Nikola Jokic picked the perfect time for a breakout game. After three uninspiring performances to start the Olympics, Jokic nearly carried Serbia to an upset of Team USA on Friday. He was the best player on the court for large stretches of Serbia’s 94–91 loss, finishing with 25 points on 11-for-15 shooting, six rebounds, and three assists. There was nothing the Americans could do to stop him; he scored from all over the floor, stepping out and knocking down 3s, dicing them up from the post, and making plays on the move in the two-man game. Jokic was overshadowed in the NBA’s Rookie of the Year race by Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, but the 21-year old big man looks like a star in his own right.
Jokic wasn’t supposed to be this good. The Denver Nuggets took him with the 41st pick in the 2014 draft, and no one outside of the organization expected much. The middle of the second round is where the careers of project big men go to die, and Jokic was overshadowed on his team by Jusuf Nurkic, another big man from the Balkans who was taken 25 spots higher. The skill level was always there for Jokic, but there were concerns about his athleticism and whether his game would translate to an NBA landscape where centers are expected to play out on the perimeter on both sides of the ball. He was a slow-moving behemoth in a sport changing under his feet.
But Jokic remade his body, dropping more than 30 pounds between draft night and his NBA debut a year later, and everything changed. He’s still not all that fleet of foot, but the weight loss has given him a better chance to get up and down the floor and move in space, allowing the rest of his game to shine. He’s on the same career path as Marc Gasol, another big-boned European center who slipped into the second round before figuring out how to keep his weight in check. The difference: Gasol didn’t come over to the NBA until he was 23; Jokic debuted at 20.
Jokic most resembles the younger Gasol as a passer. They both have a high basketball IQ and the ability to pick apart a defense in ways that don’t necessarily match their physique. Jokic will occasionally start the break himself, and he’s at his best operating with the ball in his hands at the top of the key. He can make every pass in the book, and good things happen pretty much anytime he touches the ball. He can find cutters, thread passes through traffic, and read the floor as he’s making a cut. Like Draymond Green, he’s almost always going to make the right decision in the pick-and-roll, where he’s just as dangerous as a passer as he is a finisher. No matter how much the game changes, there’s always room for a big man with Jokic’s feel.
What separates Jokic from Gasol is his scoring ability. While Gasol prefers to shoot 15–20 footers, Jokic can stretch the defense out to the 3-point line, shooting 2-for-2 from 3 against Team USA from the FIBA line and 28-for-84 (33 percent) from NBA range as a rookie with the Nuggets. That extra room creates more driving lanes to the basket and opens up the floor for his teammates, allowing Jokic to fit comfortably into a modern NBA offense. Jokic can score with his back to the basket, but that’s just one of many weapons in his arsenal. He attacked smaller American defenders on switches on Friday, and was so effective doing so that the Serbian offense never bogged down trying to get him the ball in the post.
The key for Jokic’s growth is the other side of the ball. He’s ready to be an elite NBA player on offense, but he still has a lot of work to do on defense, and that’s where big men really elevate their teams. The Lakers don’t win two championships without Pau Gasol anchoring their defense, and the Grizzlies don’t become one of the NBA’s most consistent teams without Marc Gasol becoming a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. With a 7-foot-3 wingspan and roughly the same standing reach as Towns, Jokic has the length to protect the rim. But he has to get stronger in order to hold his ground in the lane and maximize every bit of his lateral agility to stay in front of faster players. It’s even more important for him to learn positioning, and he must also look to anticipate the offense rather than react to it, which has always been the key to Marc’s defensive game.
Continuing to improve his body is crucial. Big men traditionally take longer to develop than guards in large part because they need more time to grow into their bodies. Jokic is a classic example. There were several times on Friday where DeMarcus Cousins moved him out of the way like he wasn’t even there, and while he will never have Cousins’s unique combination of country strength and quick-twitch muscles, he can certainly improve his physicality as he moves deeper into his twenties. Jokic doesn’t need to bulk up as much as Miroslav Raduljica, the 250-pound Goliath he shares time with upfront on the Serbian national team, but changing his body to displace defenders on screens like Andrew Bogut does seems possible.
The matchup with Green was a prime example of how Jokic can improve. Against a smaller opponent, Jokic was able to establish post position and use his size to spin into an easy lay-up at the front of the rim in the first half, but Green pushed him out past 20 feet in the final minute, forcing him to take a turnaround jumper that bounced off the side of the backboard. Big men need a counter when teams go small with Swiss-Army-knife types like Green, and Jokic will have to contain them on the perimeter on defense and score over the top of them on offense. He will never be faster than Green, but he could become stronger than him.
The good news is that he has all the time in the world to improve. Marc Gasol didn’t peak until he turned 30, an age Jokic won’t reach until after the 2024 Olympics. He’s going to be a fixture in the international game for the next decade, and he looks like the foundational piece the Nuggets have been missing since trading Carmelo Anthony. This won’t be the last time that Team USA faces him in an international contest, and a more physically mature version of Jokic will be even harder to stop. If his defense can ever catch up to his offense, he has a chance to be the next great European big man.