December 15th, 2016.
This date appears bound to go down as one of the most important in Nuggets history – the date that Nikola Jokic was, once and for all, installed as Denver’s starting center, the pivotal date which changed everything not only for the current season, but likely for many years to come.
Nearly overnight, the Nuggets’ offense transformed into one of the league’s best, as Jokic essentially assumed the role of point center and the nexus through which everything flowed. Indeed, for much of the time since Dec. 15, Denver’s offensive rating was the NBA’s highest, and has only recently slipped to second at 133.8, with Golden State having moved ahead to first at 114.4. And it seems entirely likely that the Nuggets would have maintained that top spot had it not been for their recent rash of injuries taking out up to six players at a time, including more than half of their starters.
Much has rightfully been made of Big Honey’s exquisite playmaking, how dramatically better he makes his teammates when they share the floor with him, his improved 3-point shooting, and his hyper-efficient mid-range game – he currently has the ninth-best 2-point shooting percentage (.617) among qualified players while taking a full 48% of his shot attempts from 3 feet out to the 3-point arc.
But there are some who posit that Jokic may already have either hit or approached his ceiling, in large part due to his limited athleticism, his slow lateral speed, and the fact that he is not the type of center who powers the ball up to posterize his defenders, or to swat the ball into the second level on defense. And this concern (or criticism in some cases) is not without valid reasoning, as historically some of Jokic’s limitations have reliably served as red flags for low upside.
Considering this question of Jokic’s ceiling, it is worth exploring the trajectory of his development this season. Obviously, his outright production is up from the beginning of the season, as dramatically highlighted by his recent 40-point game and two triple-doubles. But then, that could just be in large part a product of the increased minutes that came with the starting job and his ability to reduce the foul trouble he was getting into in December.
So below we are going to take a look at his progress over the course of this season in three areas – rebounds, assists, and 3-point shooting. But first it is important to locate these within the context of usage. One legitimate criticism of the PER (Player Efficiency Rating) stat is that its usefulness decreases for players with limited minutes and usage rates. So while we might note that Jokic has improved from a PER of 21.5 his rookie season to 26.5 in this current campaign, the rookie value might not carry much weight considering he didn’t play too many minutes (21.7 per game), and his usage rate of 19.9, while not too low, was comparatively modest. As a more extreme example, Jarnell Stokes, who played just two games with the Nuggets this season, is third in the NBA in PER at 31.6, edging out Russell Westbrook (29.5), Kawhi Leonard (28.2), and James Harden (27.6).
To provide a sort of framework for understanding where Nikola Jokic fits into a broader historical context of NBA centers in their differentials in usage rate and PER from their rookie seasons to their sophomore seasons, I prepared the chart below.
As you can see, Jokic – with significant increases in both usage rate and PER – is in some (mostly) elite company, residing in similar territory as Shaquille O’Neal and Anthony Davis.
It is critical to note here that this chart only shows each player’s individual improvement, and so players located near each other improved to a similar degree, but not necessarily with similar stats. So for example, while Andrew Bynum and DeMarcus Cousins are in similar territory in that they are among the centers whose PER increased the most from their first to second years, Bynum’s increased from 7.4 to 15.4, while Boogie’s increased from 14.6 to 21.7. So we need to be cautious in our interpretations here.
In this case, however, Jokic’s improvement in PER from 21.5 to 26.5 really is quite close to that of Davis (from 21.7 to 26.5) and just slightly below that of Shaq (from 22.9 to 28.5). So with this particular set their close proximity on the chart is also reflected in their underlying numbers.
The more important takeaway here, however, is the larger trend, where centers who went on to have more successful careers in the NBA tend to be firmly in the upper-right quadrant, with positive correlations between increase in both usage rate and PER. (Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan, whose pace of early development was a bit slower, are two notable exceptions). At the same time, those centers who did not go on to become star players tend to lie outside that quadrant.
Basically this speaks to the players who delivered on their star potential actually being able to increase their efficiency while at the same time taking on a heavier workload. This tends to be what separates the cream of the crop from the multitude of serviceable, but average to below average backup bigs logging around 15 to 18 minutes a game on benches around the league.
Important to Jokic’s case, however, is that not only has he taken a leap from last season to his current campaign, he has been on a trajectory of continual improvement before our very eyes. Looking at the context of usage rate from a slightly different angle, we can see that Jokic’s usage has been (more or less) steadily on the rise.
And again, the question here should be, as his minutes and usage have increased, has he been able to simultaneously improve on his efficiency as well?
The great news for the Denver Nuggets and their fans is that the answer here is a resounding “yes.”
And at this point I will sign off on this text portion of the post, since prefaced by everything above, the three remaining charts below pretty much speak for themselves.
But the bottom line is this: If Jokic actually does have a low ceiling or limited upside, someone forgot to tell him about it. Because he just keeps crashing through to higher levels of efficiency and production at a frankly mind-boggling pace.
And given that, and the fact that he is already legitimately playing elite-caliber basketball, even if we start to see things plateau fairly soon (as they inevitably will at some point), Jokic will already have become the Nuggets’ next superstar player.
Rebounds per game / rebounds per 36 minutes
Assists per game / assists per 36 minutes
3-point shooting percentage
(All stats in this article from NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com.)