25-under-25: Nikola Jokic is your favorite Lou Reed album

Art by Andrew Maahs -- @BasemintDesign
Art by Andrew Maahs -- @BasemintDesign /

The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over this week. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 NBA players under the age of 25.

I’m a big fan of Lou Reed’s solo records. For the most part, though, I believe these records are unfairly neglected and extremely underrated. When talking about music with friends, this is a claim I’ve made many times before, and never has anyone been like, “yeah, you’re right!” This bums me out. But I know, deep down, that there’s a small part of me that likes it that way, that I’d be a bit dismayed if someone else started gushing about how great Coney Island Baby is, disillusioned of the fact that my loving these albums makes me at all unique or interesting. Of course, I probably shouldn’t place so much of my identity in the music I listen to, but that’s a conversation for another time.

If you’ve spent any time in a certain section of NBA Twitter, you’re well aware of the fact that there’s a group of people who go absolutely wild for Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. As the general world of NBA fandom has celebrated the ascension of the new wave of unicorns — multidimensional players who are deconstructing the idea of what makes one a great big man — by praising and falling in love with Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, and Kristaps Porzingis, Jokic has, for whatever reason, flown under the radar a bit. Maybe it’s just because he hasn’t made the playoffs yet or because he doesn’t play in a media market as large as New York City, or because he just seems like an unassuming dude with a personality not as immediately large as Embiid’s. Regardless, he’s become a player that the basketball intelligentsia has latched on to, the latest hipster pick to be transfixed by.

Nikola Jokic
Art by Andrew Maahs — @BasemintDesign /

By becoming a hipster pick, Jokic finds himself in the lineage of several other players who range from tantalizing disappointments to eventual stars. For example, Porzingis was a bit of a hipster choice his rookie season before reaching national acclaim, leading to Jokic replacing him. A bit further back, there was Anthony Randolph, who inspired several rapturous blog posts from the FreeDarko collective a decade ago, and before that, Gilbert Arenas loomed large in the basketball subconscious even as an All-Star due to odd quirks such as taking a shower at halftime while wearing his uniform and flipping a coin to decide what team he would sign with as a free agent. Arenas even wrote the foreword for FreeDarko’s first book, bringing the whole thing full circle.

So what is it about Jokic that causes people to go so crazy for him and why do we have him ranked so high in our 25 Under 25 list? Well, to begin, Jokic is an absolute delight to watch, and is easily the best player on a Nuggets team full of exciting and talented young players. The only thing keeping him from being a surefire All-Star next season is the abundance of great players in the Western Conference. Jokic already has the most Win Shares of any member of the 2014 Draft class, which isn’t that crazy until you consider that he spent the first season after being drafted playing overseas in his native Serbia. He also has a deft shooting touch, able to score down low while knocking down outside shots with ease as well, converting nearly 40 percent of his 3 point attempts last season.

Most revelatory, though, is his uncanny skill as a passer. Not only is he great at doing the most simple of tasks — making the extra pass and finding the open man — he imbues it with a style and flash that is reminiscent of Arvydas Sabonis. Jokic makes the most fundamental plays in basketball seem revelatory, like you’re seeing the give-and-go for the first time as he passes the ball over his head towards someone cutting behind him. It is finding cutters that he is particularly skilled at, so that most of these passes lead to the easiest possible buckets for their recipients. These are plays that few centers in NBA history could make yet Jokic converts them on a nightly basis, so smoothly that it seems like a gift he was born with rather than something he’s certainly spent a lifetime honing.

As Jokic and the Nuggets improve, more and more fans will realize just what a transcendent player he is and he’s bound to garner a wider following than he has at the present moment. He will enter the mainstream and NBA writers will be forced to find a new player to collectively advocate for that seems to have to flown under the radar. To be fair, it’s true that Jokic absolutely deserves to be more well known and beloved by more basketball fans. And, being just 23, he’s far from his prime so, great as he is now, he will almost certainly improve in the coming seasons. For his current fans, there is something appealing about advocating for a player who is not only great, but also underappreciated, a satisfaction in knowing they were enraptured by him first.

dark. Next. Meet the 2018 NBA 25-under-25

Of course, Jokic will not remain a cult figure forever, a player loved seemingly only by the most intense NBA League Pass devotees. With as much talent as he has, and considering how much fun he is to watch, he’ll have his breakout very soon, his “Walk on the Wild Side” if you will.  Right now, Jokic is kind of like Coney Island Baby — great, but not talked about nearly enough — whereas pretty soon, he may become more like Transformer, a record that is very good and treated accordingly.