Last year, Nikola Jokic won MVP almost by default. He’s unquestionably great, but his plaudits have always felt like they carried an implied qualifier—he was the MVP (but only because Joel Embiid got injured); he’s a star (but not, like, you know, a star); he’s one of the best passers ever (for a big man). While Lebron James or Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokoumnpo are described in hushed, reverent tones, Jokic is treated as some sort of oddity, seven feet of gelatin and puff whose success is tantamount to his obvious goofiness. He’s the hardwood Velvet Underground, a favorite of hoops hipsters who’s too weird and inaccessible for the mainstream.
He’s also, at the moment, the best basketball player in the world.
Jokic is dominant in clear and readily apparent ways; he leads the Denver Nuggets in just about every major statistical category. His statistical profile has something for everybody—he placates capital-h Hoopers by getting buckets (25.4 points per game) and arm-chair statisticians by doing so efficiently (68.9 percent True Shooting); for the hardcore nerds, he’s highly rated across the whole alphabet soup of advanced metrics (first in RAPTOR and EPM, fifth in DARKO).
It’s become passé to call players “unicorns,” but Jokic is truly without any antecedent. Whereas most great passers place a single opponent in conflict over their defensive responsibilities and then exploit that indecision, Jokic somehow reads the entire court at once; he turns basketball into cartography, continually mapping and remapping the placement of every player.
Beyond just being able to see every pass, Jokic is able to actually make every pass too. Skip passes to the weak-side corner, sly bounce-passes to a cutter, twirling one-handed outlets, over-the-head backwards hurls—Jokic has the goods. In this sense, his highlights unfold like whodunnits as he manipulates the defense until he can rifle a pass through an opening that only he can see.