Scaletta’s Summer Top 100 is a ranking of returning NBA players. For a full explanation of our methodology, read our intro.
Nikola Jokic had one of the outstanding rookie performances last year for the Denver Nuggets, and it seemingly came out of nowhere. Based on OddSharks’ preseason Rookie of the Year rankings recorded at Heavy.com, Jokic wasn’t even on the board. As things turned out, he finished third and even secured seven second-place votes.
Part of the reason for that was his impressive Real Plus-Minus, which according to ESPN was ninth overall at 6.03, sandwiched between Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. With him assuming a larger role and having more attention from opponents, can he expand on his freshman success?
Jokic was a pretty astounding player last year, and a lot of that was lost because he was playing for a losing team in a small market. That’s a bad combination for getting much publicity. He also didn’t begin the season as a starter. But when you consider his numbers compared with fellow rookies Kristaps Porzingis and Karl Anthony-Towns — both considered franchise players — it’s eye opening. Here are their respective per-100 possession stats:
If Porzingis and Towns are considered franchise players, Jokic should be as well. His numbers and impact are very much on the same level.
What’s working against Jokic is that while Towns and Porzingis are clearly being groomed as franchise players, it’s not as clearly the case with the Nuggets big man. The Nuggets have a young backcourt with Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray who will take a lot of the shots. In addition, there’s a crowded frontcourt which includes Jusuf Nurkic, Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Darrell Arthur. The Nuggets’ recent trade of Joffrey Lauvergne does help a little, but there are still a lot of players vying for 96 shared power forward and center minutes.
What makes Jokic so intriguing is his versatility. He can score inside, hit the spot-up or pass out of the high post. His combination of rebounding, passing and shooting is phenomenal. Only six players in history have bettered his rebound, assist and true shooting percentages:
Again, that’s an impressive list of names. The notion of Jokic as a franchise player might come as a surprise to some people, but what he did at just 20 years old is phenomenal.
Prior to his rookie season, ESPN Insider gave this assessment of his defense: “The key to Jokic’s development will be his ability to find a defensive position. He plays below the rim and projects as a below-average shot-blocker for a center based on his translated European stats. At power forward, Jokic will be challenged by the athleticism of NBA opposition. The question of whether he has a defensive position was a major reason why Jokic slipped to the second round, and it may limit his contributions as a rookie.”
Yet, on a deplorable defensive team, Jokic held opponents to 1.1 percentage points below their season averages when he was the closest defender on the play, according to SportVU tracking data. Guarding on post-up plays, he placed in the 62.8 percentile, per Synergy stats. Overall, opponents shot 7.9 percent worse inside six feet.
He also defended the spot-up capably, finishing in the 48.4 percentile. While he’s not a game-changer in any one area, his versatility is a plus. As a result, the Nuggets’ defensive rating was 6.2 points per 100 possessions better when Jokic was on the court, per NBA.com.
He was one of six players who had both an ORPM and DRPM over two. The other five were Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Chris Paul, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. That is some pretty impressive company. At his very best, Jokic could be Joakim Noah with a jump shot. And that would be downright frightening.