Pick your caveat—it’s early; this is a weird season; I simply do not care—but the Nuggets are 12 games into their campaign and Nikola Jokic, the big pile of basketball genius on which Denver’s championship aspirations are built, is averaging 24 points, 10 assists, and 11 rebounds per game. He is currently leading the league in assists per game, as a damn center, which is something that hasn’t been done over the course of a full season since Wilt Chamberlain was playing.
Jokic continued his brilliant start to the season against the Warriors last night, putting up 23-14-10 in a 114-104 win. There is not really a signature highlight from that game to share here, nor a sequence of slow-mo savvy through which to illustrate how Jokic dominated the game. But that’s kind of the point. The fact is, Jokic didn’t even play all that well. He was in foul trouble early, only took four shots in the first half, and couldn’t get that high-arcing jumper of his to plop through the net all night. That all of that is true, and that Jokic was still able to put a sparkling entry into the box score and pull his team through the fourth quarter, says a lot about the levels of stardom he is reaching.
Jokic, now in his sixth season, is completing his transformation from a neat player who everyone likes to watch do fun and unexpected things on the court into the kind of superstar whose gravitational pull the game can’t escape.
The Nuggets began the fourth quarter of last night’s game up 90-76, but the Warriors went on a quick run to cut the lead to eight, and suddenly it was easy to imagine Steph Curry checking back into the game, hitting two quick threes to send the Nuggets into a panic, and eventually snatching a win to go along with 40-plus points. Instead of that happening, Jokic brought the game back under his influence, and by that I mean he grabbed some rebounds, made some passes, and got fouled a lot.
Jokic scored 10 points, grabbed three rebounds, dished three assists, and shot six free throws in the final nine minutes of the game. He earned those free throws by throwing himself into the paint and fighting the Warriors’ front court for shots and rebounds. In a postgame interview on TNT, he said that he was trying to get to the line as much as possible. “Sometimes when we need a bucket I just need to go aggressive, not to score, just to maybe get a foul,” he said. “You know, just have an easy bucket.”
That’s the kind of postgame quote you expect to from a dominant perimeter player or low-post maestro talking about how he had to grind out a win the hard way. If it seems odd coming out of Jokic’s mouth, that’s only because he doesn’t really look like either of those things, but he is both, and he’s proving it every night, in ways that are both big and noticeable and small and clarifying.
If Jokic is to keep putting up something close to these numbers for a full season, a feat that would make it difficult to deny him a large share of the MVP votes, it won’t be because he’s throwing more no-look passes or executing more glacial euro steps than ever. It will be because he has finally become the kind of player who is simply too good at too many things to play himself out of a game. It will be because of the hard-won games like he played last night.