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The Subtle Moments That Separate Nikola Jokic

The Denver Nuggets’ two-time MVP isn’t at his most dangerous with the ball, but rather right before receiving it. That moment is when the point guard trapped in the 7-footer’s body is most unstoppable.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The range of remarkable ways Nikola Jokic dominates basketball games is unparalleled. He’s the NBA’s most supportive superstar, happy to share the ball, allergic to monopolizing a system that revolves around his decision-making. Jokic’s passes are deliberate genius, anticipatory and dizzying—from lobs out of a pick-and-roll, to 75-foot-long touchdowns, to no-look slingshots that buzz through the paint.

As a scorer, Jokic’s floaters, turnarounds, and putbacks are nearly automatic. His jumper comfortably extends to 25 feet. His post-ups and isolations (which he does about as infrequently as Saddiq Bey) are a choose-your-poison nightmare. But the root of all Jokic’s success can be found in the subtle moments that prelude those exclamation points. When he’s without the ball, coming off a screen, Jokic transforms into the sport’s most singular player. It’s here where the two-time MVP distinguishes himself, while simultaneously grounding and lifting one of the most efficient offenses of all time.

The center position is continuously evolving. Pace, space, and myriad factors have altered the value and responsibility big men hold on any given possession. Jokic’s identity is as someone who flourishes ahead of the curve. To guard him away from the ball is to accept a challenge unlike anything basketball has ever seen from a 7-footer. When Jokic comes off a screen, the defense can’t help but lean on its heels. There’s a constant guessing game, dealing with tactics that are methodical, camouflaged, chaotic, and transparent at the same time. No center is less predictable, which is why no center is harder to stop.

“You can’t prepare for every situation because you don’t know where he’s going to be,” Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla says. “He could be on the left block, he could be on the right block, he could be at the nail … that level of creativity and randomness makes it very difficult to guard him, and it’s cool that he embraces that.”

Even if Jokic acted like a “traditional” center, he would still be an All-Star. The Nuggets could repeatedly set him up on the block. He could exclusively be the screener in a pick-and-roll, dining out on push shots and popping out to the perimeter. He could bum-rush the offensive glass, run rim to rim, initiate dribble handoffs, and spend chunks of every game as an amalgamation of Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Vucevic, and Joel Embiid.

But instead, Denver unlocks all his skills—and, in the process, everyone else’s too—by moving Jokic off a variety of picks that force the defense to answer uncomfortable questions on the fly. It’s largely thanks to these actions—shaped and perfected over the past few years—that the Nuggets may be on a path to win the first title in franchise history.

Jokic is peerless when it comes to centers using off-ball screens; regardless of position, league wide, he’s also the most efficient. According to Second Spectrum, Jokic came off 9.5 screens per game this season, which is nearly double the next-highest average from any center. Bam Adebayo and Karl-Anthony Towns both finished around five per game.

“I think he has the mind of all five positions,” Nuggets assistant coach David Adelman says. “It’s not just the feel of ‘OK, they’re screening down for me. I’m in the corner.’ When he catches the ball he already knows how the defense is rotating. And when you have that kind of feel—which is basically like an All-Star point guard’s feel but you’re a 7-foot center—it’s incredible. And I think that’s why he’s been so successful and we can use him this uniquely, because there’s never been someone like him.”

Put another way by Nuggets guard Bruce Brown: “I mean, he does everything. He’s like a guard in a big man’s body and he can do big man shit.”

On plays on which Jokic used an off-ball screen this season, the Nuggets averaged 1.32 points per direct play, which topped all centers in Second Spectrum’s decade-deep database. And, out of 133 players who finished this season with at least 100 direct plays, nobody produced more points per possession than Jokic’s 1.3. (Bradley Beal and Devin Booker were second and third on that list.)

Narrow things down to screens that led to a touch—which happened 506 times this season—and Denver generated an absurd 1.38 points per possession. That isn’t only impressive among centers. It’s first among all players (minimum five plays per game). To put it in simpler terms, the Warriors produced 1.27 points per possession at a near identical frequency on similar plays involving Steph Curry this season. (Jokic also led the NBA in off-ball shotmaking, according to Bball-Index.)

“I don’t know if there’s ever been a center [where] you could really use him in all the ways that we use him,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone says. “I think centers, when they guard Nikola, they’re used to guarding the post-up. They’re used to guarding a ball screen when he’s setting. But now … when he’s the guy receiving a pindown, they’re not really used to that or accustomed to that.”

The blips of confusion clear the way for Jokic to be at his most potent from just about anywhere, which is possible, thanks to his elaborate footwork, strength, and outside touch. They also make it harder to send help, especially when a dead-eye 3-point shooter is the one slipping out of the screen. “They double him a lot in the post,” Jamal Murray says. “So we just try to free him up and take the body off, and let him play from there. … It helps us.”

The Nuggets send waves of wedge screens—picks set at a diagonal angle, meant to get big men on the opposite block—in every game to make opposing bigs fight before Jokic even catches the ball. Sometimes these end a play. More often, they set the table for Denver’s offense to strike from however the defense responds.

The Nuggets like to run Jokic off UCLA screens, in which he passes it to the wing and then cuts toward the baseline off a pick at the elbow. According to Second Spectrum, Jokic completed 50 more of these than any other player this season, and they generated 1.3 points per direct play. “I think he’s extremely crafty, knows how to get open,” Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn says. “You see that from the marks on his arms from people grabbing and holding him.”

The Nuggets will even unleash an occasional loop action—popularized by Allen Iverson—in which Jokic darts from one sideline to the other, catches a pass, and then goes into either a post-up or pick-and-roll. The examples below are almost impossible to defend:

“When you play us, you have to reevaluate how you guard certain things, because it’s a 7-foot man coming off those screens,” Adelman said. “It’s similar actions to what you’d run for catch-and-shoot players, or ballhandling geniuses, like Kyrie [Irving] or whatever it is, but your coverages are gonna be different.”

From Brown to Murray to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Aaron Gordon, Christian Braun, and basically everyone else in Denver’s rotation, Jokic’s teammates all have their own way of setting screens to free their center up. Brown likes to switch it up, but he also knows whoever’s guarding Jokic probably just wants to sit in the paint, so he’ll angle his body on the low side and force the defender to chase over the top. “If they try to go under I’m gonna be there and they’re gonna run right into me,” he explains. “But if they go over, he’s just going downhill. So it’s a lose-lose situation for them.”

The characters and skill sets are a little different, but the spacing, selflessness, and sustained movement here make Denver its own iteration of Curry’s Warriors. There’s obviously a ton of gravity from all of Jokic’s motion; plays like this are one reason Brown’s effective field goal percentage was 18 percent higher with Jokic on the court this season.

Jokic receives pin-ins in transition and off sideline out of bounds plays. He comes off flare screens, leveraging a 3-point shot that demands respect. Switch anything and the play is essentially already over. Whenever a defense feels like they’ve answered the bell—like when they assign a forward or wing as Jokic’s primary defender—Denver consistently responds with a right hook to the jaw (or, in this case, a flash cut by Gordon that lets Jokic easily score from the block on Paul George):

“He’s moving so slow, so you think you won,” says Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr., the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year. “But you haven’t won at all because he’s doing what he wants.”

The Nuggets have long realized this all could be a strategy worth embracing, but things really started to crystallize in 2020, when they drew Rudy Gobert and the Jazz for a first-round series inside the bubble. Denver’s coaches needed to make one of basketball’s best defenders uncomfortable as often as they could.

“How can we challenge people that prepare for us?” Adelman says when asked what the genesis for this unorthodox approach was. “Once we started to kind of experiment with him in different ways, with different screeners, we realized we could really open up the box and take chances with him.”

The following season, after Murray tore his ACL, the Nuggets had to keep evolving with Jokic remaining at the center of everything they did. Some of the tweaks have been subtle and related to spacing. For example, since the Nuggets first expanded their playbook by putting Jokic in the corner and sending a small over for a wide pindown, he’s told his coaches that he sometimes prefers to start inside the arc:

“His decision off those pindowns, it’s like a point guard having the basketball,” Nuggets guard Ish Smith says.

The rest of Denver’s evolution has been honed over time with hours and hours of practice. Denver doesn’t typically operate out of set plays. Instead the Nuggets run concepts that sometimes emerge from drills that double as brainstorming sessions to spark fresh ideas and build rewarding habits. One example is a five-on-zero exercise. The Nuggets put 18 on the shot clock, prohibit pick-and-rolls, and don’t allow anyone to shoot until the last five seconds. “You get all kinds of cutting and moving, and that in a sense can be its own play,” Adelman says.

Sometimes two Nuggets will set a screen for Jokic—called a stagger away—and allow him to momentarily impersonate Kevin Huerter or Klay Thompson. If Mason Plumlee had a thought bubble over his head throughout the entire possession seen below, it’d say “I did not sign up for this.”

When a 2-guard has his number called on a play like this, the defense has options. It might switch or double on the catch, but you can’t do that with Jokic. He can intimidate smaller defenders with his size and easily locate an open cutter if two opponents decide to swarm. Denver’s playbook might as well be a doorstop thanks to Jokic’s brainpower. There are so many options, counters, and counters to the counters.

Even when all these actions don’t result in points, they serve more than one purpose. “It was tough for other centers to guard it, and it was wearing them out,” Adelman says. “Which is why I’ve always said this over the years: Nikola, they say he’s not a good athlete but you gotta be a pretty good athlete to do all these things he’s doing. … We put him all over the place, where a lot of centers just kind of run rim to rim.”

If the Nuggets win it all, four different teams will have failed to calm the waters Jokic stirs on every play, off the ball, before the catch, disrupting defenses that are helpless to stop something they know is about to come. Explained another way by the man himself: “I think as long as it’s working, we’re gonna continue to do it,” Jokic said. “When it doesn’t work anymore, we’re gonna stop.”

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