Nikola Jokic is the NBA’s biggest enigma

Published November 7, 2022, 6:00 PMJon Carlos Rodriguez
Jon Carlos Rodriguez

Jokic now holds the record for the most triple-doubles by a center, surpassing Wilt Chamberlain.

A Nikola Jokic triple-double is almost a given. Someone with that special, mysterious ability to do all things great is always bound to rack up the stats.

It’s crazy to imagine that there used to be a world where a Nikola Jokic triple-double wasn’t automatic. That world existed just a few years ago, from 2015 to 2016, when Jokic was a rookie in the league.

He played in 80 of a possible 82 games, not a single game where he posted double digits in points, rebounds, and assists. Double-doubles came aplenty for points and rebounds, but the dimes, not too much.

The first of many triple-doubles came in his second year in the NBA, on February 3, 2017 to be exact. The Denver Nuggets were up four points over the Milwaukee Bucks with less than five minutes left when Jabari Parker (remember him?) bricked an open 3. Jokic was there for the rebound and—using a boss move we’d come to be familiar with—instinctively threw a speeding, long, and precise baseball pass to a moving target. The target, Kenneth Faried (remember him?), caught the pass and slammed it with emphasis, as if to mark the starting off point to the Jokic Triple-Double Count. 

There was nothing particularly great about the play though, just your garden-variety outlet pass, the ball gripped and then flicked with one hand to a streaking teammate in the open floor. But there was a sense that it was special, not just because it was Jokic’s 10th assist of the night and not just because it gave him his first career-triple double.

The moment was special because in a span of just three seconds, Jokic showed us a glimpse of the future, a little teaser to his MVP qualities, a peek into his genius. That’s as far as we can analyze it.

Jokic ended the game with a W for the Nuggets and a statline that would soon be the calling card left in his crimes: 20 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists. Call it the Nikola Jokic special.

Five years and 78 more triple-doubles later and here we are: Jokic now holds the record for the most triple-doubles by a center, surpassing Wilt Chamberlain. 

It happened on November 4, 2022, to be exact, in a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Sometime in the third quarter, with Jokic an assist shy of the prestigious milestone, it happened. Jokic drove to the lane in the way only he can, which is to say he drove the lane with multi-purpose, with about a hundred scenarios unfolding with every power dribble.

The drive attracted four Thunder defenders—as it should—because that’s what happens when a player with Jokic’s superpowers attacks the basket. You don’t understand it, but you just gravitate towards it. In the most effortless of things, Jokic dropped a pass to Aaron Gordon for an easy basket. It was assist No. 10 for Jokic, but also marked triple-double No. 79—the most triple-doubles ever by a center. He’s now sixth on the all-time list of players with most triple-doubles in league history.

Jokic is in elite company, numbers-wise, as he should be. But watching him do the things he does on the court, Jokic is in a space all on his own. How he got there is a lifelong puzzle that we won’t ever solve. How he can throw crosscourt bullet passes to moving targets like he’s throwing darts to a stationary board. Or how he can telegraph a touch pass two or three moves ahead.

There’s one particular play, Nuggets versus Spurs last season, where Jokic tapped a pass to Gordon for an easy dunk. The way it happened was the ball was looped high in the air to Jokic, giving him a split-second to check where Gordon and his defender were, then have just enough time to look back at the ball for a perfectly aimed touch pass. If that sounded absurd, it’s because that’s exactly what the play was—it’s exactly what Nikola Jokic is.

He can grab rebounds in traffic, his feet barely lifting from the ground, as if he’s plucking apples off a tree. His footwork plays out in slow motion; his offensive capabilities and athletic gifts nowhere near that of, say, a Ja Morant or a Giannis Antetokounmpo. Yet, when the ball is in his hands, there’s always that high chance of a jaw-dropping play. 

The way a Jokic play unfolds is that in one moment everything seems normal, then in the next moment he’s throwing a no-look pass to an open teammate. You’d have to watch it in Phantom Cam replay, which is probably the way Jokic sees it, for things to make sense. 

When Jokic is done making fools of defenses, there’s a possibility that he’ll end up higher in that all-time triple-double list (he’s only behind 26 triple-doubles from LeBron James; 28 behind Jason Kidd). But there’s also a possibility that stat won’t be what we’ll remember first from Jokic’s career. 

We tend to look past the things we can’t comprehend.