Playing adjacent to the Rocky Mountains, the Denver Nuggets’ star center Nikola Jokić looks nothing like a 21st century NBA MVP. Standing at 6 feet, 11 inches tall, the Serbian Jokić has never shown much interest in the fandom and accolades of NBA stardom. However, this season, more than ever, he is achieving feats that have never been done before in the NBA.
Playing in Denver, one of the NBA’s smallest markets, and lacking any interest in league-wide drama, Jokić does not get the national attention he deserves. This is not a new phenomenon; small-market stars never get the recognition of their peers, and hence often make their way to larger markets in a similar manner to the last player to wear the number 15 for Denver, Carmelo Anthony, who forced his way to New York in 2011.
Jokić is nearly averaging a triple-double on the season to date with 25.4 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 9.3 assists per game. Until 2017, fans believed no one would ever again average a triple-double after Cincinnati Royals point guard Oscar Robertson did so in 1962. Russell Westbrook then broke this misnomer, earning the 2017 MVP award and becoming the first MVP in 35 years to play for a team with fewer than 50 wins in one season. The myth-shattering nature of his season propelled Westbrook over other candidates like then-Houston Rocket James Harden.
Jokić is likely suffering from the league’s numbness to triple-doubles, as Westbrook went on to average a triple-double for two more years after his MVP campaign, diluting the extraordinary nature of this achievement. However, Jokić is coming close to averaging a triple-double in a remarkably different fashion than Robinson or Westbrook. Both Robinson and Westbrook are not only point guards but also some of the most athletic players in NBA history; Jokić is a center and known for his lack of athleticism, only dunking once in a blue moon despite his towering stature.
Jokić is currently second in the league in assists, just one assist behind Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Dončić; the next center on the list does not come in until number 37 and he has fewer than half of Jokić’s assists. If he continues to play as well as he has so far this season, Jokić would become the second center to ever lead the league in assists; Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia 76ers was the first in 1968. Furthermore, with 9.3 assists per game, Jokić currently averages the most assists of any center in league history, nearly a full assist per game more than the current record holder, Chamberlain.
Jokić has always been known as a great passer. He is already the greatest passing big man in the eyes of many, but his performance on defense may be what comes as a greater surprise to the average NBA fan. As of today, Jokić is third in the league in steals and the only center in the top ten. Additionally, Jokić is currently fifth in the league in defensive plus-minus, an advanced statistic that estimates a player’s defensive impact. Playing in the small market of Denver and without the luxury of being the first player to possibly average a triple-double in over 50 years, Jokić will likely need Denver to finish near the top of the Western Conference to win the MVP award. Denver currently sits at fourth in the standings but is trending upwards. If Jokić were named MVP, he would be the first center to receive the award since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000, as well as the first Denver Nugget to ever win the award. This would be a landmark moment in the NBA, as it would be an official stamp on the return of big men into a league that has become almost entirely focused on smaller players. Regardless of whether he wins the award, if Jokić continues at roughly this rate, he will have had one of the greatest seasons in league history, further cementing his status as a unique, all-time great talent in the NBA.
Austin Barish is a sophomore in the College. The Armchair Analyst occurs online every other week.