Denver Nuggets Banking on Best NBA Rookie You've Never Heard Of, Nikola Jokic

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2016

Jan 10, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) during the first half against the Charlotte Hornets at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

You probably won't hear Nikola Jokic's name much in Rookie of the Year conversations, even if he's held his own against presumptive favorites Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis in their few meetings. He won't be a headliner at All-Star Weekend, even if he's representing Team World at the Rising Stars Challenge. 

But Jokic doesn't need the spotlight yet. The 6'10", 250-pound Serbian center is content to let his historic numbers and Denver Nuggets teammates do the talking.

"That kid is gonna get paid a lot if he just keeps the course, because he just brings a different aspect," said Kenneth Faried, barely keeping his jubilant laughter in check after a win over the Chicago Bulls last week. "He can step out and shoot the three. He makes his free throws down the stretch. He plays great defense. Rebounds the ball. He's just coming into his own."

Just a short while ago, Jokic was a relative unknown in the Adriatic League. Even as he continued to build a name for himself, weaknesses emerged, per NBADraft.net's Stevan Petrovic prior to the 2014 selection process:

An average athlete lacking great speed and leaping ability ... Foot speed is a big liability. He may struggle to stay in front of NBA athletes at the center position ... Needs to improve as a post player, gain strength and develop a repertoire of back to the basket moves ... Defense is a real weakness at this point due to lack of lateral speed and lack of strength. His length is a big plus, but he'll need to continue to work on becoming stronger and learn to anticipate in order to overcome his lack of quickness ... Despite being a younger guy, his upside appears limited by his lack of explosiveness and foot speed ...

It's amazing how much can change in less than two years. 

"I'm stronger than I used to be," Jokic recently told Nick Kosmider of the Denver Post. "Every segment, I'm a little better. Now that I'm a little bit stronger, I will continue to do this." 

Just wait until he starts getting the minutes typically afforded to starters.

Dec 8, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) shoots the ball during the first half against the Orlando Magic at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

For a few reasons, Denver head coach Mike Malone has brought the No. 41 pick of the 2014 NBA draft along slowly. He's spent more time on the bench against tougher matchups. He's fought for playing time in a crowded Nuggets frontcourt that includes a handful of promising players. As BSNDenver.com's Harrison Wind explained, he's still developing an NBA body: 

Jokic is still rail thin. When the rookie came to the Nuggets this past summer he lost 30 pounds in just three months. He cut out soda and was eating six meals a day consisting of salmon, yams, chicken, steak, salad and eggs. Jokic is still rail thin, compared to NBA standards, and as he spends more time in the weight room he will get stronger and has a body that should be able to put that weight back on, except in the form of muscle.

As a result, the center's per-game stats—9.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 0.5 blocks—don't have the luster required for Rookie of the Year conversations. But if you dig a bit deeper, you can see his true impact. 

"We preach ball movement, and to have a center who can excel in that area, it takes pressure off," Malone said. "Nikola is showing—I think two assists per game now—that he's more than capable of facilitating for his teammates."

It's not just the 1.9 assists per game, or even the 3.4 "potential assists" per contest, shown by NBA.com's SportVU data. Jokic is already making veteran passes. He's able to find rim-seeking teammates in transition without breaking stride: 

He shows unselfishness and vision in traffic, allowing him to turn ill-advised shots into easy and uncontested buckets: 

Perhaps most impressively, he can serve as a hub in the half-court set, taking control of the rock and feeding the ball into tight windows. He can lob over a front. His timing is impeccable, like it was on this dish to Will Barton: 

"They know if I give him the ball, there's a good chance I'm gonna get it back," Malone said. "And I think as they get more and more comfortable playing with him, they'll even give him the ball that much more."

Jokic has already displayed a solid face-up jumper, and defenders are starting to respect it. But he's been largely unaffected by more aggressive contests:

Thanks to that soft touch, the 20-year-old is shooting 52.9 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the arc and 78.6 percent at the free-throw line—marks only one other qualified rookie (Matt Bonner) has ever matched.

"We'll see [if he shoots more threes]. He's still young. When he gets an open three, we tell him to shoot it," Faried said. "We have confidence in him as a team. … So we just want him to step up and be the player he's going to be."

Jokic doesn't have the requisite strength to bang around with bigger opponents, which is why you'll see him play fewer minutes against bruising centers such as Brook Lopez. But his advanced understanding of positioning allows him to make a positive impact. He rotates properly on defense and knows when to challenge shot attempts.

Virtually everything he brings to the table was on display in this sequence against the San Antonio Spurs earlier this season: 

It's hard to tell what's most impressive. Was it his ability to switch and return quickly enough to disrupt the offensive set? Was it him staying straight up and refusing to bite on LaMarcus Aldridge's fake? Was it him getting his hand on the ball twice in quick succession? 

Jokic understands the game far better than most 20-year-olds, which has already led to both Faried and Malone offering unprompted championing of his sky-high basketball IQ. It's not tough to see why. He makes a monumental impact on the Nuggets' success whenever he's on the floor: 

This isn't some random rookie the Nuggets are promoting, but rather a 20-year-old who's already brushing statistical shoulders with all-time greats. 

His versatility translates to 17.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.0 blocks per 36 minutes with a 59.5 true shooting percentage. Charles Barkley is the only other qualified player—not just rookie, but player in general—to match or exceed those numbers in any season. 

Now, the challenge is maintaining those per-minute marks as he receives more run. But those surrounding him don't doubt his ability to do so. 

"Young kid who works hard, who loves it, who has a passion for it? His ceiling is unlimited," Malone said.

Faried took the sentiment a step further: "I mean, he is going to be phenomenal. I can't wait until we're talking about him in the All-Star Game."

Heading into Denver's Feb. 10 clash with the Detroit Pistons, the big man is one of only three rookies since 1973 with an offensive box plus/minus (OBPM) of 3.0 or better to simultaneously post a defensive box plus/minus (DBPM) on the right side of 1.5—which means he's significantly better than a league-average player on both ends.

His player efficiency rating of 22.2 trails only 14 qualified rookies throughout all of NBA history. All but Towns and Shaquille O'Neal were older when posting their marks:

Just look at all the Hall of Famers in the two above graphics. The first-year Denver center may be earning those comparisons in relatively limited run, but he's still legitimately earning them. 

He's been that good. And in turn, he's fostered that much excitement about his future. 

He's one of the best rookies we've seen in a long time. This might be the first time you're hearing about him, but it won't be the last. 

Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are obtained firsthand. All stats, current heading into games on Feb. 10, are from Basketball-Reference.com or Adam Fromal's own databases.


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