While many NBA all-stars were getting settled in Los Angeles, future all-star Nikola Jokic cemented his name in the NBA record books with the fastest triple-double in NBA history. Jokic broke the 63-year-old record with a time of 14 minutes and 33 seconds, finishing with 30 points, 17 assists, 15 rebounds, and 2 blocks on 11/14 shooting, including 3/3 from three and 5/5 on his free throws.
Going into the game many Nuggets fans viewed this as a trap game with all-star weekend just around the corner, playing on the road against the Bucks. Most NBA fans likely felt the all-star break had already begun with Wednesday night’s battle between the Warriors and Trail Blazers, however there was still important basketball to be played. The Nuggets, needing a win to be sitting in the six seed during the all-star break, couldn’t come out sluggish; a loss would drop them to the nine seed. The core needed to play well, and they did, finishing with 84 points and 24 assists, shooting 13/17 from three. On top of that Denver shot 60 percent from three as a team and tied a franchise record, from about this time last year, with 24 made three-pointers.
This triple-double wasn’t the product of one night in Milwaukee, however. This record is the culmination of a budding all-star career from the 23-year-old Joker from Serbia.
From Serbia to the NBA
Nikola Jokic started his professional basketball journey in 2012 working his way up the Adriatic League ranks from junior team to rotational reserve for Mega Leks by the time he was drafted in the 2014 NBA draft. Participating in the 2014 Nike Hoops Summit with the likes of Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, and Emmanuel Mudiay, along with going up against current rival Karl Anthony-Towns, Jokic was able to dominate a scrimmage with his post play, shooting ability, and of course playmaking. In the game as part of the World Select Team, Jokic took a back seat to the playmaking abilities of Murray and Mudiay and played behind Towns at the center position. Needless to say in his 16 minutes he did not record a first half triple-double, instead Jokic didn’t even record an assist along with going 1/3 from the field with 5 points and 7 rebounds.
As the 41st pick of the 2014 draft, Jokic wasn’t even thought to be the best center that the Nuggets drafted that year. Jusuf Nurkic was picked 14th overall and traded to Denver along with Gary Harris likely to become the team’s future at center and shooting guard.
The potential was there for Jokic to be drafted in 2014, but he hadn’t shown enough to be considered worth taking a shot on in an NBA rotation until he returned to Serbia for the 2014-15 season, now starting at center after the departure of Ratko Varda. As a starter, the 19-year-old Jokic, improved his averages to 16.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 3.3 assists, very similar to what he did in the 2016-17 NBA season.
A look at highlights from Jokic’s time with Mega Leks shows a player that looks similar to what you see now at the NBA level, although he was a much heavier pick and roll usage player. The concern at the time, as seen in the highlights, was how Jokic would adapt to the speed of the NBA game, specifically if his post play and decision making could prevail at the next level.
Jokic’s NBA Opportunity
When the Nuggets brought Jokic over to fill in for an injury depleted rotation at center, he played solid in limited minutes averaging 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 2.4 assists (16.5, 11.6, and 3.9 per 36 minutes). What kept Jokic off the floor the majority of the time was his foul trouble. Averaging 4.3 fouls per 36 minutes his rookie year, Jokic would often take to many silly fouls to stop an opposing players fast break. The Nuggets have worked with Jokic on this and, like many other areas, he continues to improve, allowing him to play more minutes.
Jokic posted an exceptional sophomore season after entering the starting lineup in the now famous December 15, 2016 lineup shakeup. That move gave way for Jokic to be on the national NBA radar. Jokic increased his averages to 16.7 points per game, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists, but more importantly he staked his claim as a potential great Nugget by outshining the first great number 15, Carmelo Anthony. Jokic had a better statistical average per 36 minutes in every category, including scoring. While Carmelo contributed a Nuggets career high in win shares of 9.4 in his third season with the team, Jokic surpassed that number in his second season with 9.7 win shares. Along the way, his unique playmaking ability did not go unnoticed as he was eligible for the NBA’s assist of the year award for his behind-the-head pass to Wilson Chandler.
The 2016-17 Nuggets finished third in the NBA with 111.7 points per game, including 114.4 points per game after December 15th. Jokic was the leading cog in the Nuggets offensive engine that narrowly missed out on the playoffs following a battle with late-season injuries and lackluster defensive performances. The Nuggets ended up being the only team in the top nine of offensive rating not to be a top four seed in their conference.
The Summer of 2017
In the summer of 2016, Jokic participated in the Olympics for Serbia and led them, along with Clippers guard Milos Teodosic and Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, to a Silver medal. While that was an undoubtedly big summer for Jokic, most Nuggets fans were much more intrigued with the saga in the summer of 2017 as Jokic returned to Serbia to work on his game.
While Jokic’s decision to decline to participate in EuroBasket sparked some disappointment from Serbian fans, he was still able to improve by taking time off the court and working with former Nuggets trainer Steve Hess on his conditioning and size. Bleacher Report’s “The way of the Joker” article in November gave an in depth look into Jokic’s summer in Serbia. Jokic appeared visibly bigger heading into the 2017-18 season in an attempt to improve his defensive ability against bigger centers and overall ability to withstand wear and tear over the years.
The 2017-18 NBA Season of Expectation
Following his 2016-17 campaign and a summer built on anticipation, the consensus was for Jokic to make a run at becoming an all-star in 2018. It was expected he would be the Nuggets star player in an offense that could contend with Golden State and Houston’s alongside a projected improved defense with the signing of Paul Millsap. Unfortunately for the Nuggets the offense didn’t completely click right away, and their play on the road was abysmal. Just when it seemed like Denver was gaining steam with their best lineup of the year, (see Rafael Torres’ article) the Millsap injury hit and the Nuggets hit another road bump.
Millsap was not the only casualty that night in Los Angeles, Jokic and Coach Malone were also ejected as the season seemed to be taking an unfortunate turn for the worse. The Nuggets 9-7 record and placement in the Western Conference standings was in jeopardy. More than 20 different lineup changes since the Millsap injury kept the Nuggets searching for a true identity, especially Nikola Jokic who suffered an ankle injury and switched off playing the four and five in different lineups.
Jokic’s numbers fluctuated wildly depending on his role in the offense. Jokic’s field goal percentage dropped each month until February while his overall impact seemed to dip in January as the Nuggets faced a tough stretch of back-to-back scheduling. In January Jokic averaged a -1.1 +/-, his first negative month of the year.
The eye test would tell you that Jokic was clearly struggling with finding his place in the offense; some nights he would predetermine that he would be a passer and never be able to get going scoring the ball when he needed to. Other times he would designate himself to be a perimeter shooter and floor spacer to allow Mason Plumlee to work in the post as the five. The Jokic struggles along with the perceived disappointing January for the team suggested that changes were needed.
One of the keys to the Nuggets offense in 2016-17 was credited to the development of assistant coach Chris Finch’s offense as detailed in this New Orleans Advocate piece. Finch was hired by the New Orleans Pelicans this offseason, which at first didn’t seem to pose much of a threat to the success of the Nuggets offense. It eventually became clear to Nuggets fans and Michael Malone alike that the offense needed more freedom to run through Jokic and less of a reliance on set plays trying to emulate the successes of 2016-17. Since Malone pulled back the play calling and freed up the offense to the decision making of Jokic, the Nuggets have looked like they can play with anyone in the league again.
A 22yo center is averaging an 18-11-8 so far in calendar year 2018, and Twitter is nitpicking his rim protection. Meanwhile, Denver's won 9 of 12 since they basically handed the team back to Jokic.
— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) February 16, 2018
Coming into the season the Nuggets core could best be evaluated as some young guys with potential put alongside Nikola Jokic (still young and also dependent on potential) and veteran Paul Millsap. It was certainly not viewed as a great young core. Gary Harris was consistently improving and even ranked second among guards in shooting percentage at 50.2 percent (minimum of 40 games played) only behind mid-range specialist Shaun Livingston in 2016-17.
It was unknown that Jamal Murray was being handed the keys to the point guard position basically until the season started. While Murray had been one of only 12 rookies to play all 82 games in the past five years, he ranked alongside Emmanuel Mudiay as the two lowest valued above replacement scorers on the Nuggets last year. Everyone was hopeful that Harris, Millsap, and Jokic could form a pseudo big three, but it wasn’t looking like Jamal could be a consistent piece. In October, Murray averaged 12.3 points per game and only shot 18.2 percent from behind the three-point line. But, after Millsap went down Murray’s competitive spirit began to show as he improved on his scoring numbers, mostly by shooting over 40 percent from three in three consecutive months now, while also shouldering a load of playing more than 30 minutes a game.
The core truly culminated on the national stage in their thrilling victory over OKC on February 1st. Murray dueled Paul George down the stretch finishing with 33 points and continuing his role as the takeover threat late in games. Harris finished with a comparably quiet 25 by core standards as he and Murray combined for 10 threes. Meanwhile, Jokic messed around and got a 29-13-14 triple-double also quietly recording a career high in assists at the time which ended up being somewhat forgotten because of Gary Harris’ magical buzzer-beating three for the national TV win.
February 16th in Milwaukee – The Record
The night got off to a good start with Jokic winning a rare jump ball before immediately attacking the basket on offense securing an offensive rebound and put-back. Jokic’s aggression was on full display pushing the ball after a steal leading to an assist for a Barton three. Within one minute, Jokic put the Nuggets up 5-0 and had recorded two points, an assist, a rebound, and a steal. Jokic had a circus shot go in after a foul and was playing with the swagger that usually makes the Nuggets a threat.
Even with a fast start for the Joker there were some missed opportunities, such as the Jamal Murray pass out of a layup that could have been yet another assist, along with three first quarter turnovers. It wasn’t just the core that dominated this game. Will Barton got off to a great start playing the small forward position and executing a pretty give and go with Jokic. Jokic’s triple-double effort wasn’t just the product of taking advantage of an early blowout, it was necessary. The Nuggets first quarter lead quickly evaporated with Jokic off the floor before he checked back in and increased the lead back to nine in the mid-second with a 17-4 run.
Jokic recorded the double-double at the 4:41 mark in the second and the triple-double on a Chandler double-clutch three from the corner with 1:54 remaining in the half. Jokic finished the half with 16-11-12 including the no-look behind the back pass to Juancho Hernangomez to cap the record-breaking first half performance. The effort gave the Nuggets a season-high for points in a half and the continuation of the triple-double in the second half allowed the Nuggets to hold on for a key victory in Milwaukee.
Jokic’s Triple-Double History
Jokic recorded his first six career triple-double in the 2016-17 NBA season while adding all five of his 2017-18 triple-doubles since the turn of the calendar this year. Coincidentally, Jokic’s first career triple-double came at home against the Bucks before posting another triple-double one month later in Milwaukee, the fourth of his career. Jokic set career highs in rebounds and assists in his triple-double in the short handed upset victory over the Warriors, before setting a new career high in assists almost exactly a year later in last Thursday’s game in Milwaukee. Jokic is one triple-double away from moving into a tie for third among centers all-time. He was also the first center in the last 30 years to record 30 points 15 rebounds and 17 assists, according to StatMuse, the next closest to achieving that stat line was Nikola Jokic. On Thursday, the Joker was only the second player in the last 20 seasons to record a triple-double in the first half, courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info, joining Russell Westbrook. The Elias Sports Bureau looked at players with 30 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists across all of NBA history and the list returned only six names: Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, James Harden, and Nikola Jokic.
Only 2 other players in NBA history have had a 30 pt, 17 assist and 15 reb game:
James Harden in 2016 and Magic Johnson in 1981
And now this gem pic.twitter.com/Fx7biYxsCv
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) February 16, 2018
Jokic’s Home Away From Home in Milwaukee
No doubt that Jokic is a special talent, but what is it about playing the Bucks that has generated three straight triple-double performances, specifically on the road in Milwaukee? Oddly enough, Milwaukee has provided some of the most notable Serbian crowds for Jokic as he’s traveled around the league. Jokic had made a name for himself around the league in 2017, taking selfies with fans the game before in the matchup with Chicago. The large Serbian contingent in Milwaukee repeated itself in 2018 as Jokic continued his selfie tradition. Most importantly, heading into the matchups with Milwaukee the timing just seems to be right so that Jokic feels free to play his brand of basketball, something that the Nuggets hope will continue throughout the regular season and on into the playoffs.
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) February 16, 2018
Happy Birthday to the Joker
All of this is essentially one really long way to wish Nikola Jokic a happy 23rd birthday. The future is clearly bright in Denver given their talented young core, but Jokic is always going to be the piece that keeps the offense rolling. While he may not have been an all-star in last night’s game, his story is just beginning and there are sure to be many more opportunities for the Serbian center to shine on the all-star stage and beyond in the future.
All statistics from basketball-reference.com, stats.nba.com, and USA Basketball archives.