The Denver Nuggets have established Nikola Jokic as their face of the franchise. He’s often critiqued for his defense. Nugg Love explains why this is simply untrue.
General NBA dialogue has largely come around to the fact that Nikola Jokic is a top 10 player, but there are still some narratives that seem to define him as a player. I still consistently hear that Jokic is not a good defender or that he’s out of shape and overweight, or sometimes both. Local media has an entirely different narrative and that’s there are times where Jokic just mentally isn’t in games, which is largely their explanation for the first month of the season for the Denver Nuggets.
Nikola Jokic is Out of Shape
Now as far as the conditioning argument is concerned, Jokic hasn’t done himself any favors. He came into this season quite heavy and in past seasons has somehow managed to gain weight during the season despite playing professional basketball, which is kind of impressive.
That said this year, Jokic seems to have figured out that his weight and conditioning really do matter. Since being embarrassed by Anthony Davis on December 3rd, Nikola Jokic has hit the weight room after every game and managed to lose roughly 30 pounds. He became significantly more dedicated to his fitness and has really thrived since then.
Since that early December game against the Lakers, Jokic has averaged 23.2 points, 10 rebounds, and 7.1 assists per game on 55.8% shooting and 38.6% from three-point range. Those are MVP level numbers and he’s put them up over the span of 3 months, much of that coming without multiple rotation players.
Not only has he been working out more, but it does actually show. He’s notably leaner and actually quicker on the court. Speed is never something that will be a strength for Jokic, but he’s looked faster on the court in the last few months than I think I’ve ever seen him look.
The simple fact that Jokic has decided to take his conditioning this seriously is a very positive sign for his career. Whether this commitment carries through the offseason is another question entirely, but taking care of himself like this in the regular season is promising.
Nikola Jokic is a Terrible Defender
When it comes to him being a poor defender, I have to chalk this narrative up to much of the national media just not watching him play very often. It’s a narrative that is 2-2 1/2 years old and really just seems silly now when you watch the Denver Nuggets. He’s not a rim protector, but he’s got very quick hands and is good at baiting players into taking less than ideal shots.
He’s good at positioning himself to disrupt passing lanes and break up set plays. He’s also smart enough to know what angles to take to affect a player’s shot despite his slow foot speed. Basketball IQ is one of the most important factors in a player’s individual defense and Jokic has one of the highest in the league and he makes it work for him.
What was long thought to be his biggest weakness defensively, guarding the pick and roll, has become a strength. Because of his ability to jump out on the ball handler, and then still use his quick hands to disrupt the pass to the roll man, he’s become one of the best big men in the league at defending this type of play.
This is probably the most frustrating thing to still see talked about on a national level. Jokic is now a good defender and one of the main reasons the Nuggets have been a top 10 defense the last couple of seasons. The Denver Nuggets are just not seen much by the national media which makes it take a while for their takes to catch up to reality.
Nikola Jokic is Prone to Emotional Funks
This was the narrative that circulated locally about Jokic’s slow start to the season. In a way, there’s really no denying that it is indeed true. Jokic is an emotional guy and more than most guys in the NBA he often wears those emotions on his sleeves.
Jokic loves his home in Sombor, Serbia and clearly misses it when he’s in Denver with the Nuggets. It’s also pretty clear that he isn’t a fan of the media or the stresses that come with being an NBA star. Jokic would much rather play a game and then fade into the background. Instead, he’s the star of every post-game media scrum and regularly recognized on the street and it seems to wear on him.
While I can’t deny that this does happen, what I can debunk is that it’s a major hurdle in his quest to be considered one of the best in the league. Every star player has periods throughout the season where their game is either off or they are just clearly not playing that hard.
Lebron barely plays defense in most regular seasons and fairly regularly takes a month or so off, at least effort-wise, in the regular season. James Harden went a whole month this year when he could barely hit a shot. I say all this to point that it isn’t unusual for superstars to take nights off or have slumps.
In fact, in Lebron’s case, his nights off seem calculated to avoid being fatigued come playoff time. And while it seems clear Jokic’s slumps are related to his mood, it’s quite possible that’s the case for other stars as well. Most NBA players grew up in an American culture that told them men shouldn’t be emotional and their demeanor reflects that.
Jokic puts his emotions out there and it sometimes creeps into his game. While I do think he needs to get better at avoiding this, I don’t consider it to be a major flaw in his game. I also believe that we’ve seen signs of this improving. He’s still a young guy maturing before our eyes and that trend will only continue.