How Did We Miss on Nikola Jokic?
The Serbian savant is Sombor Shuffling straight into the NBA Finals - why didn't we see this coming?
By far the funniest part of Nikola’s career was the night of the 2014 NBA Draft, when the league and the United States let Nikola know just how little they cared about his arrival.
According to urban legend, Mr. Jokic was asleep at the time of his selection - rather reasonable for a 19 year old playing in the Adriatic league who wanted to get some sleep in the middle of the night. When he awoke, he was set to become a member of the Denver Nuggets…in theory that is. In reality, Jokic stayed in Europe for one more year with KK Mega Bemax (aka Mega Basket), the club with whom he spent his three years prior to joining the NBA. Despite his anonymous arrival to the league, Jokic was on the radar of NBA and international scouts for a couple of years prior to his drafting; in April 2014 he was part of the World Select team competing in the Nike Hoop Summit, a week-long program with practices and scrimmages between some of the best young prospects in the world. In those practices Jokic squared up against fellow European big man Clint Capela, who was well respected for his defense and fluid movement ability - by all reports, Nikola dominated Clint in their various matchups throughout the week.
The prior year Jokic was a role player on the 2013 Serbian U-19 team that won a silver medal at the U-19 World Championship and started making appearances in the Serbian League as early as 2012-13. In 2013-14, the season prior to Jokic being drafted, he played 25 games in the Adriatic League and established himself as a consistent contributor and genuine up-and-coming threat on the international scene. Despite that, Jokic wasn’t even the most coveted prospect on his own team as Nuggets international scout Rafal Juk admitted in an article with the Denver Gazette - in fact, KK Mega Bemax had FOUR players on that team drafted over the next few years. Here are their career stats:
Vasilije Micic (#52 pick in ‘14 NBA Draft): 0 GP
Nemanja Dangubic (#54 pick in ‘14 NBA Draft): 0 GP
Ognjen Jaramaz (#58 pick in the ‘17 NBA Draft): 0 GP
Nikola Jokic (#41 pick in ‘14 NBA Draft): 596 GP, 18341 minutes, 105 Triple-Doubles, 64 playoff starts, 2 MVP awards and a 1-0 series lead in the 2023 NBA Finals
As absurd as it is in hindsight, I have a hard time holding folks accountable for overlooking the big fella. While his preternatural instincts shine through, and his size is undeniable, his mobility and pace is not just poor, it looks untenable. Frankly, nobody could predict he could make this kind of impact in the NBA. In the piece I linked earlier, former GM Tim Connelly mentioned that “If [the Nuggets] knew, we would have drafted him earlier.” Those aren’t empty words either - Denver selected fellow Balkan-based big man Jusuf Nurkic at #16, as well as guard Gary Harris at #19. The Nuggets then waited for twenty-one more selections to be made before drafting the eventual two-time MVP of the league. Simply put, Nikola Jokic was not an incredibly impressive prospect in the 2013-14 season leading up to his draft.
I also wanted to link this scouting report written by Daniel O’Brien of Bleacher Report right after the 2014 NBA Draft; he makes some excellent points regarding Jokic’s skill and size giving him a solid baseline, and he even notes that the league is more accessible for subpar athletes these days. Yes, Jokic had great skill that could help him fit into the system, but at the day there wasn’t confidence that he could make a real impact as a starter. That’s because just like every other person in the world, O’Brien missed on one little thing - Jokic didn’t just fit into a system, he became the system. Rather than adapting to the talent around him, Jokic became the gravitational pull around which scorers like Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. can orbit.
One of the most remarkable parts of Jokic’s story is the extra year he stayed overseas - while Jusuf Nurkic was attempting to cement himself as the Nuggets’ long term starter, Nikola was over in Belgrade turning himself into an Adriatic League MVP. His first Adriatic League game was a win in which he scored 27 points and pulled down 15 rebounds, both over double his averages from the previous year. Over the course of the year, Jokic put up 15pts/3ast/9reb, and two 30PT performances in the last 7 games of his season. The 3PT shot had become a weapon for Jokic, who was now shooting nearly 4 a game, though only making 32.6% for the season. His free throw percentage was remarkably low as well - 69.1% is certainly not an indicator of great touch, let alone all-time great touch.
But it was clear that there were not 40 better prospects in the previous year’s draft, and even prior to his NBA appearance there was a thought that Jokic may have been a borderline lottery pick had he waited an extra year to enter the 2015 NBA Draft instead. One of my favorite pieces of analysis leading up to the 2015-16 season (Jokic’s first in the NBA) was this piece also by Dan O’Brien - check out this comparison for Jokic:
Not shabby at all, Nikola. Not shabby at all.
The story from there is all public knowledge. Jokic went on to join the Denver Nuggets and quickly caused controversy as a segment of the fanbase instantly demanded that he start over incumbent starter Jusuf Nurkic. In the first season, Michael Malone did his best to play the two together, with Jokic manning the 4 position; in time however it was clear that Jokic needed the space to operate from the 5 spot, and Nurkic was traded to Portland along with a 1st rounder in exchange for Mason Plumlee.
After his first three years, Jokic established himself as a triple-double machine and a perennial All-Star, making his first appearance in the 2018-19 season at age 23. He played two more years at a consistent All-Star player, averaging around 20/7/10, before he elevated his game once again in 2020-21 to become a two-time MVP winner and one-time runner up this year. This past year, Jokic averaged nearly 25/10/10 on a genuinely hard to believe 70.1% true shooting, and has only gotten better in the playoffs, where his Usage% bumped up from a manageable 27.2% to a heavy 31.1% on his team’s run to the 2023 NBA Finals.
The leaps and bounds that Nikola Jokic have taken over the past few years are hard to describe with words, and will always be near-impossible to predict with data. Jokic is an exception, an outlier, a data point that must be excluded from analysis because he is so good and so productive that he skews the standard for all other players. After this year’s playoffs, I sense there is no longer an argument whether Giannis or Joel Embiid are better or frankly even comparable level players to Jokic. Now, he is competing with ghosts - he is on pace to rival Kareem, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal as one of the great big men in NBA history. And honestly, limiting the comparison strictly to big men is boring, because Nikola Jokic might be on pace to be the best playmaker in NBA history. His competition isn’t just Wilt and Shaq, but Magic and Lebron, Bird and Kobe, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd.
Jokic has an argument as one of the best rebounders, one of the best passers, and one of the best scorers in the league - all in one body. That has NEVER happened before. Let’s not forget, Jokic turned 28 just a few months ago, and it’s not like Jokic has to worry about his speed being sapped away with age. Given another 6, 8, even 10 years of high level production, we’ll see Jokic ascend not just into the pantheon of greatest Denver athletes, but of the greatest basketball players ever.
So, back to the original question - how did we miss on Nikola Jokic? Dude, how could we not miss on him? Nothing about his 2013-14 season back in Belgrade indicated that this doughy big man with some faceup skills and a nice jumper could orchestrate an offense like a puppet-master tugging on strings. Nikola is a case of rapid improvement, of a player who learned how to play basketball at an exponential rate which allowed him not just to survive but to thrive when moving up levels. The surest sign of a superstar prospect is the ability to increase your production and efficiency when the game gets more difficult, whether that be scaling up from high school to college, or from the regular season to the postseason. We haven’t come up with a metric that measures Dawg per 36 minutes, but we can look at the improvement of key indicators (mainly grouped into production & efficiency) as a player changes contexts. Like anything this is not a hard and fast rule, but the ability to thrive under pressure and adapt to changing contexts is so incredibly important as an NBA player, especially one coming over from Serbia as a baby-faced 20 year old.
As much as we want to quantify the NBA Draft and project the growth of prospects, we have to admit that you simply can’t measure the mind of a person. Only a select few have the size, strength, agility, and coordination to play in the NBA, but even in that pool the vast majority simply have normal brains. They don’t have an overwhelming, never-ending, borderline psychotic need to grow, to learn, to improve, to do everything in their power to become a better basketball player. Even that isn’t enough - you can want it as much as you want, but if your brain can’t process and store the info, or if you simply can’t read-and-react during the game, then all that passion and effort is for naught.
The reason we missed on Jokic, and will continue to miss on guys like this, is because basketball isn’t played on spreadsheets, and because 18 year olds are still years away from being fully mentally developed. We miss because the variance of outcomes is so massive, and you can put all the money and time and energy into a prospect but unless they get it, there’s nothing you can do. All we can do is go back and analyze our process at the time, look for areas where we questioned Jokic’s upside and potential and figure out exactly how he has managed to shed the flaws and break through the glass ceiling that had been placed over him. The questions of mobility, the uncertainty of his offensive role, and lack of defensive motor were all valid concerns, but Jokic has managed to overcome them all with his conditioning and absolutely brilliant on-court understanding of the game. Don’t expect to see a story like this for a long time, and of course the biggest lesson of this story is to ALWAYS stay tuned during Taco Bell commercials - you never know what easter eggs you’ll uncover!
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Speaking of easter eggs, here’s one last interview with Nikola Jokic, conducted by DraftExpress’ Jonathan Givoney back in 2014 prior to the 2014 NBA Draft.