Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic are two distinctly different ‘unicorns’

Written by on 20/09/2020

Los Angeles Lakers superstar Anthony Davis and Denver Nuggets’ pass-master Nikola Jokic are two distinctly different types of ‘unicorn’, writes Sky Sports NBA analyst Mark Deeks.

One of the long-standing arguments some people use to justify why they think NCAA college basketball is better than the NBA is the wide variety of distinctly different styles of play on offer. And there is some truth to that.

There are certainly some things on display even at the higher levels of college basketball that you will never see in the NBA, such as Syracuse’s full-time zone defense, the havoc defences of Shaka Smart at VCU and Texas, and the remarkably slow plodding of some half-court offenses, even in some power conferences.

However, to think that the NBA is entirely homogeneous, even in the era of universally adopted high-volume three-point shooting groupthink, must mean that anyone who claims that is not really paying attention.

For example, we are now down to only four teams left in the 2019-20 NBA season, and in the Western Conference Finals match-up between the Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets, you could not pick two much more diametrically opposed big men than Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic.

The great advantage of the three-pointer comes in how it cannot really be stopped. Contested, yes, but when players can shoot with good-to-great efficiency on a high volume of even contested looks, it is an efficient offensive strategy that is extremely hard to contain.

This is best embodied currently by James Harden and first normalised by Stephen Curry. However, the same could perhaps also be said about Jokic’s passing ability.

Jokic is meticulous as a passer, and he might be a perfect one. He squeezes through bounce passes to cutters, can find shooters both with his back to the basket and when facing the rim, and his outlets are a thing of regular beauty.

He passes when stationary and he passes on the move, able to find team-mates on both the strong and weak sides, and he does not always pass in the direction he is moving in, nor gather the ball with two hands first. If everyone could do that, they would.

Notwithstanding the obvious – try to stay home on shooters, give him the jump shot if possible, etc – there is little you can do defensively to guard a pass that is thrown absolutely perfectly through a gap that the defense thought it had covered. This is as unguardable as a tremendous shot.

There are always going to be gaps, and Jokic, the master manipulator, is always going to find them – if a defender shifts over slightly, the pass will go through the gap that just opened up, as defenses scramble to plug all the holes like the little boy sticking his finger in the dyke

Being a slow unathletic paint-based player, and notwithstanding his skill level to still be able to play away from the basket on the perimeter, Jokic goes against the new groupthink overtaking the modern game.

The modern game looks for athletes at the five (center) position who can both defend the rim and shoot from outside. Jokic is not particularly good at the latter and certainly is not the former, but he does remind us that, if a player is good enough, they do not have to play that way.

Having a prevailing architecture is not the same as having a blueprint that must be followed. There is no one mandated or dominant style of offense, nor one way to build a winning team – the key to build a winning team is to work around the premium talents that you have and find players commensurate with that, thus being able as a team to make an impact in all areas on both ends of the court.

And with that in mind, we turn back to Davis.

When looking at the Lakers and Davis earlier in the playoffs, we were somewhat critical in our analysis of him, labelling him as the ultimate finisher on a team that really needed extra creators and ball-handlers alongside LeBron James so as to lessen the burden on him and open up the court.

Ever since then, however, Davis has exploded. He is putting up one of the best postseason performances by anyone in NBA history.

It turns out that when you take a ‘unicorn’ such as Davis, a player who can run the court, drive the ball, shoot the ball, protect the rim, clear the rebounds and cover everywhere, you have yourself as unstoppable of a talent as Jokic. Just in a completely different way.

Just as the Lakers have to accept that they cannot stop some of Jokic’s passes, the Nuggets are going to have to accept that there is no way they are going to be able to stop Davis from getting some looks at the rim.

That is the reality of his physical profile. He is a ‘beast’ in transition like Giannis Antetokounmpo, but you cannot wall off Davis like the Miami Heat with Giannis, partly because he is more capable of hitting the jump shot but also because of the permanent dynamism of LeBron leading the break alongside him.

The Lakers’ half-court offense struggled down the regular season’s final few games, but it has picked up noticeably in the postseason thus far, largely because of Davis. He is making the right decisions, he is evading double teams, he is hitting from everywhere, he is just as much of a threat off the ball as on it, and he creates options all over. That in turn means he creates problems for the defense all over.

Basketball is a match-up game, and the Nuggets do not have a great match-up for Davis. Jokic, with his slow feet, is not it. Davis can and does run his opposite numbers off the court, is always willing to attack and get to the line (where he has been getting at a prodigious rate in the playoffs so far), and can rise up over if given space.

Now that his mid-range jumper – which was spotty at best in the regular season – has come back, Davis is proving much more effective in his isolation, post, wing and elbow touches, beyond just being the premier roll man and runner. And with all his weapons in tow now, he is posting the best Player Efficiency Rating (PER) in NBA playoff history.

To look at Davis and Jokic, then, is to look at two completely different styles of player.

It is to look at two players unlike any ever before seen in the league history.

Jokic is the paint-based half-court maestro, whose dishes draw parallels to the game’s all-time greatest assist men while surpassing them in both style and substance.

Davis is a giant of a man who runs like a track athlete and has the skills of a guard, one of the more complete frontcourt players in history of the NBA, a modern day Kevin Garnett with the ability to level up offensively in a way that Garnett never did.

The key to either team winning Game 2 and the remainder of this series is to figure out how best to slow down the other team’s star big man – key to that, though, is to accept that there are some things they can do nothing about.

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(c) Sky Sports 2020: Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic are two distinctly different ‘unicorns’


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