There was a name missing at the top of the first fan voting results for the 2019 NBA All-Star Game. He doesn't have the same name recognition as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis or even Luka Doncic, but Nikola Jokic deserves to rank considerably higher than seventh in frontcourt voting.
Jokic put the basketball world on notice in the second half of last season when he nearly carried the Denver Nuggets to their first postseason appearance since 2012-13. In a "win-and-you're-in" game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on the final day of the regular season, Jokic showed up to the tune of 35 points and 10 rebounds, the final sterling performance in a strong sprint to the finish.
While they ultimately came up short following that overtime loss, the 23-year-old has taken his game to another level this season, to the point where media and coaches are almost certain to make him an All-Star for the first time in his career if the fans don't.
Jokic has even played well enough to be mentioned alongside Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden in the MVP discussion. Here's why.
A once-in-five-generations passer
Calling Jokic a once-in-a-generation passer for a big man sells him short.
He's currently averaging 7.5 assists per game, a figure we haven't seen from a centre in over 50 years, when the great Wilt Chamberlain dished out 8.6 in the 1967-78 season.
MORE: Is Jokic already the best passing centre in NBA history?
Jokic might not score or rebound as much as some of the other players at his position, but few big men are carrying as big of a load as he is this season - on the team with the best record in the Western Conference, no less.
Jokic creates 17.3 points per game for his teammates with those assists per NBA.com, a similar amount as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Rajon Rondo. Even though he rarely brings the ball up the court like they do, Jokic serves as the primary creator on one of the best offensive teams in the league, only with the offence running through him at the elbows and in the post.
Jokic can set up his teammates in a variety of ways in those situations, beit with simple handoffs out on the perimeter...
...crosscourt passes you'd expect to see from a LeBron James or James Harden...
...or nifty no-look passes to teammates cutting backdoor.
The last two passes in particular aren't just impressive because Jokic is a 7-footer. They'd be impressive for anyone, regardless of size. It helps that his passes usually create high percentage looks for his teammates, as two-thirds of his assists this season have resulted in 3-pointers or shots at the rim.
The icing on the cake is Jokic does it without monopolizing the offence - his usage rate of 26.1 percent is on the lower end for a player of his caliber. Whereas most superstars dominate possessions, Jokic makes quick decisions with the ball in his hands, both when he's looking to score and pass.
A better scorer than you'd expect
Jokic is more than capable of finishing plays himself, too.
He leads the Nuggets in scoring this season with a career-best 19.2 points per game, doing so on 50.3 percent shooting from the field. He has range that extends out to the 3-point line and a soft touch around the basket that helps impact the game in a number of ways.
If the Nuggets need a bucket, for example, they can give Jokic the ball in the post, where he can use his size and length to overpower smaller defenders.
He even has the foot work to pick like-sized defenders apart, including ones as nimble and athletic as Anthony Davis.
Jokic can also play off of Denver's guards, such as Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton. He is a threat to pop for jump shots both inside and outside the arc, and he has a smooth floater that he can go to outside of the restricted area.
The Miami Heat learned about the latter the hard way in their recent matchup with the Nuggets:
Jokic's points might not stack up well compared with the Joel Embiids or Kevin Durants of the NBA, but he can score in so many different ways that teams have to respect him. That opens up his passing game, which is where he shines.
The combination of his scoring and passing has the Nuggets scoring at a rate of 112.1 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the court this season. With him on the bench? 104.5.
That's basically the difference between one of the best and worst offences in the league.
An improving defender
If there's one weakness in Jokic's game, it's on defence. However, while the Nuggets have been 5.0 points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the bench this season, they are still holding teams to a respectable rate (106.0) with him on the court.
Despite some obvious limitations, Jokic has turned himself into a respectable rim protector and a smart help defender who ranks third among centres in steals per game.
Whether or not the Nuggets can continue to defend at a high level with Jokic on the court in the postseason remains to be seen - teams like the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets will almost certainly target him relentlessly in pick-and-rolls - but Denver currently has the league's ninth-best defence.
That's a major improvement from last season, when the Nuggets ranked 23rd with a defensive rating of 109.9.
Most impressive of all is how Jokic has kept the Nuggets afloat on both ends of the court while Paul Millsap, Will Barton and Gary Harris have dealt with injuries. Those three starters have already combined to miss more than 50 games and Denver hasn't skipped a beat. Their 27-12 record is the best in the Western Conference and third-best in the league behind the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors.
They've even gotten it done against quality teams. Not only have the Nuggets had the third-hardest schedule to this point of the season, they have one of the league's best record (11-7) against teams above .500, with wins coming against the Golden State Warriors, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers.
All-Stars are expected to lead the way and elevate the players around them, and Jokic has been doing just that.
Fueling his MVP case is where he ranks in a number of advanced metrics. To name a few: Jokic is seventh in Player Efficiency Rating, fourth in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus, fourth in Value Over Replacement Player and third in Box Plus/Minus heading into Thursday's game against the LA Clippers.
The only players ahead of him in those categories are the likes of Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and LeBron James.
With how well he's been playing and the impact it has had on the Nuggets, how can Jokic not be near the top of every All-Star and MVP ballot at the midpoint of the season?
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