It only took two years, 153 regular season games, six triple-doubles, and a few offseason home workout videos, but Nuggets’ big man Nikola Jokic to finally getting some notoriety and acknowledgment around the league.
On Tuesday, Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly, in an appearance on The Vic Lombardi Show on Altitude Radio, said that prospective free agents took notice of Jokic’s sophomore season where the 22-year-old averaged 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists and shot 57.8 percent from the field, and are telling their agents that they want to team up with the Serbian.
“Sometimes an agent will reach out to us,” Connelly said. “This offseason, it’s been encouraging. We’ve had a handful of agents reach out to us and say, ‘My player would really like to play with Nikola Jokic.’ I think that speaks well for our future. When a guy wants to play with someone. It’s encouraging.”
The Nuggets struck out in their pursuit of Dwyane Wade last year but could be armed with upwards of $40 million of cap space this summer, depending on if Danilo Gallinari, Mason Plumlee, and Mike Miller return to Denver, and will get another chance on July 1 to craft the perfect pitch to this offseason’s free agents.
The core of Jokic, along with Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, and Malik Beasley doesn’t scream “contender,” in its present state but is arguably the best young nucleus in the league. However, Jokic, who is a finalist for the league’s Most Improved Player award and received 12 All-NBA votes this year, sets that group apart from other organizations. The Serbian posted a 28.8 assist percentage last year, the highest mark in the league for players 6-foot-10 and taller.
Who wouldn’t want to be on the floor with that?
Here are five free agents who theoretically would want to team up with Jokic:
Blake Griffin – Player Option – Power Forward – 6-10 – LA Clippers
After Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry re-up with Golden State, which they’re both expected to, any of Griffin, his teammate Chris Paul or Gordon Hayward could be the most desirable name left on the free agent market come July 1. And besides downsizing from Los Angeles to Denver, there’s not much that would turn Griffin off from the Nuggets.
The 28-year-old could step in and start at power forward ahead of Kenneth Faried, who came off the bench for 34 of the 61 games he played in last season. Griffin could also seize some of the spotlight from Jokic, something that might actually benefit the soft-spoken big man. Plus, imagine Griffin on the other end of a Jokic lob. Overnight, the Nuggets would arguably have the league’s most talented and watchable frontcourt.
What could Griffin want in a new team? The opportunity to star in a leading role, score a bunch of points and a high alley-oop frequency. The fit on offense, with Griffin’s isolation-heavy tendencies, wouldn’t mesh well with the way Denver wants to play on that end of the floor, but the Nuggets check off all of Griffin’s boxes.
Milos Teodosic – Unrestricted – Point Guard – 6-5 – CSKA Moscow
What happens when you combine the best passer that’s not in the NBA who also happens to be a point guard with the best passing big man in league history? Pure basketball bliss and a running Twitter timeline of Nuggets’ highlights on a nightly basis.
Teodosic, who along with Jokic helped lead Serbia to a silver-medal finish at the Rio Olympics last summer, is reportedly drawing interest from the Heat and Nets and may want to finally make the move to the states next season. He’s regarded by many league executives as the best player not in the NBA and could slide in as most team’s backup point guard.
Teodosic doesn’t play much defense but he’s a walking highlight reel. He shot 38.9 percent from three last season on more than six attempts per game and would team up with Jokic to form a truly unique duo. Denver’s international-heavy rotation could garner interest from Teodosic, but the Nuggets would have to clear up their logjam at point guard before seriously thinking about signing the 30-year-old.
Joe Ingles – Restricted – Small Forward – 6-8 – Utah Jazz
Much like Tedosic, Ingles’ pass-first, team-oriented style of play fits the Nuggets’ attack. Ingles could step in at small forward if Denver loses Gallinari this summer and the Nuggets would have more than enough money to pay Ingles his worth, especially if the Jazz are preoccupied trying to retain unrestricted free agent Gordon Hayward.
Ingles would be a clear-cut fit on offense alongside Jokic but he’s also one of the most underrated defenders in the league. The Aussie racked up 2.0 steals per game in the playoffs and is a high-IQ defender, who’s quicker than he looks and played a big role in helping Utah to the third best defense in the league last year.
Ingles could average around the same minutes per game that he did last season in Utah (24.0) and play a similar secondary role in Denver. The Nuggets will likely have to overpay for any free agent and Ingles could look for his first major payday at age 29, something that seems more likely to happen if Hayward heads east.
J.J. Redick – Unrestricted – Shooting Guard – 6-4 – Los Angeles Clippers
Great shooters love to play with great point guards and if Redick leaves Los Angeles, who will find it difficult to retain the trio of Griffin, Paul, and their 32-year-old sharp-shooter, he’d likely be attracted to a team that plays to his strengths.
In Jokic, Griffin would again have a premier offense initiator to play next to like he had with Paul in Los Angeles. The career 41.5 percent shooter from distance would likely have his most efficient offensive season to date in Denver with Jokic but would also have to take a cut in minutes with Denver’s deep backcourt. Imagine Jokic flinging full-court darts to Redick spotting up from beyond the three-point line surrounded by shooters like Harris, Hernangomez, and Chandler. That’s an enticing situation to any sniper on the market.
Jokic’s breakout season had an enormous effect on his veteran teammates. Will Barton saw his three-point percentage jump from 34.5 to 37.0 percent last season. Gallinari saw his rise to 38.9 percent, the highest he’s shot from distance since his rookie year in 2009 and Jameer Nelson shot 38.8 percent from deep last season after hitting less than 30 percent of his threes in 2016. Harris, who may have been the greatest benefactor of Jokic’s presence, saw his three-point percentage skyrocket nearly six points to 42.0 percent.
Which free agent wouldn’t look at those numbers and gawk?
Andre Roberson – Restricted – Shooting Guard – 6-7 – Oklahoma City Thunder
Roberson isn’t a good individual offensive player, he’d probably be the first to tell you that. But while the 25-year-old doesn’t provide any gravity on offense (he shot just 24.5 percent from three last season) he is good at one certain skill on that end of the floor that matches with Jokic.
The restricted free agent is one of the league’s best off-ball cutters. Roberson scored 1.25 points per possession on cuts last season, per NBA.com, one of the highest marks for a guard and shot a healthy 70.8 percent in the restricted area. He’s a high-IQ player on both ends of the floor and could look at Jokic as someone who’d help grow his numbers.
Roberson could reference the success Harris had cutting off of Jokic last season and envision himself in a similar role on the perimeter. His defense isn’t that bad either. The Nuggets could sell Roberson on playing with Jokic while checking the opposing team’s best wing every night.
Denver has been a “flyover city” when it comes to free agency for a number of years and while Jokic might not be able to buck that trend by himself, the Nuggets can slowly start to shed that stigma starting this summer.
“I think the good thing that we have right now is Joker is one of those guys that everyone in the league is starting to take heed to and understand who he is,” Miller said on Altitude Radio last week. “He’s one of those superstars. I think he’s going to be a superstar. I think you’ll see even more growth at the beginning of this next year, that everyone just wants to play with. He plays that style of basketball.