The 2018 NBA season is upon us at last. Per usual, the offseason was a constant barrage of player movement and Woj bombs, from LeBron’s long-awaited move to LA to the current mess of the Jimmy Butler saga. Yet despite all of this drama, player development will define the season and differentiate the teams who are tanking, lurking in NBA purgatory, and competing for 2nd place due to the existence of the juggernaut that is the Golden State Warriors. The Western Conference already boasted a majority of the league’s top-tier talent even before the greatest player of all time joined the Lakers. The West is filled to the brim with players with name recognition and resumes to boot such as James Harden, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Damian Lillard, to name a few. In a conference full of All-Stars, offense is not hard to come by, but one under-the-radar player may have a greater effect on his team’s offense than any other, and, ironically, he boasts the best Dad Bod in the league. The development of Denver Nuggets wunderkind center Nikola Jokic is a topic as compelling as any heading into the 2018 season.
The center position in the NBA is undeniably evolving; in previous eras, an offense consisted of a point guard walking the ball up the court and sending an entry pass to a behemoth posted on the block. Nowadays, the modern center in many ways fits an archetype that resembles prime Tyson Chandler: a rim-running, defensive-oriented seven-footer who sets ball screens for a ballhandler to start every possession. The paradox of Jokic is a physicality that resembles the centers of yesteryear, who would set their feet on the block and post time and time again, combined with the vision of an elite point guard. While almost every team runs their offense through their point guard and some basic form of high screen and roll, the Denver Nuggets have inverted their offense and run it through Jokic; something that the rest of the West has yet to figure out. Over the 2017-2018 season, Jokic averaged 18.5/10.7/6.1 on shooting splits of 49.9/39.6/85 and, with a new max contract in tow, the Nuggets are banking on him to be the franchise cornerstone for years to come. Jokic’s offensive impact is undeniable as he finished 7th in the league in offensive win shares, a number that could grow tenfold with a full season of cohesion between him and frontcourt partner Paul Millsap and the expected development of young stars Jamal Murray and Gary Harris. Jokic brings so much to the table offensively due to his high basketball IQ, vision, shooting, and ability to adeptly pass from any angle and space on the floor.
Yet, what Jokic brings to the table from an offensive perspective, he takes away on the defensive end. At six-feet-ten and 250 pounds, Jokic is not the fleetest of foot and struggles to do anything beyond a waddle up and down the floor. Despite this, Jokic remains effective due to the unique style and efficiency of his play. Sag off of him and he will pick you apart with his passing and shooting; play tight on him and the Nuggets will run him through a series of dribble-handoffs until they get a matchup to their liking. Over the final 18 games of last season, with Denver in the midst of a battle for a playoff spot, Jokic averaged 24 points per game, 11.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists on a 54-48-89 shooting line. If he keeps up that pace this year, he will finally be an All-Star and earn the attention he deserves as an elite talent in the league. Like any young player, the offseason represents the time for development and Jokic must improve defensively. If Jokic truly wants to evolve the center position and quarterback an inverted offense with the center in the driving seat, then he must prevent points at a league average rate to have the all-around impact of a top-15 player. Limiting his minutes playing alongside defensively-limited Mason Plumlee could help this, as well as a full season with the versatile Millsap. But the responsibility is on Jokic regardless. Jokic must increase his lateral mobility and overall conditioning to be able to keep up with the elite guards and wings of the West whom he will be switched onto defensively due to pick and rolls. If he finally does so, we are looking at an MVP candidate and the league’s best center. If not, Denver could be looking at another year watching the playoffs on TV.