 54.05 DPS. Here are the only players since 2010 to match or exceed those totals: pic.twitter.com/6GtDVnaKod
— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) December 20, 2016
But the numbers also worked in his favor last year. What’s different, aside from his ability to prove those first-season marks weren’t a fluke?
For the first time, the Nuggets are demonstrating a consistent willingness to play through him. He begins plenty of half-court sets with the ball on the elbows, looking for open cutters before a guard curls around to receive a handoff.
“He’s a hell of a player, and when we play through him, good things happen,” head coach Mike Malone stated after the victory over Dallas.
It’s easy to focus on the glamorous elements of Jokic’s game. He’s a solid and versatile defender who already understands the nuances of positioning, which often take players the better part of a decade to grasp fully. His scoring is also improving as he becomes more comfortable finishing around the basket and lofting up mid-range jumpers.
But it’s the passing ability that’s now taking center stage.
“He’s always had that…” Mike Miller said. “He’s got understanding of the game—those things you can’t teach, you either have or you don’t. He understands those things. He knows his game. He knows what other guys are doing on the floor. It’s something you don’t see very often.”
Already, we’ve seen Jokic display a plethora of creative looks that free his teammates for better shots.
He’s rifled the ball through traffic to a man in the post:
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He’s displayed touch within the half-court game countless times, often lobbing the ball over a defensive front for an easy layup or alley-oop:
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