At this juncture, most people know that Nikola Jokić was drafted 41st in the second round and to add to the insult it was even during a Taco Bell commercial. What we’re pondering is whether the indicators of his greatness were always there, potentially overlooked. In truth, many are unfamiliar with Jokić’s successful pre-NBA career in Europe.
At this stage, it’s evident that Nikola Jokić is destined to be regarded as one of the greatest players in NBA history. With two MVP titles (should have 3), a championship, and holding the highest career Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in playoff history, we’ve elevated Jokić to 11th place on our all-time rankings list. The thrilling prospect is that with his old man non athletic skill based style of play, we anticipate he has another 5 to 7 years operating at an MVP-caliber level, allowing him to continue amassing record-breaking statistics and achievements. While it might be deemed controversial, it’s conceivable that he could reach the tier of Jordan and LeBron before his career concludes. Even a more modest projection of should place him in the top 5. That’s what the statistics imply.
How Did The NBA Get it So Wrong
How did the NBA misjudge such an all-time great? Typically, spotting this level of greatness is often quite straightforward. Taking a look at our all time rankings this is where each player was drafted.
|5||Wilt Chamberlain||3rd (territorial pick)|
|7||Larry Bird||6th (season prior to coming)|
|14||Moses Malone||51st (*)|
Rarely do we witness players drafted beyond the top 10 ascending to the heights of greatness. Exceptions like territorial picks, drafting players while still in college, or straight from high school, such as Moses Malone, were unique cases, especially considering the uncertainty of them joining their drafting teams (as in Malone’s case). Few players selected in the double digits achieve the level of greatness we’ve witnessed from Jokic. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kobe Bryant, both just outside our top 15 were drafted 15th and 13th, respectively. Their situations were unique—Kobe being the first guard to come directly from high school in the modern era, and Giannis playing in lower-quality leagues before a significant growth spurt. However, being ranked 15th doesn’t equate to the 41st draft position. Today, scouting has advanced more than ever before. Jokic is by far the biggest miss ever among the all-time greats.
Pre NBA: The Signs Were All There
Prior to the NBA Nikola Jokic played in The Liga ABA (Adriatic League) is recognized as one of the stronger basketball leagues in Europe, often considered a part of the top tier of European basketball. He also played in the The KLS (Košarkaška Liga Srbije) is the top-tier professional basketball league in Serbia. It is the country’s premier basketball competition
In 38 games in those leagues Nikola Jokic averaged 16.5ppg, 9.6rpg, 3.2apg, 1.4spg, 0.9bpg in 29.5 minutes with a 24.6 PER and a .610 True Shooting with a +20 net rating in his age 19 season in Europe. That’s incredibly accomplished for a teenager playing against professional men.
Jokic was the NBA of the Liga ABA had helped Serbia win Silver at the U19 World Cup prior to that, as well and was pretty productive in the Nike Hoops Summit with 5 points 7 rebounds, a block and steal in 15 minutes. These are all normally accomplishments that would put you on the back end of the lottery radar.
Fat is Potential in Disguise
The weight and perceived lack of athletic ability was undoubtedly a factor contributing to the lack of interest, but it’s also one of the most easily improved aspects for a player in basketball. If a player demonstrates ability on the court, the emphasis should be on drafting that player. It’s far more probable for them to lose weight than to develop skills or shooting abilities they lack. Moreover, Jokic remained a formidable player even when he weighed 300lbs. Historically, weight hasn’t deterred many teams from selecting players with similar concerns, such as Zion Williamson or Bryant Reeves, high in the draft. The weight only explains so much here.
It’s puzzling why NBA teams didn’t recognize Jokic’s potential earlier. His teammate Jusuf Nurkic had played in the same league (Liga ABA) a year earlier. Nurkic was playing a lesser roles at only 15 minutes per game and sharing a similar size profile. The NBA was already aware of prospects from this league and their potential transition as Nurkic had a reasonably successful rookie season. Notably, Nurkic was drafted 16th though, whereas Jokic was selected 41st a year later. Dario Šarić who was drafted 12th the year prior also played in the Liga ABA the season before.
|2013-14 *||Liga ABA||28||16.6||11.68||5.68||0.71||1.07||0.82||34.5|
|2014-15 *||Liga ABA||24||30.5||15.42||9.25||3.5||1.54||0.92||24.6|
Bogdan Bogdanović had also been drafted in 2013 with the 27th pick and was still playing in the Liga ABA in 2014 and averaging 15.0ppg with a 19.2 PER. It was a strong league where other notable players like Boban Marjanović and Charles Jenkins were playing in those years. Jokic was the MVP of the league.
You start to understand why Denver had a better understanding of what Jokic may have been. That said the entire league would have scouted Nurkic considering where he was drafted. Although I can’t give Denver to much credit when they drafted Doug McDermott 11th in the same draft and waited around to draft Jokic 41st.
The signs indicating Nikola Jokic’s potential as a standout player were apparent or should have been underscoring the question of why these indicators were overlooked by NBA scouts and teams. The comparative performance of his teammate, Jusuf Nurkic, in the same league and the acknowledgment of prospects from this environment emphasize the presence of clues about Jokic’s future success. Despite being drafted at 41st, the data and context surrounding Jokic, such as his size, skill set, and capabilities displayed in the Liga ABA, suggested a promising trajectory, a sentiment that’s clear in hindsight. Maybe it wouldn’t have warranted a pick in the top 10 at the time, but certainly teams should have been looking at him at 11th which Denver also had and the middle of the first round similar to where Nurkic was drafted. To be drafted at 41st will probably remain the biggest miss in NBA history for years to come.