May 7, 2021

Seven types of Nikola Jokić's passing magic

Seven types of Nikola Jokić's passing magic

Nikola Jokić will likely win the NBA MVP award this season. A lanky gamebreaker powered by guile and a Mensa-level basketball IQ, Jokić leads the Denver Nuggets and their 3rd-best record in the Western Conference.

Anyone watching Jokić play will notice his unique skill set instantly. The image of a gigantic 6'11" point guard bringing the ball up and initiating the offense still boggles the mind many years into Jokić's career. He's able to bash down low and vacuum up rebounds, but it is that playmaking panache at his size that truly separates Jokić from any of his peers at similar heights.

Like a mediation on morality and the American family told through New Jersey mobsters, the unexpected medium only adds to the joy of the experience.

Jokić produced 557 assists this season, per Basketball Reference. I watched clips of nearly all of them, courtesy of The High Low and NBA.com's advanced stat portal. The 557 include the expected, like dribble handoffs and post kick-outs for an open three, but any study of Jokić reveals several jaw-dropping passes that surprise you. Some of those highlights can be classified into a broader category; each capture the peculiar excellence and audacity of one of the league's most enjoyable and fascinating superstars.

The Water Polo Splashes

Scott Cacciola of The New York Times covered Jokić during the 2020 NBA Bubble, writing a brilliant piece on Jokić's incongruent playing style and its connective tissue with water polo. He interviewed water polo coaches and players, who all identified tendencies in Jokić's game that mirrored their sport.

At the same time, Jokic’s proclivity for palming the basketball is one of the sharpest parallels that water polo practitioners draw when they watch him on the court. One-handed passes. One-handed rebounds. One-handed floaters. One-handed dribble handoffs.

Every Jokić game seems to produce at least one of those moments, his giant hands tapping at the basketball like a child keeping a balloon afloat. In each example compiled here, Jokić never gathers the ball or solidies his possession.

Jokić cuts the available reaction time for the nearby Atlanta defenders by smacking the ball to a cutter. He redirects and distributes all with one seamless swat.

Avert your eyes

You can make anything in your life cooler by looking away while you do it. Emails to your manager take on an air of devil-may-care dismissiveness if you're gazing out the window when you hit send. Paul Walker successfully wooed Eva Mendes in 2 Fast 2 Furious by driving while staring into her eyes.

Those examples substitute utility for flair, but Nikola Jokić asks: why not both?

Jokić uses his eyes like a quarterback taunting a safety, rearranging the defense with a gaze before firing a pass to his preferred target.

I've watched this play dozens of times, and at no point can I find when Jokić even glanced at the far left corner.

I gathered a collection of these gems if you're looking for a montage of no-look glory.

Extreme patience

Jokić at his peak brings an air of inevitability, a certainty that with enough time he can manuever a positive-value shot for himself or his teammate. In his excellent profile of Jokić, The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor unearthered a data point that captures the doom for opponents caused by Jokić's patience.

Jokic does ballet on the basketball court. Teams have only two options to stop him: They can hope he misses, or they can double him. Opponents will try to pressure Jokic with the hopes that he’ll pass. But the Nuggets score an even more efficient 1.4 points per chance when Jokic gets doubled-teamed, per Second Spectrum.

The stat alone does not convey the depths of opponent despair. Steph Curry shoots 42.6% from three this season, per Basketball Reference. Each of those Curry bombs implies a 1.28 point per attempt—take the value of the shot and multiply it by the percentage made. Jokić getting doubled, where the defense nominally hopes to gain an advantage by sending an extra guy to muddy up the offense, ends up producing a more efficient offensive result than the greatest shooter ever pulling up from three!

How does he manage this? A relaxed, patient guile that never rushes into a decent decision when a better outcome might soon arrive.

He's able to wait out double teams and rotations until the right teammate springs open for a shot. He plans for the help defender covering a cut to take just one wrong step before lasering a pass into the vacated space.

Patience, forever a virtue and captured in these clips, now earns an MVP.

Touchdown, Denver

The sportswriting bylaws mandate that any article about an NBA playmaker must include one quarterback metaphor. Sometimes, that comparision can be a bit too literal.

On plays where a teammate sprints after a miss, or a defense lazily jogs back, Jokić springs into action and uncorks a deep ball that would have pushed Drew Lock for Denver Broncos snaps.

Kelly Olynyk hit a free throw with 0.9 seconds remaining in the half and then watched his opposing center chuck a full-court dime with no time left. Jokić's made a habit producing those deep bombs.

He's so adept at picking apart opponent laziness, and so quick with his passing, that he often catches the cameraman just as unprepared.

Asleep at the wheel

Producing a Jokić game must be torture. Any attempt at creating an ambience or deploying a new camera angle carries the threat of an off-screen Jokić lasering a 70 foot pass for an open layup.

Kawhi and the Clippers start this clip scheming up a defense and end it confused and two points worse for the wear.

The graphics barely load on screen before the bucket!

Shockingly, this isn't the only time Jokić beat the defense and the production team. You can watch all the examples here.

Skipping a step or three

My favorite Jokić assists always surprise me. He'll catch the ball facing one direction, teammates spread across the court, and then suddenly identify the best outcome and spirit the ball into that player's hands.

I added a freeze frame to this assist to better visualize the out-of-nowhere vision.

With his back turned to the entire side of that court, he waits for Ricky Rubio to meet the cutting Gary Harris. Jokić then attacks diagonally, eschewing the traditional north-south passing lanes for a flank-piercing cross-court dime.

I collected other examples of these surprises here.

Unclassified wildness

Sometimes, these passes escape classification and produce shrugs. Here's a collection of three random assists, each capturing a different brilliance.

He catches a passes, spins in the opposite direction, and throws his teammate into space for an open corner three. Notice how he places the pass just a bit to Michael Porter Jr's right to create space away from Kawhi.

That type of thoughtful playmaking especially benefits Porter Jr., recipient of 126 assists from Jokić, per NBA.com tracking data.

In another example, Jokić palms the ball, pump fakes three times to confuse every defender, and rifles another inch-perfect assist.

Here, he gets knocked over and, while horizontal, flips the ball behind his head for another open three.

I'm pretty sure a fully prone Jokić could still lead all centers in assists.

Only a few games remain in this compacted grind of an NBA season, and any joy left should be celebrated. Take a moment or two, tune in to the next Nuggets game, and enjoy the diverse brilliance of a Nikola Jokić assist.