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Denver Nuggets

The underappreciated beauty of Nikola Jokic's game in one play

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic

Context: The LA Clippers entered the season as favourites to win it all. On paper, they have answers for almost everyone ... almost.

Enter: Nikola Jokic.

On Friday, the Clippers and Nuggets will meet for the second time this season. In addition to it being an opportunity to see two of the best teams in the Western Conference go head-to-head, it'll be an opportunity to see a Clippers team that lacks frontcourt depth go up against one of the best centres in the league in Jokic. It's a big test for both teams in that regard - the Clippers will be looking to prove that they're better than the Nuggets despite not having a clear answer for Jokic while the Nuggets will be looking to prove that they can hang with a title contender on their homecourt.

MORE: Where Clippers, Nuggets rank in latest Power Rankings

It doesn't look like the Clippers and Nuggets will play each other in the first round of the playoffs, but there's a chance they'll square off in the Western Conference Semifinals, making this a potential preview of what's to come.

The play: Ahead of the All-Star break, Jokic led the Nuggets over the Utah Jazz - a team that does, in theory, have an answer for Jokic in Rudy Gobert - with a 30-point, 21-rebound, 10-assist triple-double.

You read that right. According to Basketball Reference, it's only the third 30-20-10 game in the modern era.

One of the 10 assists he handed out against the Jazz was a perfect example of what makes Jokic such a unique player.

Breakdown: Coming out of a timeout, the Nuggets run a pick-and-roll at the top of the perimeter with Monté Morris serving as the ball handler and Jokic serving as the screener.

Sharing the court with them are Jamal Murray, Torrey Craig and PJ Dozier. Neither Craig nor Dozier is the shooter Murray is, but a large portion of their field goal attempts this season have come from the 3-point line. That's important because teams have to at least be wary of them on the perimeter, which helps space the floor for Morris and Jokic.

Morris comes off the screen and throws a bounce pass between Royce O'Neal and Gobert to Jokic rolling to the elbow.

While Jokic hasn't been particularly efficient scoring as the roll man this season - he ranks in the 38th percentile with an average of 1.01 points per possession - you can see the impact his shooting ability has on opposing centres like Gobert. The Jazz have built a defensive scheme around funneling defenders towards Gobert underneath the basket, but he can't risk Jokic getting an open look from midrange, where he's shooting a respectable 43.2 percent from on the season.

MORE: Is Jokic the best centre in the league?

So instead of dropping all the way to the basket like he usually would, Gobert has to venture back out of the paint as the play unfolds.

That's important for what comes next.

According to Synergy, the Miami Heat are the only team in the league this season averaging more points per game off of handoffs than the Nuggets. Murray is a big reason for that, as he generates almost a fifth of his scoring on those plays, doing so at a league average rate.

It was a similar case last season - Murray finished behind only JJ Redick in total points scored off of handoffs while ranking in the 62nd percentile in efficiency.

Knowing handoffs between Jokic and Murray are a staple in Denver's offence, Mitchell reacts when Murray takes a step towards Jokic. It's subtle, but you can see Mitchell's right foot move forward, from toeing the line on the Jazz logo...

...to being clearly in the Jazz logo.

How does Murray respond? By cutting baseline instead of running a handoff with Jokic, paving the way for Jokic to slip a perfectly timed bounce pass between Gobert and Mitchell.

With Gobert focused on Jokic, nobody on the Jazz is in position to protect the rim. It leads to an uncontested layup - and lost shoe! - for Murray.

Why it matters: First and foremost, it speaks to the value of having a centre who can space the floor. Jokic isn't Dirk Nowitzki or anything, but he's a willing 3-point shooter and a solid midrange shooter. Considering the amount he handles the ball - he leads all centres in time of possession by a massive margin - it puts a ton of pressure on whoever is defending him because he's someone teams have to put a body on at all times.

Secondly, it shows the incredible vision that had our NBA.com Staff debating over whether or not Jokic was already the greatest passing centre of all time before last season.

There simply aren't many centres in the league right now who can make those sorts of passes on a consistent basis. Bam Adebayo, Al Horford and Marc Gasol deserve mention, but none of them do it in the volume Jokic does. Not only do the 6.8 assists he's averaging per game this season lead all centers by a decent margin, it's the fourth-most assists someone at Jokic's position has ever averaged in a single season. According to Basketball Reference, Wilt Chamberlain surpassed that total twice during his Hall of Fame career, while Jokic averaged slightly more assists last season than he is averaging this season.

The biggest difference between them? Chamberlain was in his early 30s when he did it, whereas Jokic only recently turned 25.

Even if Jokic never averages more assists than Chamberlain did in 1966-67 or 1967-68, there's no reason why he can't be the all-time leader in assists at the centre position when it's all said and done. That's how special of a talent he is.

Most assists averaged by a centre in a single season
Player Season APG
Wilt Chamberlain 1967-68 8.6
Wilt Chamberlain 1966-67 7.8
Nikola Jokic 2018-19 7.3
Nikola Jokic 2019-20 6.8
Nikola Jokic 2017-18 6.1

The combination of his shooting and passing is what really sets Jokic apart because of the impact it has on Denver's offence. Having a player who can draw opposing centres out of the paint opens up the floor for his teammates, both as cutters and drivers, while his unselfishness encourages everyone to move because they know that if they can get open, Jokic will find them.

Put them together and you get ... well, plays like this.

It's going to be fascinating to see how teams like the Clippers and Houston Rockets deal with him for the remainder of the season, both in the remaining regular season matchups and should they meet in the playoffs, because Jokic is hard enough for teams to deal with in single coverage. If they have to send double teams at him to make up for their lack of size, it's only going to give him more opportunities to shine as a passer, which is when Jokic is at his best.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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