The case for Nikola Jokic as the NBA’s Most Improved Player

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Nuggets super sophomore Nikola Jokic is a finalist for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award, which is a very nice accomplishment for the big man, yet it’s also a sign that the league really just wasn’t paying much attention to Jokic and the Nuggets during his rookie season.

Folks in Denver have known Jokic is the real deal for some time now. But to understand just how much better Jokic played from 2015-16 to 2016-17, it’s worth looking at how his minutes share increase from year to year compares to his productivity increase.

From his rookie to his sophomore season, Jokic saw a 28.57 percent increase in minutes.

We’ll use that as the baseline to evaluate his overall improvements in the major statistical categories.

Jokic averaged 10.0 points per game in 2015-16 and 16.7 in 2016-17. That equates to a total increase of 67 percent, and a net gain (minus his minutes increase) of 38 percent scoring.

On the boards, Jokic saw a 40 percent overall productivity gain – going from 7.0 per game as a rookie to 9.8 in his second season. That’s an 11.43 percent net increase from last year.

His raw assist numbers more than doubled, increasing from 2.4 to 4.9. The net gain, accounting for his playing time increase, was still a very impressive 75.59 percent on his helpers.

Where Jokic really blew the lid off things was with his big production games. This past season he logged 39 double-doubles. Compare that to 2015-16 when he had just 16. That’s a whopping 115.18 net increase on “big games” for the big man.

When trying to roll triple-doubles into the equation, it’s impossible to calculate because he logged the first six of his career this season. That number was good enough for fourth in the league (although it was less than half of No. 3 on the list, LeBron James (13)).

Jokic also did the little things better, like getting to the line and making freebies. His free throw attempts per game increased from 2.4 to 3.1 – only a .59 net gain – but his free throws made increased from 1.9 to 2.6 for a net gain of 8.27 percent.

There’s no doubt that folks in the NBA are now well aware of Denver’s super Serbian, but he faces still competition from Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo for the award.

Given how much he’s already been overlooked, it would be safe to assume Jokic won’t pick up this hardware. Antetokounmpo was named to the All-Star team and Gobert helped his team reach the second round of the NBA Playoffs. Jokic was solid in the rising stars game, but the Nuggets finished below .500 and didn’t even warrant a national TV broadcast last year. It’s hard to see him picking up a national award when he had so few opportunities to shine on a national stage.

Still, none of that should take away from the strides he made this past season. He’s officially the most-important Nugget on the roster and the centerpiece for a young Denver team that should be competing for a playoff spot in 2017-18. Hopefully the Nuggets land a few spots on the ESPN and TNT lineup next season so the rest of the country can start to see what those of us in Denver get to enjoy three to four nights a week during basketball season.

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