How Nikola Jokić has made the center position cool again

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) celebrates during the second half in game seven of the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippersat ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Sep 15, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) celebrates during the second half in game seven of the second round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs against the Los Angeles Clippersat ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not too often you find a big man throwing no look passes and setting his teammates up for the best possible shots but Nikola Jokić does it. It’s not too often you find a big man leading the league in assists at one point in the season but Nikola Jokić did. 

Just a few short years ago, NBA scouts and media from all over said the center position was dying. They said guys like Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, and Tristan Thompson would fizzle out in this league unless they could learn to knock down a consistent three ball. Now, we’re seeing the center position evolve like we’ve never seen before. 

In 2015, the Golden State Warriors put the league on notice with a term called small ball. They emphasized their style of play off three-point shooting and playing a smaller lineup that was too quick and athletic to guard. When they won their first championship in 2015, they had a lineup of Stephen Curry (6-foot-3), Klay Thompson (6-foot-6), Draymond Green (6-foot-6), Andre Iguodala (6-foot-6), and Harrison Barnes (6-foot-8). They would go on to win 3 championships with this kind of lineup.

The year prior, we saw a totally different style of basketball, one that was more traditional. It was the San Antonio Spurs with a starting lineup that consisted of one of the best power forwards in NBA history in Tim Duncan (6-foot-10), Kawhi Leonard (6-foot-7), Boris Diaw (6-foot-8), Danny Green (6-foot-6) and Tony Parker (6-foot-2) against another big lineup in the Miami Heat who had LeBron James (6-foot-9), Dwyane Wade (6-foot-4), Chris Bosh (6-foot-11), Rashard Lewis (6-foot-10), and Ray Allen (6-foot-5). 

Seeing a championship caliber team dominate with a center at forefront is still very much alive and well because the position is evolving. Yes, the game today has moved into a fast paced, three-point shooting game but big men have adapted.

Lucky for Jokić, he sees the beauty in the process of elevating his game in more areas than one and has become the best passing big men we’ve ever seen. According to StatMuse, Jokić is the best big man assist rate leaders of all-time.The 6-foot-11, 284 pound center has changed what it means to be a center and has made the position cool again. He’s averaging 27 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists this season and was leading the league in assists at one point. He currently ranks 7th in that category. 

“His passing is what makes him so different from everybody else,” Jamal Murray said. His, not just willingness to pass, but like he wants to pass. He wants to find you. He wants to look this way and throw it that way. That’s the beauty he finds in the game. And at the same time if you leave him on the island he can score. Such a tough cover.” 

In addition to facilitating the ball, Jokić isn’t a guy you want to leave open. He’s averaging 57 percent from the field and 42 percent from the three-point line. He’s currently 9th in the league in scoring. He can shoot over almost anyone, he rolls hard off picks for easy baskets and can knock down threes. He can take over the game at will and has done so on many occasions. One game in particular this season, against the Chicago Bulls, the Nuggets struggled maintaining a 15-point lead and allowed the Bulls to take a 6-point lead in the fourth. Jokić was so focused on getting his teammates involved but realized he needed to take over the game in order to win. He scored 17 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter to win it and did so with three guys trying to defend him. He just can’t be stopped. 

“I’m just glad the centers are doing something to lead the whole league and the whole world is recognizing,” Jokić said. “Last couple of years, everybody was like small ball and everything, and bigs needed to do something to make a difference.”

The 3x NBA All-Star credits his on the court accolades to his preparation off the court. His diet has really helped him go from the 41st pick in the second round to a top MVP candidate this season. 

“I think it’s the sacrifices you need to put in,” Jokić said. “Two years ago I made the decision that I was going to lose some weight and the whole process to losing weight took about 6 to 8 months. I’m still on that kind of diet. It’s not as strict as it was during those 6 to 8 months. Your body is a tool and you need to have the best tool possible. That was my goal, to have my body be in the best shape possible to perform.”

Jokić continues to improve in all facets of his game and really sees has no ceiling. He became only the ninth player in NBA history to record 50-career triple doubles becoming only the second center to do so behind Wilt Chamberlain. He also became the third fastest player to reach 50 career triple-doubles. But when you ask him about his accomplishments and what his goals are, Jokić always deflects and centers the conversation around his team.

In addition to Jokić, we’re seeing other big men thriving in different ways. Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 6-foot-11 forward, dominates the game without having to rely heavily on the three-point shot. He’s an athletic big who can rebound the ball, dribble the ball and deliver the ball like we’ve never seen before. Joel Embiid, a 7-foot center, is another athletic big who can score at all three levels and has proven to be one of the leagues top defenders. He is currently leading the MVP race so far this season and his 30 points and 12 rebounds has led the Philadelphia 76ers to the best record in the NBA at 24-12. 

It’s safe to say the big man position is in good hands. The more traditional centers have figured out ways to remain relevant especially in the post season when the game slows down and the new generation of bigs have figured out ways to fit in with the faster pace of the NBA by implementing a more guard-like style of play. 

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