Meet The Joker, the NBA’s MVP (Most Valuable Passer)

How the Serbian center has transcended the sport’s boundaries with his vision and trickery

David Roderick
HeadFake Hoops

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Original artwork by Pradipta Alessandro (available for sports commissions)

Memory: My first JV game on the road. Butterflies crazing my stomach. Itchy uniform. I know I’m coming off the bench. After warmups the first quarter is a blur of adrenaline and hope. Coach barks my name and I move to check in, and while squatting by the scorer’s table I see the opposing point guard blitz up court on a fast break and thoughtlessly bounce a pass between the legs of my friend Jay, our star center, standing there like a dumbfounded tree. A streaking wing receives that pass and finishes a reverse layup. “Wait,” I freeze. “Wait… what?”

That point guard, whoever he was, not only burned Jay — he’s scorched forever into my memory bank, his speed and poise, that magic pass, the way he basically pantsed our whole team with one assist.

I love passes like that, their grace and arrogance. Dishes that shake an opponent’s confidence, that victimize or even humiliate the other team. No-looks. Nutmegs. Fakes. I’m not sure why I like that part of the game. Maybe I have the heart of a trickster. Or maybe it’s in my genes — my father and uncles were cocky trash talkers on the court, at the ping pong table — everywhere. Or maybe I just feel that passing in basketball is underrated. There’s more artistry there than meets the eye when a player fools an opponent while also feeding a teammate. That’s what I like, I think — the generosity offsetting the arrogance.

Flash forward through the Jordan years, when the NBA took to the air. Everyone I knew wanted to dunk. In terms of demoralizing an opponent, there’s was nothing better than an In your face slam. Even now, we love watching Kawhi or KD posterize someone, everyone in the arena leaping from their seats.

Flash forward through the eras of the Twin Towers patrolling the paint. Flash forward through the Bad Boys of Detroit who slowed the game to a bruising glacial pace. Flash forward to this current hoop era of Curry and Klay, Dame Lillard, and Trae Young regularly splashing from the hash mark. These high-volume deep-range marksmen have revolutionized the game, have lifted it to a new atmosphere.

But I’m speculating we’re near the end of the trifecta’s prominence. When so many big guys get in on the action (Giannis, the Lopez brothers, even cranky-kneed Kristaps Porzingis knocking down 30-footers) I sort of feel like this whole 3-and-D basketball movement has jumped the shark.

How will hoops evolve? Who will lead the game in a new direction?

When I watch newly-minted MVP Nikola Jokic play ball, the first bona fide point-center (I can’t believe this is now a legitimate basketball term), I wonder if he foreshadows the NBA’s next leveling up. Sure, Jokic can play both inside and outside, has ambidextrous tendencies, and can rebound like Godzilla. Sure, he can hit threes and dominate the paint.

What makes Jokic (aka “The Joker”) special though is his ability to pass the basketball. His body control and touch on his passes, his delivery angles, his anticipation. Did you know the enormous Denver Nugget finished the 2020-21 season as 7th on the assists list with 8.3 per? That he’s the first center to log 18 assists in a game in more than 50 years?

This is one gargantuan man. The antithesis, in a lot of ways, to the ideal 3-and-D wing NBA body-type coaches allegedly crave. At 6’11’’, 285 lbs., he’s sort of like Tampa Bay Buccaneer tight end Rob Gronkowski, but six inches taller. Though Jokic was a second-round pick by the Nuggets in 2014 — the lowest pick to ever receive an MVP Award — though he’s baby-faced, peach-fuzzed, goofy, and a little bit doughy, he’s the legitimate League’s MVP because he’s mastered every element of the game.

Especially passing.

Jokic isn’t the first big to facilitate an offense. In one of the NBA’s earliest iterations, Hall of Famer Bill Russell had incredible vision and hands, feeding the likes of John Havlicek and Sam Jones and leading the Boston Celtics to 11 titles between 1957–1969. (For the sake of transparency — I’m a Masshole.) Trailblazer/Celtic Bill Walton also made magic mushroom passes in the 70s and 80s. They say Wes Unseld had great passing ability and handle. Pau and Marc Gasol could move the rock. Draymond Green, too.

But we’ve seen nobody of Jokic’s size evoke the all-time passing maestros of the ages, like Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Jason Williams, and Chris Paul. That group, all significantly smaller than The Joker were artful in their passing. They were trying to embarrass their opponents by fooling them like that point guard did to my lame JV team way back in 1987. They flashed the kind of wizardry that destroys an opponent’s morale. It’s intimidating to defend someone who sees the court that much better than you, who can deliver the ball to their teammates’ favorite spots on the floor while also making you look like a chump.

In the old days, big men weren’t really offensive threats. Most were fourth or fifth options in the offense and made their hay by cleaning the glass and defending the rim. They were like my friend Jay, come to think of it: rugged build, tall, plus defender, etc.

Enter Jokic. I’d argue he isn’t just the best passing center of all time — he’s an all-time facilitator regardless of position category. With the floor spread so wide (so many lanes!) a giant like Jokic, who seems like he has eyes all around his head, can burn you in multiple ways. Nobody can defend the man’s jumper because he’s too damn tall, and the arc of his shot rainbows over opponents his size. Fadeaway jumpers? Also a specialty. Euro-step layups in the lane? Yep, The Joker’s familiar with them too. (Gotta be — he’s Serbian.) Though he looks like the sort of human specimen who might dribble the ball off his knee, around the basket he has silky footwork and a pillowy touch instead.

But if you close out The Joker, really man-up on him far from the basket, you’ll put him on the move where he’s even more dangerous. We expect a man that size to play clumsy, oafish, slow. Yet, Jokic is light on his feet somehow — if not graceful.

He may represent the future of the NBA, the best manifestation of how the game will again level up. With the floor so spread out in the pro game, facilitating big men could have premium value. Especially when there are so many three-balls hoisted and big guys no longer need to live in the low post.

When you watch Jokic YouTube highlights it’s like watching someone warp the laws of physics. He makes over the shoulder passes, behind the head tips, touch passes, underhand dishes, wraparound whips to teammates who’ve backdoored the defense. He throws cross-court Montana-to-Rice bombs on the fast break. Behind the back bounce pass assists. Ladled alley-oops? Check. Through the wickets? Got it. And this half court bounce pass? Just filthy.

Maybe it’s a cultural thing or just in his nature, but when you watch the clips, notice how Jokic never looks too juiced up by the crowd or overwhelmed by a moment. When old-school guys like Bird or Magic fooled you, they followed it up with trash talk (Bird) or a gleaming smile (Magic). They took pleasure in orchestrating your embarrassment. However, Jokic’s on-court persona is more nonchalant. After delivering a dime, he just about shrugs his shoulders and trots back on D, like a calm assassin.

Though I was firmly on the Steph MVP train this year, Jokic is a worthy MVP, and he might be showing us where our favorite sport is headed. No surprise that the league’s most valuable passer is also its most valuable player.

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David Roderick
HeadFake Hoops

Writer. Poet. Editor. Books: BLUE COLONIAL & THE AMERICANS. Commissioner of Old Man Basketball, a Berkeley hoops collective. Twitter: @droderick77