The strange thing Nikola Jokic leads the NBA in and what it means

Nov 11, 2022, 12:46 PM

Nikola Jokic...

Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Everyone wants to talk about the Denver Nuggets’ historically hot shooting start to the season, blazing their way to the best field goal and three-point field goal shooting percentages in the NBA.

On the other side of the floor, their superstar center—Nikola Jokic—may make history this season for something else. And depending on who you ask, it’s either great or bad.

Jokic is no stranger to pacing the NBA, leading the league in twos made two seasons ago and total rebounds last year. This year Jokic is lapping the field in kicked balls. Yes, Jokic is hitting more basketballs with his feet than anyone else, and it’s not close.

Jokic has committed eight kicked-ball violations in 11 games. That matches his total from 2021-22. No one else has committed more than three. Fellow Serbian big Nikola Vucevic led the league a season ago at 13. If Jokic keeps kicking it like this, he’ll end up with well over 50 on the season.

This isn’t an accidental violation here; there is a lot of intent here. He flings his legs out as a tactic to help him stop bounce passes. At over 7-feet tall, it’s not easy for him to get down to the floor. His legs kicking out helps take away passing lanes and, at worst, leads to a reset shot clock and sideline out of bounds.

But at best, this can lead to steals and turnovers, as it’s not easy for the refs to judge if the kicks were intentional. Maybe at some point, the NBA well penalize the maneuver in a more draconian way, but for now, it doesn’t really hurt the Nuggets in any way.

Still, ESPN’s Zach Lowe hates this, writing in his column on Friday that Jokic isn’t playing real defense and, “Just stop kicking the ball!”

While the Nuggets defense isn’t all the way there yet, unlike the offense, it is improving, and a big part of that will be how Jokic is used against pick and rolls. On Monday night in San Antonio, Michael Malone named Jokic, the defensive player of the game.

“He’s often overlooked for back-to-back MVP,” the coach said. “He had three blocks, four steals, seven deflections.”

“I asked our staff if the NBA charts deflections with a kicked ball, and Nikola might be the best I’ve ever seen at that,” Malone said of the tactic. “He would’ve been a hell of a goalie. Kick save. He’s amazing, not just with his hands but using his feet to disrupt pocket passes in pick and roll. He picks up a lot of those with not just his hands but also his feet. And in his activity around the basket, breaking up plays eight boards. His IQ, anticipation, and hand-eye coordination are just off the charts.”

How Jokic is deployed on defense is tied to the Nuggets success this year. The defensive additions help Jokic no doubt but so too does the health of his team, which will give him more energy since he’s carrying less of a load. The kicked balls are a sign of how active Jokic has been a dozen games in, and it’s a good early sign.

For now Nikola is using the tools he’s got to take advantage of the game but it wouldn’t be surprising to see a Nikola Jokic Rule in the future—most of the greats have them.



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