It was not Nikola Jokić’s most impressive play of the season, or even of the night. He held the ball on the right wing as the Nuggets got situated for a second-quarter possession against the Jazz. The game had the dawdling vibe of February basketball, and, scanning the floor, Jokić seemed almost to be yawning, which would have been of a piece with his popular image.
The 7-footer is the NBA’s lethargic genius, with ample arm flab, a summer-camp buzz cut, molasses-slow feet and a clairvoyant understanding of the patterns of the sport. He looped an overhead pass to the center of the lane, unoccupied for the moment by players on either team. All of a sudden Jamal Murray, Denver’s point guard and Jokić’s chief sidekick, burst to the rim.
An instant before, Murray had initiated a backdoor cut—one unperceived by everyone but Jokić. The ball landed in Murray’s hands; he pump-faked and finished the layup; the Utah defenders blinked at one another. “He’s seeing everything!” Nuggets broadcaster Scott Hastings said of Jokić, which wasn’t exactly true. Replays showed that when he made the assist, he was looking off into the distance of the backcourt.
Most NBA centers go their entire careers without throwing a pass as prescient as that. But for the 25-year-old Jokić it is standard: not only expected but also relied upon. Maybe no team since the early Stephen Curry Warriors has so depended on one player’s talent for a singular facet of the game.