The education of the NBA’s most reluctant superstar isn’t always pretty. This was ugly.
Nikola Jokic stunk Wednesday. The Nuggets lost 110-97 to awful Atlanta, the worst team in the league, and suffered their third straight defeat for the first time this season. Causation and correlation fell hard like rain on Jokic’s shoulders, which slumped in disgust as he walked off the court.
Don’t get it twisted. This is not criticism of Jokic, so much as the stark realization of how difficult it is to evolve from an unknown second-round draft pick to a legitimate NBA all-star comfortable rubbing shoulders with LeBron James and Stephen Curry. For every night that Jokic is as wondrous as a unicorn, there will also be a game when he’s a beleaguered student in the school of hard knocks.
“I think he has learned it’s not easy. Eighty-two games is a long grind,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.
There are few things in the NBA that gives me more joy than witnessing a no-look pass from Jokic. But with eyes across the league focused on Jokic, he doesn’t seem to be having great fun this season. Everybody think it’s cool to be a superstar. But know what Jokic is discovering the hard way? It’s a pain in the butt and a mental strain to be stellar 82 games a season.
Jokic has the skill to be one of the top 10 players in the NBA. But does the relentless grind of the job truly fit with his sweet, unassuming personality? In the rare air where LeBron James and Steph Curry live, it can get difficult to breathe.
“There are great players, MVPs, and they are not great for 82 games,” Malone said. “I think (Jokic) understands that there’s a lot expected of him. But he also understands he can’t put so much pressure on himself that he stops playing the way he does when he’s at his best.”
Jokic looks too soft to get mad, but he oozed frustration in the first half, while missing a dozen field-goal attempts. It’s not easy to shoot 3-for-15 in two quarters of basketball, unless you misfire from anywhere and everywhere. Jokic clanked jumpers in the lane and beyond the 3-point arc. He fired away, like a man getting mocked by the milk bottles at the state fair, emptying his wallet, in the futile attempt to win a big stuffed animal as a carnival barker chuckles.
One of Jokic’s rare baskets was a rebound on his own miss, which banked off the rim like a hard, crisp pass that gave him a chippy so easy it felt like the basketball gods were taking pity on the Nuggets’ young star.
“The ball just wasn’t going in … I wasn’t doing my thing,” said Jokic, who finished the game with 12 rebounds, seven assists and 17 missed shots, including all eight he attempted from 3-point range.
In the fascinating world of basketball analytics, here’s a relatively new stat has me in its gravitational pull: real plus-minus. Real plus-minus measures how a player measures net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. By this measure, Jokic has been the eighth-best player in the NBA this season, right up there with James Harden, Curry, James, Russell Westbrook and Giannis Antekounmpo.
Yes, Jokic is immensely talented. But what no number can measure is how much a player wants to put up with the grind, the pain and the anguish of carrying a team on his shoulders.
What we don’t yet know about Jokic is the same thing he’s learning about himself.