Inside Nikola Jokic’s return to being Nikola Jokic

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Denver Nuggets’ centerpiece Nikola Jokic has spent recent weeks torching his respective counterparts. Let’s break down the elements that have returned Jokic to being Jokic.

As the Denver Nuggets continue to quietly wreak havoc across the Western Conference, one notable element has stood out to both serious and casual fans alike: Nikola Jokic has been pretty damn good recently.

The 7-foot Serbian has a message and the national media has taken note. After talks suggesting a tired, frustrated, out-of-shape Jokic, the narrative has shifted to emphasize his absolute dominance in recent weeks.

And as always, the Nuggets follow his lead, as they’ve won nine of their past 11 contests, including a breezy seven-game December win streak.

So what exactly has made Jokic (and the Nuggets) so effective as of late?

For starters, Jokic’s been scoring early and often, wasting no time demanding the ball and rendering himself a problem for opposing defenses. He’s scored 17 points or better in each of the past 11 games, averaging 20.8 points per contest throughout the month of December.

He’s playing with his same unselfish nature, yet he’s seemingly acknowledged how significantly his scoring benefits the squad. Jokic’s combination of size, handle and shooting touch give opposing coaches fits, and defenses have no choice but to help off teammates once he’s scored in a flurry.

The Nuggets are 8-3 on the season when Jokic scores 22 points or better and their offense tends to explode in these games, largely due to the defensive openings his scoring creates.

In addition to scoring, Jokic’s dime game is on point, as he hit double-digit assists six times in December, a sample in which the squad went 5-1. Jokic averaged 7.4 assists in the month, resulting in a revived offense in which all five players appear engaged at any given moment.

This is a significant part of Denver’s success, as a Jokic-led offense keeps defenses constantly off-kilter. Double-team the Joker in the post, and he’ll perfectly pass teammates into ample scoring position, rendering most defensive planning worthless. Yet as previously established, he’s also a beast as a one-on-one scorer, torching most defenders on the block.

It’s no coincidence Denver’s offense has stepped up during a stretch in which Jokic’s passing game has been so sharp.

Another notable involves the deep ball, as Jokic’s 3-point shot has recently shined. He shot 40 percent in December and hit two or more treys nine times within the month. This is especially significant considering he connected on less than 23 percent throughout October and November.

So he hit a hot streak, right? Partially, but there’s far more at play here.

Much of Jokic’s 3-ball success involves when and how his trey is utilized — this isn’t a simple make-or-miss equation. Earlier in the season when Jokic’s 3s weren’t dropping, these attempts were often a last resort in a lackluster offensive set. Jokic would frequently survey the court, appearing to seek other options, before settling for the deep heave, often late in the shot clock.

December was different, as Jokic was aggressive throughout the month. His 3-point attempts were usually within the offense and in rhythm, opposed to low-percentage shot-clock-beating lofts.

His deep shot profile is far more than make-or-miss, as it speaks volumes to his mentality and level of assertiveness.

Overall, what can we make of Jokic’s December? He’s clearly taken a leap, centered largely around his scoring, facilitating and 3-point shooting. But what does this mean for the rest of the season?

Not surprisingly, the same principles apply going forward, ranging from the slough of late-regular season play to the high-impact, high-reward, guns-a-blazin’ melee that is the modern-day playoffs.

How effectively and aggressively is Jokic scoring? Is he asserting himself early, dominating the paint and forcing defenses to adjust?

Is he demanding the ball, as great players do, and then passing his teammates into easy scoring position in his trademark, once-in-a-generation fashion?

How is Jokic utilizing the 3-point shot? Is he firing within the offense and in ample rhythm, or is he lofting attempts to cope with a tired or non-aggressive mentality?

Last year’s playoffs showed Jokic could potentially lead a championship team. His playoff performance was downright riveting, arguably trailing that of only Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant.

This past December showed a similar Jokic for the first time all season. If only words could describe the relief felt by Nuggets fans.

Next: Each team’s best era

Give us a regular dose, Nikola. Lead the Nuggets to the promised land.



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