Since entering the NBA, Denver Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic has put the league on notice with his style of play. His ability to score, rebound, and pass has made him one of the most unique players the league has ever seen. SI contributing writer Robert O'Connell discusses Jokic's playing style as well as his upbringing in Serbia which made him the player he is today.
Madelyn Burke: Position-less basketball is the new normal in the NBA. But for Nikola Jokic it's a style he was raised to play. SI's Robert O'Connell writes in today's Daily Cover, the passing big man, formerly known as Joker, grew up playing the Serbian way. Robert, how would you describe what the Serbian style of basketball is?
Robert O'Connell: Yeah, well it kind of descends and comes from this guy, Aleksandar Nikolic, who in the middle of the 20th century kind of adopted a lot of John Wooden tactics, a lot of tactics from American college basketball. But really, it was kind of at the vanguard of what we now call position-less basketball. He wanted his guards to be able to play in the post, his big men to handle the ball, pass the ball. And so, yeah, they kind of developed this style in which everybody, as a young kid playing basketball over there learned every skill and it made their own court play very fluid, very interchangeable and dynamic. They would have relatively few set plays but be able to kind of improvise endlessly off of this place.
Madelyn Burke: Yeah. The fluidity and the limit of the set plays. I find it really interesting, too, that Jokic wasn't actually allowed to run the pick and roll until he was 14 years old.
Robert O'Connell: Yes. So in the Serbian style of play, in the Serbian style of bringing up younger players, they like them to develop particular skills or to round out their skill set before they're working on anything too specific. So the idea is that if you have a tall kid and you know he's just running the roll man on pick and roll all the time, he'll develop that set of skills, but not the rest of the game. And if they kind of prohibit them from that sort of shortcut style of play, they'll have a broader skillset when they finally do start to hone in on certain areas.
Madelyn Burke: And cut to now, of course, where he and Murray are the only two teammates totally 100 assists to one another this season, him playing obviously effectively on either position in the pick and roll. But another thing that was interesting, too, is only three foreign countries have produced more NBA players than Serbia has. That's Canada, France and Germany. So granted, not every player out of Serbia is at the level of the Joker. But like Boban Marjanovic and his giant hands are a riot on Twitter. But on the court, he's more of a role player. How has Jokic been such a standout in the NBA?
Robert O'Connell: Yeah, I mean, you also have these players like the Kings of the 2000s. You had Peja and Vlade, but Jokic is kind of his own thing. And speaking with his former coaches in Serbia, they're careful not to give themselves too much credit. You know, obviously, the Serbian system helped him, but they refer to him as a natural. And they say it's this kind of perfect match of student and teacher style of schooling. I guess he's just the perfect player for that kind of philosophy they have. And he has all the skill sets to really make it sing in the league.
Madelyn Burke: Robert O'Connell with a unique insight into the Joker. Thanks so much for the time.
Robert O'Connell: Thank you very much.