Simply Made Stranger: The Insane Skill of Nikola Jokić

“I believe what doesn’t kill you simply makes you…stranger.”

(The Joker, “The Dark Knight”)

He moves left and winds up to shoot with his front foot ahead of the three-point line. But as he gets ready to release the ball, he falls backward, lifts his front foot, and he shoots off of his back foot, which is behind the three-point line.


The shot is so funky-looking, the refs and the announcers believe it was a two. Because where your front foot is in regards to the three-point line when you start to shoot almost always determines two or three. But they are wrong. It’s a three.

Such is life watching Nikola Jokić play basketball. If you have watched him play, you know, as unorthodox as it looks, it’s not luck. That is at minimum the second such shot he has made like that in the game, and third in the series. And though they are from the regular season, watch this series of game-winners by Jokić from 2019-20. On most of them, when you watch him make his move and go into his shooting motion, do you really believe the shot is going to go in? Yet it does. Way more often than not.

It’s so awkwardly delightful.

Watching Anthony Davis’s reaction to the one above, in particular, was entertaining. Anthony Davis knows basketball: Highly recruited out of high school, NCAA Champion and Final 4 Most Outstanding Player at Kentucky, NBA Champion in 2020, and was named one of the Greatest 75 NBA Players Ever.

And after all the transcendent basketball he’s played and witnessed, he is blown away. He played near-perfect defense on the play. He’s 7 feet himself, fully extended, all over Jokic with not only a hand at his face but far above it. But Jokić is so skilled at shooting a basketball, even falling away and on the “wrong” foot, with the shooting motion behind his head, he hits all net from 25 feet.

It’s insane.

Yet his “Joker” strange brand of basketball isn’t limited to his shooting motion. Jokić is the living embodiment of how basketball is a game of skill, far more than athleticism. And he’s doing things that I won’t say are unprecedented, but they are amazing and done in an unusual way. He doesn’t look or play like anyone I’ve ever seen before, yet he’s abnormally proficient.

I broach this because as a culture we tend to value athleticism, quickness, and strength in sports. In basketball, we love to see a guy dunk on another guy. Or lay down a vicious block. Or cross a guy over. I would even say that most of the greatest NBA players were smooth in how they played.

But Jokić doesn’t really do that sort of thing. As such, he himself says he’s the most boring entry in the All-Star game each year. Yet he dominates actual games anyway. It’s not because he’s tall. You could fill Madison Square Garden with broad 7-footers who didn’t pan out in the NBA1. It’s because he has skills that, at that size, we have never really seen before. We’ve seen 7-footers shoot well before2, even beyond the arc. But Jokic does that, plus just about everything needed to do to win in basketball.

The triple-doubles are an obvious one. These aren’t novel in the NBA these days. Russell Westbrook literally has right at 200 of them. But one thing that is unprecedented, at least in the modern era, is to see a center regularly getting them. There also seems to be a sense in which his filling of the stat sheet translates into team success3. Of the guys who have 100+ triple-doubles in their career, Jokić has by far the highest team winning percentage in his triple-double games.

And that has carried into the playoffs. He just set the record for triple-doubles in a playoff run. And he has at minimum four more games to extend that record. He just posted back-to-back series of averaging a triple-double, which had never been done. And his team went 8-2 in those games, advancing both times.

This picture gets humorously shared on Twitter frequently when Jokić is dominating a game because it’s so weird to think that this kid would grow up to win back-to-back NBA MVPs.

This is really what separates him from other stat-sheet-stuffers like Westbrook and James Harden. Those guys have team success when putting up mind-boggling numbers, but they never have been able to lead a team quite like this while doing it. It’s because, according to his coach, teammates, and rivals, the stats are never empty. Draymond Green commented on his podcast that you have to limit him either in scoring or assists because if he gets both, you lose. Every time. Jokic is a master at making the right decision in a set offense.

This has been true especially in these playoffs. And, interestingly, there are other statistics that show this as well. Because the average American fan makes a big deal out of points, rebounds, and assists, but there are other data that can show how dominant a player is. Two that testify to Joker are PER and Box Score Plus-Minus.

The first, Player Efficiency Rating, was created by John Hollinger. And it is convoluted. Not all NBA analysts like it. But it attempts to measure a player’s value in all the big statistics per minute and factoring in things like pace of play. That way if one guy plays 30 minutes because he helped lead a blowout, you can better compare him to a guy who played 45 minutes in a tight game. And on the latter, NBA teams get like 10% more possessions per game than twenty years ago, so this accounts for that.

The second, Box Score +/-, is much more simple and with the best players I believe is a strong tool for measuring value. Simply how much was the team winning or losing by when this player was on the court? If Jokic plays 40 minutes and in those minutes his team was winning by 12, but they were outscored by 5 in the 8 minutes he sat out, then his team will win, but it’s reasonable to wonder if they’d have lost had he not played. This is a stat that was absolutely dominated by Jokić in the 2022-23 regular season4.

And would you believe that Michael Jordan is #1 and LeBron James is #2 in both statistics for both the regular season (minimum 800 games played) and the playoffs (minimum 100 games played)? That does not definitively mean that these stats are meaningful. But considering that MJ and LBJ are widely considered the two greatest players ever, for them to be leading in both stats for both regular and postseason speaks volumes to me.

And here’s the kicker: As soon as Jokić meets the minimum games requirement, he will surpass both players in both stats. For the regular season and postseason.

And even though this is his first NBA Finals, I think these two things testify to how valuable he is to winning.

And we are blessed to get to see it because the further he advances the more of his beautiful but odd displays of basketball will be magnified by media. Especially in the clutch. The shot I talked about in the opening was with less than three minutes to go in Game 4 vs. the Lakers, and may have been the biggest of the game. If not it was another one that equally testifies to what I am saying.

With the score tied at 111-111, and less than a minute to go, after Denver had led basically the whole fourth quarter, Jokić drove the baseline with Davis practically in his jersey. Dennis Schroeder left his man to double right at the basket. And somehow this goofy, unathletic guy with his socks up to his thighs splits these two elite defenders to make himself open right at the basket. To make a tough, off-balance shot to give Denver the lead. And eventually, the win. It’s all skill.

Jokić has no social media, yet trends often on Twitter.

Years ago when talking about Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, my brother Ashley said, “They could dominate a game without taking a shot.” Just by rebounding, passing, communicating, and leading. That’s what I see in Jokic. He set the tone for the whole series vs. the Lakers in the first quarter of Game 1 by putting up an 8-12-5 stat line. 8 Points are great, but lots of players do that. It’s those 12 rebounds and 5 assists that just leave you in awe. And the other team demoralized.

And he’s doing it his way. Completely unconcerned with how odd he looks out there. And on a basketball court, never has such magnificent skill looked so strange.

  1. Here’s a list of guys who were drafted in the Top 2 picks of Modern NBA Drafts: Joe Smith, Michael Olowokandi, Hasheem Thabeet, Stromile Swift, Kwame Brown, Greg Oden, and Anthony Bennett. Then remember Jokić was picked with the 41st pick in the 2nd Round.
  2. Dirk Nowitzki is the most obvious example, as he has almost twice as many career made 3s as any other 7-footer.
  3. Of course, it seems obvious that as great as he is, Jokić, like anyone else, still needs an elite #2 and an excellent supporting cast to make it far in the playoffs. With Jamal Murray, he has made the Conference Finals and NBA Finals. Without him, neither. And anyone who watched the Laker series knows their 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th best guys were clutch, in scoring, passing, and playing defense.
  4. See also this version of the stat. Or if you really want to be super simple consider that Denver was 48-21 with Jokić this year and 5-8 without him, a difference of 57 wins per 82 games and 31 wins. Or the difference between being 1st in the standings and being 13th. Compare that to Philadelphia being 43-23 with Embiid this season and 11-5 without him, barely a difference at all. The Nuggets in Jokic’s career are 351-245 with him (48 wins per 82), and 16-25 without (32 wins per 82). If winning games is an indicator of greatness, Jokić reigns supreme.
Gowdy Cannon

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married over 8 years and have a 4-year-old son, Liam Erasmus, and a baby, Bo Tyndale. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chick-fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

5 thoughts on “Simply Made Stranger: The Insane Skill of Nikola Jokić

  • June 1, 2023 at 11:25 am

    Amazing good job of analyzing a player and a sport, Gowdy. Promise me you won’t leave the ministry to become a famous NBA analyst when the world learns about you!

    • June 2, 2023 at 1:54 pm

      Ha! Thank you Steve. You are very kind and thoughtful. I doubt I could ever offer the world what Skip Bayless does! Just kidding.

  • June 2, 2023 at 8:37 am

    Great stuff, Gowdy! Plus, last night, he pretty much exhibited everything you talked about in this article.

    • June 2, 2023 at 1:55 pm

      Man, I thought the exact same thing. There could have been no better start to the game to reflect all of my gushing here than for him to not shoot a single shot in the first quarter, dish out 6 assists, and his team be up by 9. Just perfect.

      • June 2, 2023 at 2:16 pm

        You’re a prophet, Gowdy! (Said in Hagrid’s voice to Harry Potter.)


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