weight loss diet
Nikola Jokic has lost as much as 40 pounds since this mid-December photo was taken. How that will … [+] affect his game is a big question for the Denver Nuggets going into the returned NBA season.
When did Nikola Jokic truly arrive?
Many would point to December 15, 2016, now known colloquially among Denver Nuggets fans as “Jokic Day,” the date on which the Serbian big man permanently ascended to the team’s starting center position in his sophomore year.
But a single moment later that season more concretely crystalized Jokic’s status as a bona fide star in the making when, in the third quarter of a home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, he received a pass in the high left post and LeBron James rotated over to body up on him.
There was a palpable inhalation in the Pepsi Center as Jokic turned and dribbled, backing James down with his left shoulder as the crowd noise swelled and then erupted when Joker floated in a right-handed hook shot over the six-time All-Defensive Teamer and then-reigning NBA champion and Finals MVP.
But beyond elevating Jokic’s burgeoning stardom, the play also solidified his reputation for knowing how to adroitly use his colossal frame and hefty bulk to bully defenders with relative ease, banging his way into optimal scoring position at will.
That perception of Jokic has stuck for good reason. The post-ups in which he puts his mass to good use have long been a distinguishing staple of his game, and with 528 total post-ups this season per Second Spectrum data at NBA.com, Jokic leads the league this season in that possession type.
It is also this general impression of Jokic as a banger which has fueled speculation about what exactly his game will look like after having shed a massive amount of weight (ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski put it at 40 pounds) over the NBA’s coronavirus suspension.
Will “skinny Jokic” still be able to play bully ball and, importantly, also effectively guard the league’s biggest big men? Will his slimmed-down physique be a bane that deprives him of (to paraphrase Roger Waters) the weight he used to need to throw around, or a boon which allows him to play with more quickness, energy and stamina?
The recent revelation that Jokic has tested positive for COVID-19 but was asymptomatic and should be able to return to Denver soon still hangs over the prospects of both he and the Nuggets returning to action, as the NBA’s plan to resume the season rolls on and is set to enter its next phase on July 7, when 22 teams including Denver will begin traveling to Disney World in Orlando to enter the protective “bubble” and hunker down for the duration.
But assuming Jokic clears the negative tests required for him to rejoin his team and is cleared to play for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs, it is worth taking a look at some specific components of his game and how they might be affected by his weight loss.
The film study below is centered around three broad skill areas – scoring, defense and passing. – with a look at how Jokic’s game could be affected either negatively or positively in each by shedding so many pounds. As Jokic’s performance in the upcoming playoffs is what will be most critical, all of the plays in the videos below are from his only postseason sample so far, Denver’s two playoff series against the San Antonio Spurs and Portland Trail Blazers last year.
Scoring: How A Slimmer Jokic Might Struggle Or Thrive
The logical place to start here is with post-up plays, since it is undeniable that Jokic has made the most of his considerable size, strength and weight on a fair percentage of these possessions. All but the final play in the first video below show Jokic leveraging his bulk to gain the advantage when posting up, while using it in the last play to body Enes Kanter on a cutting drive. These are some of the plays where Jokic could potentially lose an edge by having lost weight.
The post-ups here well represent the quality of Jokic’s game which most seem to be concerned about when it comes to his having lost so much weight, namely his proficiency at bullying his way near the basket to get himself into position for near-automatic buckets.
One important consideration here, however, is the question of how often he actually does this. By one measure, his pure post-up stats as cited above, it’s very often. But how much does Jokic’s physicality specifically come into play as a percentage of his scoring possessions?
I watched all 132 of his made field goals from Denver’s playoff run last year and counted just 18 of them in which he was clearly directly utilizing his body heft in his effort to score. While that’s 13.6%, which is a non-trivial share of his scoring possessions, the flip side is that Jokic’s bulk did not really come into play as a central component of how he was scoring on 86.4% of his made postseason field goals last year.
One important truth in this matter is that even on many of Jokic’s post-ups, his bulk has far less to do with his scoring prowess than his superb footwork and spatial awareness.
While “graceful” may not be the word that first comes to mind when many think of Jokic, perhaps it’s about time that it should. Just as often as Jokic plays “bully” he plays “ballet dancer,” stepping and spinning and head-faking his defender with a dazzling array of moves which open him up an easy path to the basket without needing to bang his way in there.
The first three plays in this second video – types of scoring possessions in which Jokic may well benefit from slimming down – feature post-ups where he uses his skill and guile rather than his bulk to get buckets.
It’s easy to imagine on these types of post plays that shedding some pounds could foster the better agility and quicker foot speed that would make these moves even more lethal.
But we should also move on from post possessions, since more often than not Jokic is operating from the top of the key or the elbows anyhow. When he initiates scoring attempts from those spots on the floor – which often happens in tandem with point guard Jamal Murray in their highly-vaunted two-man game – he is most often rolling, cutting or driving to the basket.
The latter of those, driving to the basket, is frequently seen when Jokic attacks closeouts at the three-point arc as seen here when he drives in and draws a foul on Zach Collins, or breezes past Damian Lillard for his signature shot, a running floater in the lane. In such drives or rolls to the basket, the potentially quicker first step that could come with operating in a lighter weight class could give Jokic at least slightly more of an edge in beating his man, as well as helping him move more swiftly to the basket.
Of course, Jokic also does his fair share of pulling up and taking long midrange or three-point shots from those spots, as seen in the last three plays. Could losing the weight that he has help his shooting as well? It’s not as obviously clear of a connection as lighter weight might be to foot speed, but especially considering that Jokic had his best three-point shooting season (39.6%) at a visibly lighter weight two years ago than this season (33.3%) or the year before (32.4%) it’s at least plausible.
In any case, given that the preponderance of Jokic’s shot attempts – 68%, according to Cleaning the Glass – come from midrange or on three-pointers, and that 74% of his attempts (695 of 969 total) come on jumpers, drives, cuts and runners per NBA.com, it would seem that the aggregate effect of his weight loss should be more beneficial than not to his overall scoring game.
Defense: How A Slimmer Jokic Might Struggle Or Thrive
Perhaps even more interesting, as it is in some ways counterintuitive, is the impact shedding weight might have on Jokic’s defensive game. Again we start with plays in which slimming down could be a liability, and again we start with post-ups, this time with Jokic on the other side of the ball.
Jokic clearly puts his bulk to effective use when guarding opposing bigs in the post, operating as not just a nearly-immovable object, but one with girth that’s difficult to get around as well. The proof is in the pudding here, as on 58 post possessions defended this season, Jokic has allowed just a 39.5% field goal percentage, per NBA.com.
But two factors mitigate the significance of this. First, as The Ringer’s Zach Kram noted in December, post-ups as a share of teams’ overall shot profiles are a dying breed, and “since the 2014-15 season, the leaguewide post-up rate has been cut nearly in half, down to just 4.7 percent of possessions thus far in 2019-20.” So Jokic may be a good or even great post defender, but the importance of that is simply waning in the big picture.
More importantly, though, is how teams – thus far only San Antonio and Portland, but presumably more to come – choose to attack what is perceived as a vulnerability in the Nuggets’ defense by putting Jokic into pick-and-rolls (PnRs) again and again, over and over.
In the next video, defensive play types where Jokic might benefit from losing weight, opponents putting him in the PnR is seen repeatedly.
Now it should be noted first that Jokic is actually not as bad a PnR defender as would follow from his reputation. To be sure, he lacks the athleticism, speed and agility of some of the league’s elite PnR defenders like Kevin Garnett or Dwight Howard in their primes. But in the possessions shown in this video he does a respectable job, all things considered, of staying with the guard he’s gotten switched onto, in some cases altering shots and forcing misses.
Jokic’s greatest strength is his basketball mind, and he typically reads plays well even in the cases where his feet can’t quite stay up to speed. With a lighter, fleeter frame and presumably quicker feet, he stands a chance of better answering the challenge of defending the PnR, which opposing teams will certainly be trying exploit as a vulnerability. He may also have a bit more energy in the tank for second and third defensive efforts, as well as hustle plays like getting into passing lanes with his crafty hands for steals.
Passing: How A Slimmer Jokic Might Struggle Or Thrive
As he has already quite arguably become the best-passing big man in NBA history, Jokic’s playmaking is the most notable characteristic of his game. And when using his weight to body up on opponents and get to spots on the floor, he often will pass the rock on to a teammate when it improves the chance for a better shot on that possession.
In the first of the two plays in the next video on how Jokic’s passing could take a hit at his lighter weight, Jokic begins backing down Al-Farouq Aminu from the high post.
But when Rodney Hood leaves Murray and rotates down for the double team, Jokic uses the extra attention he’s drawing on his post-up to kick it back out, and Murray has the open lane to run in for the floater. CJ McCollum similarly abandons Will Barton III to help double after Jokic backs down the badly-mismatched Lillard in the low post, and Joker makes him pay, finding Barton in the corner for what was a critical, clutch three-pointer in that game.
Of course, even at a lighter weight Jokic won’t have a hard time bullying guards of Lillard’s size, but far more often he’ll be guarded by players who won’t be quite so easy to push around, which could make his lighter weight a liability when drawing the defense in to pass out of double teams.
On the other hand, Jokic has earned his playmaking reputation for a reason, and similarly to his shot selection, the percentage of his assists in which he relies on his physicality constitutes a relatively small portion. As described above with his field goal attempts, I watched every one of his postseason assists from last year, and there were only eight of the 118 he dished out, or 6.8% of them, in which he threw his weight around in the process of delivering the pass.
Far more often Jokic is in motion or relatively unimpeded when passing to his teammates, as seen in the next video of how slimming down could be helpful, or at the very least not a liability in terms of his playmaking.
Not unlike his post-ups, he relies more heavily on skilled footwork, often using a spin move or taking a quick dribble or two to shift to a nearby spot on the floor where he can get off a more optimal pass. In these types of plays, having slimmed down could likewise give him at least a slight boost in terms of quickness and light-footedness.
Nor does he generally need to utilize his weight when operating with Murray in their two-man game, where more often than not he zips needle-threading bounce passes on Murray’s cuts; from the top of the arc, where he often utilizes his height and vision to send in high entry passes for lobs around the rim; or on the outlet passes he so frequently sends out after grabbing defensive boards, or even following opponents’ made shots.
As mentioned above, while Nikola Jokic is undoubtedly a highly skilled player, the quality which sets him apart more than any other is his mile-high basketball IQ. His effectiveness on offense ultimately boils down to taking what the defense gives him and working around that. Likewise on defense, he minimizes best as possible the limitations he knows he has using good positioning and court awareness.
In short, Jokic is very good at optimizing the tools at his disposal to create the best possible outcomes. His weight has been one such tool, something he acknowledged explicitly when he said to ESPN last year, “I like to be a little bit heavier like how I am right now… because the guys are pushing me.”
But for a player as skilled as Jokic, the wide variety of other tools he has in his belt may be even more valuable, and those stand a good chance of being enhanced at a lighter weight, with quicker foot speed sharpening up his footwork and first step, more stamina helping him get up and down the court more quickly, especially for leading fast breaks and getting back in transition, and a little more energy and bounce providing a bit more lift to his barely-off-the-ground jumper and a bit more zip to his deep well of moves in the post and out of the high arc and elbows.
All things considered, it would seem that at worst the overall effect would be a wash, but that the “skinny Jokic” effect is more likely to have a tangibly positive impact on his game.