By James Langan
Early in the first quarter of the Olympic semi-final game between Australia and Serbia, Fran Fraschilla described a conversation he had with Will Barton of the Denver Nuggets. Barton told Fraschilla that he and his teammates refer to Nikola Jokić as the “Third Gasol,” which is high praise for a former second round pick who has all of one NBA season under his belt. However, anyone who has seen Jokić play would be remiss not to notice the similarities he shares with the Gasol brothers. For years, the Gasol brothers have become NBA fixtures. Both are 7 footers with a skilled low post game and excellent passing ability who have found success despite lacking the elite athleticism of NBA counterparts such as DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard.
As the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Nikola Jokić was little more than an afterthought whose NBA ceiling was most likely viewed as that of an end of the rotation big man. But fast forward two years and Jokić is an NBA darling coming of a season where he was one of the league’s biggest surprises, finishing 3rd in the rookie of the year voting behind all-around stud Karl Anthony-Towns and New York hype machine Kristaps Porzingis. The surprises didn’t end with the rookie of the year voting, but also extended to the analytics community where advanced statistics rated Jokić as not just one of the best rookies in the league, but one of the best players in the league. Jokić finished 9th overall in ESPN Real Plus Minus (RPM) and 1st among centers. But that’s not all; Jokić finished in the top ten among centers in PER, Assist Ratio, and top fifteen in Estimated Wins Added despite playing the fewest minutes out of any player in the top 20. When breaking down Jokić’s game it is not hard to see why advanced statistics view him so favorable. On the offensive end, Jokić is a skilled finisher with range out to the 3-point line and his passing ability for a 21-year old big man is almost unfair.
Whether on the move, in the paint, posting up, or rolling to the rim, Jokić drops smart and dazzling passes all over the court. He is truly a complete package on the offensive end where he should become a fulcrum of the Nuggets offense for years to come.
Standing at 6’11 with a 7’3 wingspan Jokić, has the size to be an NBA-level rim protector. Jokić may not be the most mobile big man in the world, but he does have enough mobility to be a good defensive big man if he plays with intelligence. In that regard, Jokić’s defensive positioning wasn’t perfect in his rookie year, but that is of minimal concern as all rookies struggle learning NBA level rotations and positioning. Jokić’s main concern outside of his experience is his strength. Jokić’s has a very thin frame meaning he can be bullied in the paint by stronger big men. This often leads to Jokić posting up far outside the paint and struggling in the post on defense. As with his positioning, Jokić has time on his side as he is still just 21 and has plenty of time to strengthen his body.
All in all, Jokić is a rising star in the league. He, along with Towns and Porzingis, offers a glimpse at what the modern NBA big will look like. If his development continues, the Nuggets can expect to have a player on the level of the Gasol brothers for the next decade.