Denver Nuggets

Heat Check: Is Nikola Jokic already the best passing center in NBA history?

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Nikola Jokic (NBA Getty Images)

Who is the best passing big man of all-time?

Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Even though his career is just getting started, I'll take Nikola Jokic over the field. With 6.1 assists per game, only one center in NBA history has ever set their teammates up with more scoring opportunities on a nightly basis than the Denver Nuggets center did last season. It was enough for him to finish 18th in the league in that category behind a group of point guards, plus LeBron James and Draymond Green.

It isn't just about those numbers either. Jokic has just about every pass imaginable in his arsenal, from no-lookers to behind-the-back dimes. It's helped him dish out 10 or more assists in 20 career games, putting him behind only Wilt Chamberlain for the most all-time at the center position. Considering he's entering his age 24 season, Jokic is only going to distance himself further from the Vlade Divacs, Pau Gasols and Hakeem Olajuwons of the world as he enters his prime.

Carlan Gay (@TheCarlanGay): The guy above me thinks the league started three years ago. While Jokic is a great passer, to discount and discredit the greats that have come before him is simply asinine. I'd take a couple of guys ahead of Jokic right now, but I'm going with Wilt Chamberlain as the greatest passing big of all-time.

Chamberlain simply dominated the era he played in in every category. We know about his scoring and rebounding number, but when that wasn't enough he decided to lead the league in assists in 1967-68 at 8.6 per game just to prove to the world he had the ability to do so. We'll probably never see a big lead the league in assists, let alone only do it to prove he can.

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Sure Not Now

Jokic had an incredible year passing the basketball averaging 6.1 assists per game. Only one big averaged more than that for an entire year - that big was Wilt Chamberlain - and he did it twice.

So before we go forgetting about what happened in this league prior to 2017-18, do yourself a favour and take a trip down memory lane and educate yourself on guys like Hakeem Olajuwon, Arvydas Sabonis, Vlade Divac, Pau Gasol and, of course, Wilt Chamberlain before you rush to put Jokic above them all.

Gilbert McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Yeah, Jokic's numbers are great, but not all great passing can be quantified in the form of assists. That's why Vlade Divac gets my vote. Take a look at highlights from Vlade's 10-assist performance over Shaq and the Lakers in his last full season and you'll see plenty of great passes that led to fouls or missed buckets.

Sacramento's potent offence in the early 2000s heavily relied upon the playmaking ability of its bigs - Divac (and Webber) were the perfect guys to fill that role. In each of the six seasons that Divac facilitated the Kings' offence, it finished top three in the league. It was the passing of Divac, who played in the NBA from 1989 to 2005, that paved the way for players like Jokic to play in a similar manner.

Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Grab some popcorn, go to YouTube and search "Arvydas Sabonis passing." Although he didn't arrive in the NBA until his 30s, Sabonis was a world-wide legend in part due to his otherworldly passing ability - though to be clear, he could do so much more. He operated out of the post and elbows in ways more resembling an attacking center midfielder on the soccer pitch than a traditional big on the hardwood. A master at moving to space for the sole purpose of creating passing lanes to find cutters, Sabonis turned post-play into a mesmerizing game of hot potato.

Though mostly ground bound and limited to the half court by the time he joined the Trail Blazers in the mid 90s, young Sabonis ran the break prolifically with the vision and anticipatory skills to make any and everyone pay for focusing solely on him. He did all of this in an era with limited spacing. It's fun to imagine him playing in today's NBA surrounded by skilled shooters.

Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): I'm going with Nikola Jokic here. It's only been three seasons, but the way he passes the ball is different than the way any other big man has ever done it in the league. While the other guys mentioned above were all great passers out of the post, the way Jokic can do it from the high post, perimeter and on the break separates himself from the group. It's one thing to be able to find the open guy on the court, but it's another level when you see Jokic passing players open, similar to how an NFL quarterback can throw their receiver open. His highlight tape leaves you questioning why we can't see the eyes he has in the back of his head.

Jokic's 1,006 assists through his first three seasons is the most by a big man since Maurice Stokes had 1,062 assists from 1956-1958. If you added the three highest single-season assist totals of each big man mentioned above, only Wilt Chamberlain (1,735) and Vlade Divac (1,062) have more than Jokic. He also has more assists in his first three seasons than Arvydas Sabonis had in his entire six-year career in the league.

I know it's a small sample size and that the NBA didn't start in 2015, but Jokic might be a top-10 passer in the entire NBA today. Could you make the case that any of the other bigs mentioned were a top-10 passer in the whole league when they played?

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