Somehow, the basketball world still underrates Nikola Jokic. Even after a First Team All-NBA season that culminated in one of the most impressive playoff debuts in recent memory, the Denver Nuggets franchise player is still broadly considered a borderline top-10 player at best, an assessment that fails to account for his all-encompassing influence on a team that will contend for the top playoff seed in the Western Conference.
Here are three bold predictions for Jokic as the 2019-20 season quickly approaches.
3. Nikola Jokic Will Shoot At Least 36 Percent From Beyond The Arc
For the most part, defenses already treat Jokic like a reliable stretch big man. Affording him space to operate on the perimeter gives one of the league’s best and most creative passers windows to make plays he otherwise wouldn’t have, a dynamic many Nuggets opponents mitigate by staying with an arm’s length of Jokic beyond the arc. But letting him shoot might actually be the defense’s most optimal plan, at least based on last season when Jokic connected on just 30.7 percent of his three-point attempts, an easy career-low.
Jokic is a much, much better shooter than that number suggests, with an effortless, repeatable stroke and impeccably soft touch from all around the floor. He shot a solid 40. 3 percent from mid-range in 2018-19, and his long ball went it when it mattered most, as he drained threes at a 39.3 percent clip in the playoffs while taking four triples per game.
Jokic’s struggles from deep last season were an aberration; don’t expect them to carry over to 2019-20.
2. Jokic Will Average Fewer Than 33 Minutes Per Game
Concerns about Jokic’s conditioning proved overblown following the postseason, when he averaged just below 40 minutes per game and actually improved on his true shooting percentage and lowered his turnover rate compared to the regular season. He even played a whopping 64 minutes in Denver’s three-overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals, a saga for which he was on the floor more than any other player for either team.
Jokic could still stand to tighten his body; any resulting addition of burst and explosiveness, no matter how small, would make a major difference for arguably the most skilled player in basketball. But Mike Malone will be loathe to wear down his naturally pudgy big man over the 82-game grind, fully confident Denver will be able to get by without him. After all, Jokic played just 31.3 minutes per game last season, before the Nuggets added Jerami Grant to one of the deepest frontcourts in basketball.
There will be closely-contested, marquee games during the regular season in which Jokic approaches 40 minutes. But considering Denver’s big-picture title hopes, the likelihood many of their victories are decided by the fourth quarter, and its burnished depth up front, Malone will want to keep Jokic as fresh as possible for the playoffs, and rightfully so.
1. Jokic Will Win MVP – With A Catch
Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden are inevitable. The reigning MVP is still a long way from reaching his peak at 24-years-old, and will run roughshod over a weakened Eastern Conference with the Milwaukee Bucks yet again, in the process putting up huge numbers across the board. Last season’s runner-up, meanwhile, has added a new step-back variation to his unstoppable offensive arsenal, and could lead the Houston Rockets to the top of the West with Russell Westbrook as his sidekick.
Antetokounmpo and Harden will undoubtedly he heard from in the MVP race, voted fatigued be damn. But Jokic fortified his case as one of top-eight players in basketball last spring, and the young Nuggets are primed to be better than ever in 2019-20. Jokic quietly finished a distant fourth in MVP voting last season. With a superior supporting cast and an even firmer grasp on the wheel of his team’s vaunted offensive attack, Jokic will fare even better in the MVP race this time around – and win the Maurice Podoloff Trophy if the Nuggets again finish with the best record in the Western Conference.