Denver Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic does more than just score and make highlight reel assists, he also is the teams’ leading rebounder.
Draft night of 2014 was highlighted by a first round trade that might go down as one of the biggest steals in NBA draft history. Gary Harris was an exciting player coming out of a school with great coaching, and Jusuf Nurkic was a behemoth with tons of potential. That said, I’m never one to be satisfied until I have all the details, so I looked up film on our unheralded second round pick that few expected would ever make the league.
What I found was grainy footage of a goofy overweight big man in a ridiculous pink jersey. Looking beyond that, I was amazed by his incredible post footwork and obvious basketball instincts. At the time, his passing and shotmaking ability didn’t stick out, but his awareness and basketball IQ were obvious. When he came over to the team a year later in 2015, it was his passing that made it clear he was definitely going to be an NBA player. By his second season, Jokic was known as one of the best passing big men in the NBA, and rightfully so. During that season another skill revealed itself, a downright elite shotmaking ability, especially from mid-range.
Now coming into his third season, Jokic has become the darling of stat gurus and basketball lovers in general. Numerous articles have been written about his passing, shooting, and his overall basketball IQ. So much so, that one of his most consistent and dominant skills has been widely overlooked. Over his career, Jokic has averaged 12 rebounds in games which he plays thirty or more minutes. Now that he’s getting those minutes consistently, those skills will start to get the attention they deserve, but just how is Jokic putting up those numbers?
Great rebounders tend to be freak athletes with long arms who out jump the opposition for the ball. This was personified in the top 3 rebounders last season in Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan, and Hassan Whiteside. In years past, guys like Dwight Howard, Shaq, and Ben Wallace have been the big men who dominate the boards. However, there is a historical precedence for ground bound or undersized players who dominate the boards. For example, Charles Barkley and Tim Duncan.
I’ll let you guess which of these rebounding archetypes Jokic falls into (Hint: It’s not the first one). That being said, Jokic has the potential to place his name in the conversation with some of the best rebounders in NBA history. I know it sounds crazy, he’s only 15 games into his third season, how can we possibly put him in that range so early?
Well to answer that question, we can simply take a look at what other players have done in their first three seasons. After Saturday’s 17 rebound performance, Jokic has 47 games of at least 12 rebounds. That puts him in a tie for 43rd among all players in their first three seasons since the 1983-1984 season. Now that’s only 14 games into his third season and it also comes from a guy who has played 30+ minutes in only 50 games. It’s quite likely that Jokic will force his way into the top 20 of that list, which is currently populated by eight hall of famers and 3-5 future hall of famers.
With Jokic, his rebounding really does come down to two things, positioning and great hands. Like every other aspect of his game, Nikola has a great understanding of where he needs to be on the court in order to have a shot at a rebound. He certainly isn’t going to out jump anyone to get the rebound once he’s there, but often times this actually turns into an advantage for him. While other guys are mistiming jumps around him, Jokic stays on his feet and moves himself to where the ball his going. Even in cases where he does jump for it, he lands pretty quickly and can go back up in a hurry if needed. His inability to fly through the air keeps him grounded and gives him control over where he and his opponents are in relation to the ball.
Jokic also has some of the best hands you’ll ever see on a center. His ability to control the ball on the move with a single hand is uncanny. He makes plays more akin to water polo than basketball, especially on the offensive glass. His ability to control the ball so well with one hand allows him to use the other hand to contain and fend off the defensive players around him. If you can catch, control, and redirect the ball with one hand, it dramatically reduces the time it takes to do all of those things. Which forces opponents to have to defend him after each shot attempt.
Everyone now seems to be aware that Jokic is a very efficient scorer and an incredible passer, but people are slowly starting to realize just how good of a rebounder he is. After that 17 rebound performance against the Magic, people around the league were shocked by the number. It’s a testament to how good the rest of his skills are that people can still be surprised by his rebounding ability. It’s been one of the most impressive and consistent aspects of his game for three seasons now. This along with improved defensive effort, is going to show the NBA world that Nikola Jokic is one of the most complete players league.