When you sit down with Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone, you truly get an appreciation for the promise he sees in rookie big man Nikola Jokic and what the evolution of Jokic’s skills could mean to the franchise.
At 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, Jokic has used his big frame to average 8.7 points and 5.5 rebounds per contest through 35 games, with 11 starts so far this season. Malone believes the Serbian rookie will continue to grow in his skills, but also have growing pains as he did during Denver’s 91-84 road loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.
Zach Randolph came off the bench to score 24 points in the game, including 10 in the fourth quarter to help solidify the victory for Memphis. Randolph worked his game down low, terrorizing Denver’s frontcourt, including Jokic.
“You learn the NBA as a rookie,” Malone said after practice on Friday. “You learn the league, the rules, the cities, the refs, and you learn personnel. He had a great experience with Zach Randolph that will only help him and benefit him in the long run. Every experience is a learning experience.”
Despite weighing 250 pounds, Denver’s first-year head coach said some of Jokic’s struggles this season have come against experienced big men who play a physical style of basketball.
“Nikola has been tremendous this year, but when he has to play against those really physical and strong players like the Enes Kanters and the Zach Randolphs, those are the guys that are his Kryptonite right now,” Malone said. “They give him a little bit of trouble. He’ll get stronger.
“I was talking to him after practice and he was saying that guarding Zach was so hard because he catches the ball and he’s looking down and looking down and the next thing you know, he’s shooting it. I said, ‘Well, now you know that and the next time you play him, you’ll be prepared.’ As his body continues to develop and get stronger, he’ll be able to play against those physical players and not have the trouble he’s had at times.”
Even though the Grizzlies are now moving away from a lineup that features both center Marc Gasol and Randolph, it was a formula that worked well for the Grit and Grind mentality in the past and has endeared Memphis to its fan base. It also brings up the possibility of Denver toying with a lineup that could include Jokic along with center Jusuf Nurkic. On Friday, Malone didn’t completely dismiss the idea.
“The league is going so far away from that (big lineups). Even Memphis has gone away from that. They’ve adjusted their starting lineup where Zach comes off the bench but, at money time, they’re playing them together because they’re both so big, strong, and physical,” Malone said. “Z-Bo is so powerful and Marc is more finesse. Look at Nurkic. He’s powerful. He’s that bull in a china shop. Then look at Nikola and he’s that skilled, finesse, passing big man. They could play together at times. The potential problem would be that most teams play small so unless you’re playing a zone, who guards the 4 man? Who guards that athletic 4 man that most teams are playing with, like a Draymond Green, Paul Millsap, and those kind of power forwards? But yes, at times I think you could play them together and they could be effective.”
While many have pointed to Jokic’s offensive capabilities this season, Malone has been glad to see his improvements on defense as well.
“I think the first part is getting your body right. Nikola dropped about 30 pounds from summer league. Now you’re lighter and can move better,” Malone said. “The thing that gives you hope with Nikola in that situation is that he’s a very smart player. When he has been forced to guard smalls on the perimeter, he’s smart enough to know who he is guarding and space them accordingly and use his length when he needs to use it.”
With an eight-game homestand starting on Sunday night against the Charlotte Hornets, Jokic will be looking to improve upon a January that has seen him average just 5.5 points per game. Jokic’s decline in offensive production has come at the same time Nurkic has reentered the rotation for the Nuggets after missing the first two-plus months of the season recovering from knee surgery.
Will Jokic and Nurkic see time on the court together? Will the two young big men be able to coexist and help each other grow in their skills? Those are questions that could play a big role in Denver’s winning percentage the rest of the season and beyond.