Denver Nuggets Are Back to Maximizing Nikola Jokic's Star Potential

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 22, 2016

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 19:  Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets handles the ball against the Dallas Mavericks on December 19, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

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 marked three consecutive victories and served as the latest step in Jokic's inexorable march toward stardom. 

Though he couldn't get that final dime, 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.

"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 2015-16 rookie season, 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

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 plus-2.5 when he plays. NBA Math shows he's on pace to join some impressive names by virtue of his two-way ability:

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. 

Jokic 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."

He's rifled the ball through traffic to a man in the post: 

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: 

He's dropped off a feed for a backdoor cutter, displaying foresight you'd never expect from a man his size: 

He's even used his eyes and a ball fake to divert attention before whipping a one-handed assist to Kenneth Faried

Jokic will never blow anyone away with his athleticism. Even though he's listed as a 6'10" center, he prefers laying the ball off the glass to slamming it home—something he's done just three times in 24 games.

"I'm old and fat, and I'm more athletic than him," 34-year-old Jameer Nelson playfully remarked. "I can jump higher than Jokic off one foot."

But skill can trump athleticism when used advantageously, and that's why Miller is willing to compare his young teammate to Marc Gasol (with "flashes of Pau"), with whom he shared the court as a Memphis Grizzly in 2013-14. It's a lofty comparison for a 21-year-old sophomore still establishing himself as a go-to player, but it feels appropriate. 

Of course, Jokic isn't perfect. 

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 22:  Jimmy Butler #21 of the Chicago Bulls goes for a lay up against Nikola Jokic #15 of the Denver Nuggets during the game on November 22, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and a
Bart Young/Getty Images

He's allowing opponents to shoot 58.6 percent at the rim. He's struggled with his three-point stroke, knocking down just 27.6 percent of his attempts but still relying on that shot in crucial situations. And above all else, he can get himself into trouble with silly fouls of frustration or suboptimal situational awareness. 

"Mike Miller told me that he's gonna beat me if I make more stupid fouls," he said. "So, I mean, I gotta listen." 

The Nuggets experimented with various lineups early in the seasonbecause of injuries and a deep stable of unproven players. They tried playing Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic together, though it was tougher for the former to shine at the 4. Upon his request, they moved Jokic to the bench, but that also didn't lead to success. 

Now, Jokic is back to being entrenched as the starting center, and the Nuggets are winning more frequently because of it. Only foul trouble is keeping him from playing big minutes, which is why Malone jested that Jokic getting called for just one foul was a more impressive stat than Monday night's near triple double. 

So long as he avoids those whistles, he'll continue establishing himself as a bona fide star. 

               

Nuggets Notebook

Together Again

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 17: Gary Harris #14 of the Denver Nuggets drives to the basket against the New York Knicks on December 17, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or
Bart Young/Getty Images

With Gary Harris back in the foldfully recovered from a mysterious mid-foot injury that knocked him out of the lineup for 16 gamesthe Nuggets have been far more competitive. But Mudiay has also looked increasingly comfortable, thriving as he adds catch-and-shoot offense to his list of responsibilities. 

"I think having Gary back has given him some mental relief. He loves playing with Gary, and there's a sense of confidence there," Malone said before the Dec. 19 clash with Dallas. 

He echoed the claim after his troops emerged victorious, in part because of Harris' tenacious defense and a career-high 24 points. 

"There's a bond there [between Harris and Mudiay]. There's a connection there, and it's off the court and on the court. They feed off each other. They look for each other. And I think Emmanuel knows on the defensive end of the floor, he's got his backcourt mate with him."

The Nuggets have reached loftier levels with Harris, whom Malone has called the team's best perimeter defender. Denver's net rating has jumped by 4.1 points per 100 possessions, with a noticeable difference on both ends. In the four games since his return from injury, the net rating stands at 11.2 when he's on the court—comparable to the Toronto Raptorsseason-long mark (10.6).

"His presence out there defensively, first and foremost, is amazing," Nelson insisted. "He's a guy that's not talked about—probably because he's young—but he's one of the best two-way players in the game. He takes pride in guarding the best guard out there and helping guys out on defense, even though he's guarding the best guard."

But just as important has been the impact on Mudiay. We'll turn to NBA Math here, which has shown how differently the team has played with just the point guard, as opposed to both of the backcourt starters: 

Harris' cutting has been contagious, inspiring everyone to commit to his burst through the lane. His stopping ability aids the less disciplined floor general, freeing Mudiay to use his athleticism as a help defender. 

Harris has given the team yet another shooter to put around Mudiay as well, plus another capable facilitator who can help the sophomore 1-guard get into rhythm as an off-ball sniper.

While the samples remain small, it's by no means insignificant that Mudiay is shooting 69.2 percent off Harris' passes—including a perfect 100 percent during the four games since the 2-guard's return. Jamal Murray (55.6 percent) is the only other Nugget whose feeds can take him over the 50 percent threshold.

"That's my guy," Harris said about his fellow guard. "It's always fun going out there and playing with him."

                                     

We're Talking About Playoffs

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 17: Head Coach Michael Malone of the Denver Nuggets is seen during the game against the New York Knicks on December 17, 2016 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downl
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Confidence pervaded the Pepsi Center before the 2016-17 season began. The entire organization seemed to unite around the goal of ending a postseason drought that stretches back to 2012-13—a time not too long ago but long enough that Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari and Faried are now the only holdovers. 

Not everything went smoothly early in the year. Injuries and inconsistency struck, to the point that a disheartened bunch clearly lacked effort and found itself on the losing end of a few blowouts. But after sinking as low as 7-13, the Nuggets have rebounded.

Going 5-4 in their last nine games, coupled with an Icarian fall from the Portland Trail Blazers, the Nuggets are indeed thinking about the Western Conference's No. 8 seed. 

"Anytime you can win three games in a row for the first time in the season and protect your home court...that's what you need to do if you want to be a playoff team," Malone said after the Dallas victory. "If we can continue to play like this, we feel that we can be a playoff team. We're a half-game out after tonight's game." 

Even after losing the second half of a back-to-back to the Los Angeles Clippers, Denver trails Rip City by a mere half-game in the (still early) race for the final spot.

"I think all good teams, all winning teams, have one thing in common: They're consistent," Malone explained. "We showed in three games that we can be consistent, but that's a very small sample size. Can we do it over an extended period of time?" 

Members of the coaching staff and roster alike pointed to the Dec. 20 Clippers contest as a key test, but the team came out flat and allowed Los Angeles—even without Blake Griffin—to open up a huge first-quarter lead. And while the 119-102 loss isn't indicative of Denver's current level, it's still revealing. 

The playoffs are a legitimate goal. They're just not attainable without consistent effort, and this young team isn't there quite yet. 

                        

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

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com or NBA Math and accurate heading into games on Dec. 21. All quotes obtained firsthand.

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