This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), who recently closed their doors.
Nikola Jokic has emerged as one of the league's top offensive big men. His rise has helped the Denver Nuggets become one of the top two Western Conference teams all season despite numerous injuries and changes to their rotation. Jokic special is as unorthodox as they come, combining fancy and unique passing with a soft touch near the basket.
He anchors an NBA offense all while looking like a YMCA post.
The Nuggets have a top-three offense in terms of efficiency, and a lot of that comes from how coach Mike Malone deploys his Serbian big. Few teams utilize back-to-the-basket situations as much as the Nuggets, revolving around Jokic's inside-outside game.
But pounding it inside to an All-Star seven-footer averaging 20.5 points and 7.7 assists is just the beginning.
Interior scoring is all about matchups, though said offensive player must be able to put the ball in the hoop one-on-one.
Jokic is the rare player who can win that equation almost every night out. Per Synergy Sports, he is shooting 52.5 percent on post-ups against one-on-one coverage.
Early in games and out of timeouts, Malone gets Jokic the ball on the right offensive block—his desired location and sweet spot. Frequently, Malone will dial up Jokic off an angled back screen from the top of the key to that right block. Teams cannot prevent him from catching the ball, and when the Nuggets clear out that entire side of the floor, their big man goes to work:
If you couldn't notice from those few clips, Jokic is a bully of a finisher, absorbing contact and rarely getting bumped off his spots. For someone as thick and physical, he's incredibly patient with his post moves, feeling contact and rarely trying to go through his defender's chest. Instead, he uses length and thick frame to seal off defenders that finally jump at one of his layered fakes.
The one go-to maneuver Jokic has in his arsenal? A quick spin back to his right hand.
With such broad shoulders, he creates so much separation between the right-handed touch shot and his defender:
The Nuggets don't need to call post-ups and post entries to get Jokic in isolations, however.
Their free-flowing offense is run through him at the elbows and top of the key, while guards swirl around as cutters. Frequently, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray will backdoor from the wings and corners while Jokic picks defenses apart. If none of these cutters are open, Jokic can simply dribble down to the blocks and isolate in the post:
Teams have difficulty guarding Jokic alone in the lane, so they have to send double-teams or extended help when he's patient amid one-on-one. The result is a great offensive opportunity for the Nuggets, allowing one of the league's greatest passers to improvise and read what the defense gives him.
Jokic's efficiency numbers when passing out of the post are absurd.
When hitting cutters, his teammates are 23-for-26 at finishes. His ability to see creases in the defense, deliver a strike and set up teammates to succeed are unrivaled. His feel is so incredible, any extra attention paid to him doesn't rattle his focus on finding gaps and delivering the right pass.
Cutters from the top, cutters from behind, cutters from the baseline... he finds them all:
Most NBA teams send a double-team from the lowest opposite defender, meaning the trap comes from whoever is guarding the man in the opposite corner. Sometimes teams will double off a non-shooter on the perimeter, but the Nuggets now have so many shooters in their arsenal that doing so is almost impossible.
When standard doubles come, Denver's always prepared.
Torey Craig and Will Barton are the two lowest-reputation shooters the Nugs trot out. So instead of simply staying spaced and letting the right opportunity pop up, those two stand in the opposite corner, knowing their defender will rotate to double.
Once they are ignored, they cut along the baseline to the rim, and Jokic finds them:
Part of what makes this so difficult is the timing with which Jokic engages the defense.
He sees the double coming, which usually comes from the baseline side. Instead of dribbling towards it, Jokic takes one move to the middle, which shrinks the defense and draws his defender away from helping quickly at the rim. It's a subtle maneuver, but really high-level basketball.
What about those lineups where Jokic is sharing the floor with a non-shooting big, like Mason Plumlee?
Denver runs the same type of action, just with Plumlee on the opposite block instead of the weak-side corner. Plumlee will wait for Jokic to make the same move towards the middle, see his man help, and then "flip the post." That means cutting block-to-block while some type of penetration occurs above block level.
So as Jokic makes his move to the middle, Plumlee cuts under the rim, and Jokic hits him with a dime for a reverse:
For those counting at home: Jokic can bully players one-on-one, and he's a near-perfect passer out of double-teams, no matter the lineup. To get really fancy, coach Malone will run actions around Jokic in the post, specifically designed around his passing to shooters.
Now might be the appropriate time to bring up the Nuggets' other back-to-the-basket threat: Paul Millsap. A former All-Star in his own right, Millsap is the perfect inside-outside compliment to Jokic's game. He can stretch the floor, hitting above 35 percent from three, and is a solid scorer and playmaker out of the post. The Nuggets can run action through either and get similar results.
Perhaps my favorite consistently run set is a screen-the-screener action for Jamal Murray, which occurs around a post-up.
Murray is at first a screener, getting Millsap or Jokic open on the block. From there, he goes to set a back screen at the opposite elbow, which sinks his own defender to the rim. As soon as contact is made, Murray darts around another screen, coming to the ball-side wing and getting what is usually a wide-open three-point attempt:
Post-ups are not just for scoring, throwing the ball to the block and improvising offense. Scripted sets that revolve around how defenses react to post entries are difficult to stop, and this one is a doozy.
Despite comfortably sitting in a top-two seed out West, the Nuggets are a sleeper. With their relative inexperience and lack of multiple stars, they will not be a trendy pick for the Conference Finals.
But there is no good way to defend this team, what with their inside-out bigs, quick shooters and smart, aggressive defenders. By pounding the ball into the post time and again, the Nuggets wear down their opponents and trust their bigs will make the right play.
It's proven both a winning formula and that the post-up is not going out of style.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).