The storylines surrounding the NBA have become something out of a fairytale or fantasy land. We have seen the rise, and more recently demise, of a King, aided along the way by Magic. We’ve seen the creation of a monster, a Freak, who has become nearly impossible to stop. We’ve seen a beloved hero transform into a snake seemingly overnight, assisting in the reign of the dominant Warrior class. And, last but not least, year in and year out, we see new Unicorns pop up around the league, players that we have never seen before.
This is what I would like to focus on today, and one specific “Unicorn” to be exact. No, not Porzingis who was dubbed with the name “The Unicorn” by the aforementioned hero turned snake. Not Ben Simmons, the really tall Point Guard who manages to be really good at basketball without being able to shoot a basketball. Not Zion, the middle linebacker / high jumper set to take the NBA by storm. Not even Giannis who is so incredibly long that every play looks like he’s Michael Jordan in Space Jam. The unicorn whom I want to discuss today is, in my opinion, more unique than any of the previously discussed players, more unique than any other player in the NBA today and, I would make the case that he just may be the most unique basketball player of all time. I am talking about Nikola Jokic who, along with possibly being the league’s most under appreciated All-NBA talent, is playing the game of basketball in a way that it has never been played before. He is helping lead a revolution in the sport and is truly the King of the Unicorns.
To say that Nikola Jokic wasn’t a highly touted prospect would be an understatement. This was reflected on draft night, a fittingly bizarre beginning to Jokic’s unique career. Unlike most NBA superstars, Nikola Jokic wasn’t drafted in the lottery. He wasn’t even drafted in the first round. Jokic was taken in the second round of the 2014 NBA draft, selected 41st overall. 40 other people came off the board before Nikola and, while we can look back on this night knowing what he is now and question what every NBA GM was thinking, his second round selection was not outrageous in the slightest at the time. Nobody even thought Nikola Jokic was going to get drafted, including Nikola Jokic. When he was selected, Jokic was in his home nation of Serbia, fast asleep with no expectation of waking up on an NBA roster. His agent had contemplated pulling him out of the running to be drafted a few days prior due to little interest from scouts, and even publicly announced that he was going to do so. Luckily, he didn’t actually follow through, and Jokic woke up to a phone call from his brother who was in New York at the time telling him that he had just been selected by the Nuggets. Part two to his crazy draft night and proving just how under the radar Jokic was, was ESPN’s coverage (or lack thereof) of his selection. When Nikola was picked, instead of showing his highlights, analyzing his NBA potential, or even simply showing a picture of his face, ESPN decided to air a commercial for Taco Bell’s new “Quesarito.” The biggest moment of the NBA’s best big man’s life was overshadowed by a sandwich. Lastly, if the fact that he was drafted while asleep while battling Taco Bell for screen time wasn’t enough of a crazy beginning to his career, let’s add on the fact that fans and analysts were MAD about the pick. This is due to the fact that, earlier in the draft, the Nuggets had taken another European big man, Jusuf Nurkic, and viewed Jokic as essentially the same player. They were both big, slow, offensive minded European guys and since the Nuggets had already used their number 16 pick on Nurkic, didn’t feel like they needed to get another Nurkic in the second round. It is very difficult for a fanbase to be mad about a second round pick because, the truth of the matter is that very few second round picks turn out to be serious impact players, and Jokic managed to rile them up. This wild start to his career is fitting because of the interesting player Jokic has become.
To begin the discussion on Jokic’s unicorndam (that’s a trademarked phrase), let me throw a few stats at you to set the stage. In the last 50 years, a center has had 15+ assists in a game four times. This was achieved by Nikola Jokic, Nikola Jokic, Nikola Jokic, and Nikola Jokic. He has the quickest triple double in NBA history, in which he was only on the court for 14 minutes and 33 seconds. This occurred before the half. Only two players in NBA history have had 3,000 points, 2,000 rebounds, and 1,000 assists in their first three seasons. The first was a man by the name of Larry Bird, the other was Nikola Jokic. Lastly and I think most outrageous, standing at 7 feet tall, Nikola Jokic has more career triple doubles than he does slam dunks.
Those stats alone suggest just how unique a player Jokic truly is, but when analyzing his game deeper it becomes incredibly evident that we have neve seen a Nikola Jokic before. Even with this new wave of “Unicorns” in the league, Jokic stands in a class of his own. Jokic doesn’t rely on his god given physical abilities as most “Unicorns” do. There are really two molds of “Unicorns” in today’s game. The first is the “Big and Strong Point Guard.” This would be Giannis, Ben Simmons, and formerly Magic Johnson. If you put a guard on them they overpower them with pure strength and get to the rim, but if you put a big on them they blow right past with blazing speed. The other mold of “Unicorn” is the “Quick Stretch Big.” These are fleet footed 7 footers with a jumper, Kevin Durant and Porzingis to name a few. A guard who is quick enough to stay in front of them isn’t tall enough to adequately contest their shot, and a big man who can contest their jumper can’t stay in front of them on a drive to the rack. While these are two different archetypes of player, they encompass most of the “Unicorns” we see today, and they rely on a common theme. Their god given physical abilities are what propel them to the top, making them a walking mismatch. Jokic on the other hand doesn’t rely on his physical abilities because, to be blunt, he really doesn’t have any extraordinary physical traits. He’s not a walking mismatch in the slightest. If you put a big man on him, he doesn’t have the athleticism and speed to drive past them, he simply has to use his basketball ability to flourish.
While Jokic isn’t the most physically gifted specimen in the NBA, he uses what he has to his advantage, utilizing his unique build to be somewhat of a blast from the past, while also a glimpse into the future. Jokic has a big frame, standing at 7 feet tall and weighing in at 250 lbs. When you look at him, it’s a bulky 250. Even though he isn’t necessarily the most chiseled and muscular looking guy, he is as strong as they come in the NBA. He’s able to dominate in the post, the throwback part of his game, and absolutely bully smaller defenders, taking advantage of them with his back to the basket.
BUT ADAM, you exclaim, he’s a 7 foot center, he won’t have small defenders on him, he will have opposing centers. Well fictional know-it-all, that’s where you’re wrong because that’s where the old school back to the basket aspect of his game blends with the new school big man ball handler tactics of the future, solidifying Nikola Jokic as the Marty McFly of basketball unicorns. Although Jokic is built like a traditional post star from the 1980’s, he is the primary ball handler on his team. He takes the ball up top and, using his height, is able to see over the top of defenders to find the open man, a large reason behind his being tied for 9th in the NBA from the center position. But, what creates the mismatches from this position are a unique play that we have seen very few times before. A pick and pop with Jokic the primary ball handler, and one of the young guards on the Nuggets such as Murray or Garry Harris setting the screen. If they don’t switch, this usually gives Jokic the half step advantage he needs with his unexpectedly solid ball handling skills to beat his big man defender to the basket. It could also mean that one of his shooters is left wide open for an easy 3. But, if they do switch, which is often the case in today’s game, Nikola Jokic has a defender on him who is built to guard a point. So, he uses this big frame of his to back him down and bully him down low. He can easily score from this low post position, and if a help defender brings a double team to help the outmatched guard, he uses his unmatched vision to find his open teammate for an easy score. Jokic may not be a natural mismatch like some of his unicorn friends, but he uses tactical basketball knowledge to create one almost every play, solidifying himself as a truly unique player. He takes the back to the basket play style of the past, combines it with the “big man who can handle the ball” mentality of the future, and blends the two to create Nikola Jokic.
The last point I would like to touch on as to what I believe makes Jokic so special is what I am naming the “Steph Curry Effect.” I would argue this only pertains to one other superstar in the league, you guessed it, Steph Curry. When a player portrays the Steph Curry Effect, it means that they look like an Average Joe. Steph Curry rose to fame in the blink of an eye. I had never seen someone go from being thought of as an above average player to the best player in the world that quickly. Part of the reason I think people took to Steph so quickly is that he looks like a regular person, and while he has god given shooting abilities that nobody has ever had in the history of the planet, THEORETICALLY what he does everyone can. For years before, the face of the league has had a style of play unattainable to the regular human. Nobody could be Shaq, physically dominant to that level. Lebron is built like a football player and can jump like a track star. The same can be said for the theoretical next face of the league in Zion. Giannis is 7 feet tall but can still cross the court in the blink of an eye. All of these styles of play are impossible for normal humans to emulate. But, sandwiched between them all, was Steph. He was a little guy who looks like a teenager and plays low to the ground. He isn’t physically gifted, he isn’t huge or soaring through the skies, he is small and he shoots. That is something normal people can do, people can relate to, and that helped to his success. People, and more specifically kids, could try to be Steph. I would argue, the same could be said for Jokic. Yes, he is 7 feet tall. But, someone emulating Jokic doesn’t need to be a seven footer. He just needs to be one of the biggest on HIS court, whatever size that may be. Jokic doesn’t move quickly, nor does he jump out the gym. He really doesn’t jump at all. A big heavier kid could develop a jump shot, a post hook, and become an excellent passer. Poof, you play like Jokic. He needs no god given physical abilities, he simply needs to want to play the game the right way. Jokic looks and plays like someone who you would see at a local YMCA, and that’s something fans eat up. They play right, and they can become Nikola Jokic. This level of relatability is something else that makes Jokic so unique.
We have never seen a player like Jokic before, and it may be a while until we see him again. His combination of skills is so unique, he is the embodiment of basketball anomaly. The combination of his soft touch with bruising physical nature in the post and on the glass, his guard like vision with his ability to dribble with the ball on a string, and the underdog story with his relatable build and style of play makes him one of a kind. He finally got the recognition he deserved this year, being named the best center in the NBA. While his numbers got him that accomplishment, how he did it is what’s so amazing. Nikola Jokic is truly different. He is, King of the Unicorns.