DENVER — During Nikola Jokic‘s breakout 2016-17 campaign, opposing coaches had a difficult time figuring out how to stop Denver’s 6-foot-10 Serbian center.
Jokic averaged 16.7 points on 57.8 percent shooting from the field and 32.4 percent from three last year along with 4.9 assists for the Nuggets. From Dec. 15 on — the date Jokic became Denver’s starting center for good — the 23-year-old posted a 19-point, 11-rebound, 5-assist line, racked up six triple-doubles and was the league’s best shooter from both 5-9 and 10-14 feet away from the hoop.
Maybe it’s because of his unusual frame, unique range of motion and feel for the game that makes Jokic so difficult to stop, but whatever it is, its kept opposing coaches up far too long the night before they face the Nuggets.
Thunder coach Billy Donovan had his own theory on how to stop the big man.
“He’s such great passer for his size. He’s got really good vision. He’s almost a point guard for them with the way when he plays,” Donovan said prior to Tuesday night’s tip-off. “He shoots the ball, obviously, Mike (Michael Malone) gave him an opportunity last year to really stretch the floor and shoot threes but I think hand activity is extremely important. Playing him just because of his vision.”
Jokic’s vision is likely his best quality. Across the league, few players have the offensive awareness and IQ that Jokic has and just three-years into the league, his feel for the game is among the best.
Donovan continued about Jokic.
“I also think guys off the ball having awareness,” Donovan said. “One of the things that happens is when he catches the ball in the post, they do a really good job of cutting and moving around him so you can be playing really good defense against him but if there’s a breakdown he does a really good job of finding open people some of them with his passing. It’s not always the guy on the ball guarding him but a lot of times it’s the guys off the ball.
Donovan’s point illustrates just why Jokic was able to turn the Nuggets into the league’s best offense after Dec. 15. When playing against Jokic, not just the defender guarding the big man, but the four other players on the floor have to be on their p’s and q’s at all times. When playing against isolation-heavy players off-ball defenders can focus in a little more on the guy they’re guarding. Not when playing Jokic.
The Nuggets and Thunder tip at 7:00 p.m. MST. It’s the last preseason game for Denver who opens the regular season Oct. 19 in Utah against the Jazz.