After making a run to the 2020 Western Conference Finals that included a monumental comeback win over the L.A. Clippers, the Denver Nuggets are off to a bit of a shaky start in 2020-21. Denver opened the season with a 1-3 record that included two home losses but, even in a shortened 72-game campaign, the Nuggets have plenty of time to right the ship. Even with the (very slight) hiccup at the outset, Denver’s centerpiece, All-NBA center Nikola Jokic, is operating at an obscenely high level, and he even drew quite a compliment from veteran teammate Paul Millsap on New Year’s Eve.
Millsap contd: “I’m just blessed to be on the other side of it. Because I’ve been on both sides where I’ve had to be the guy to try and do it…Continue to just try and ride him and listen to what he has to say and be in the right places for him.”
“It did play a big factor.” pic.twitter.com/V4ISLBhiuo
— Harrison Wind (@HarrisonWind) December 31, 2020
Though Millsap’s characterization involving the big man “throwing cheeseburgers” is objectively hilarious, Jokic does make life incredibly easy for his teammates, and that is very much on display so far in 2020-21. The 25-year-old center struggled out of the gate in 2019-20, averaging just 14.9 points in the first 19 games and scuffling from an efficiency perspective. This time around, though, Jokic was in a complete groove from the outset, putting up 24.5 points, 13.5 assists and 11.5 rebounds per game in the first four contests.
Obviously, that isn’t a huge sample size, but Jokic has generate three triple-doubles in four games, shooting 62.5 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point distance along the way. Denver’s success as a team hasn’t yet arrived, but the Nuggets have some of their best on-off numbers with Jokic on the floor, which is anything but a surprise.
With the elite big man in the middle of the action, the Nuggets are scoring more than 1.2 points per possession (and outscoring their opponents overall), and Jokic’s combination of shooting efficiency and playmaking is the biggest reason for that success. His defensive acumen is always a significant topic of discussion, and it is at least somewhat limiting from a team-wide standpoint, but Jokic has been dialed in to begin the season and it is a joy to watch.
Jokic isn’t the only player for which Millsap’s cheeseburger reference would have made sense but, as of Dec. 31, he leads the NBA in assists per game. As a center, that is a wild accomplishment, even in a small sample, and when a player like Millsap speaks like this, it is a reminder that Jokic remains the best passing big man in NBA history, and he’s still in the middle of his prime.