Nikola Jokic and the NBA's Lineage of Supremely-Talented Passing Big Men
Nikola Jokic’s touch passing, court vision, and footwork have made the Denver Nuggets a League Pass darling and vaulted Jokic into the conversation as the league’s best big man. Jokic possesses a rare skill set, but he isn’t the first of his kind, the NBA has a long-standing history of proficient passers out of the post that dates back to the 1960s. Let’s rewind and take a stroll down memory lane as we delve into the NBA’s lineage of exceptional passers out of the post.
The landscape of the NBA has changed over the years; the post oriented schemes of the 1990s have been replaced by “run and gun” offenses that prioritize perimeter shooting and spacing over post matchups. Playing on the block has always been a difficult transition for young players; this shift in ideology broadened the skill gap in this new NBA.” Bigs” are being asked to stretch the floor and play further from the basket than ever before, it’s for this very reason that Nikola stands out as an anomaly in the ever-evolving NBA.
Jokic leverages his size and footwork to pick apart defenses and influence matchups from all over the floor. Jokic plays with great vision and pace, rewarding his teammates for their reads, thus strengthening the continuity of the offense. Bam Adebayo facilitates the offense in Miami in a very similar way, though much of his success has come as a result of facing up and attacking the basket. Both players demonstrate a level of “feel” for defenses that’s usually reserved for perimeter players.
Pau Gasol will forever be remembered as the “Robin” to Kobe’s “Batman” during the Lakers championship run. Still, fans would be remiss if they failed to mention how integral Gasol’s passing was to Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. Bryant has received much of the accolades for his role, and rightfully so, but Gasol’s ability to anticipate and dissect defensive looks greatly enhanced the profile of their shooters.
Kawhi Leonard for his contributions to the Raptors first championship in franchise history but fans forget how crucial Marc Gasol was in his limited minutes. Marc averaged close to 4.0 APG during the Raptors championship run. Though he may not have been the same Gasol who dominated in Memphis for the better part of a decade, his passing sensibilities added value to the Raptors offense.
Kevin Love’s contribution to the 2016 Cavs championship often gets lost in the shadows behind the heroics of Kyrie Irving and LeBron James. Love’s statistical output during their run won’t wow you, but his impact was most certainly felt in the transition using his outlet passing to get James and Irving out on the break. Love never hesitated to defer in the halfcourt, ultimately settling into his ancillary role as the third option.
Chris Webber and Vlade Divac are two of the more unheralded players of their generations, their pairing in Sacramento was a predecessor to the “small ball” we see dominating the league at present. The legacy they left behind in Sacramento those few seasons has become the stuff of legend. Arvdyas Sabonis didn’t spend his best years in the NBA, but he demonstrated the skills that made him a FIBA Hall of Famer in the time in the few seasons he did play. If there is a player that Jokic resembles this far into his career, it would have to be Sabonis.
Anthony Mason and Boris Diaw were dependable facilitators whose unique skill sets made them invaluable assets for their clubs. Fans remembered Kevin Garnett for his intensity and versatility, often neglecting his superior passing instincts. Garnett averaged 5.0 APG for six consecutive seasons, which is no small feat at his position.
While Shaquille O’Neal will go down as the most dominant player of his era, he was also a capable distributor from the center spot. O’Neal leveraged his size and brute strength to punish opposing defenders and scan over double teams. His willingness to pass and repost directly contributed to the success of the likes of Robert Horry and Devean George. Wilt Chamberlain owns more than his fair share of records, but I bet you didn’t know that “The Stilt” led the entire NBA in assists during the 1967-68 season with 8.6 APG.
Jokic and Adebayo represent a rare breed of player, the select few capable of seeing through defenses with their eyes and feet. In this new world of “positionless” basketball, I can’t imagine a more dangerous weapon. There is an old basketball adage that goes, “You can’t teach height,” which is true, but the measurables only tell half the story. Acumen, technique, and most importantly, vision are what continues to separate the “good” from the “great” in the NBA.