Nikola Jokic Has Mastered the Art of Slowness

LOS ANGELES — After watching Nikola Jokic time and again lumber down the court, hold a basketball above the defense like a freshly picked grapefruit, wheel, pause, and sling a tightrope pass that led a teammate to an open shot, a question came to mind.

What is the best one-word descriptor for this guy, a player steadily distinguishing himself as unlike any in N.B.A. history, now on the verge of taking the Denver Nuggets to the finals?

Is Jokic …

Fundamental? Yeah, that partly hits the mark.

Is Jokic …

Efficient? Hmm, there’s more than a kernel of truth in that.

Is he …

Intelligent? That’s true, though it’s an assessment that comes with baggage. Jokic is white, and, yeah, he’s a physicist on the court, but so are LeBron James and a host of Black players who do not get nearly enough credit for their smarts.

What about …

Slow? Well, now we are on to something. Here we find his special sauce.

It is the speed with which he plays, or, rather, the lack of it, that sets him apart in the fast-twitch N.B.A. Jokic, the two-time league most valuable player, could write an instructional book about the game he has come to master: Basketball and the Fine Art of Slowness.

This particular faculty is not entirely about sprinting pace. Jokic can move fairly quickly in spurts. It is just as much qualitative. When he is on the court, no matter the circumstance, he seems to control time. He moves where he wants, when he wants, while every other player is slicing around the court in a frenzy.

On Saturday night, as the Nuggets and Lakers starters gathered on the court at Arena before tipoff in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals, it seemed like every other player was jumping up and down or fiddling nervously with their uniform or hunting for someone to high-five.

Jokic just stood at center court, focused, waiting. It brought to mind something Jeff Van Gundy, the former N.B.A. head coach who is now a television analyst for ESPN, told me before the game, describing the towering Serb. “He looks completely unruffled. Jokic is the epitome of the John Wooden quote, ‘Be quick, don’t hurry.’”

“He’s an absolute marvel,” Van Gundy added.

Wait, this guy, a marvel? Jokic is muscular but hardly ripped. He stands nearly 7 feet, weighs almost as much as a subzero refrigerator, and has arms that might as well be pterodactyl wings. He is 28, still in the middle of the prime years for physical prowess, but he might trip while trying to jump over the Sunday paper.

And yet he dominates the N.B.A.

He has been a presiding force in this season’s playoffs, his consistently high level of play matched only by Miami Heat guard Jimmy Butler. Seven triple-doubles in 14 games. Six games with more than 30 points. A 53-point masterpiece against Phoenix in the conference semifinals. Then he practically won Game 1 against the Lakers by himself.

But as Game 3 of that series began on Saturday, Jokic struggled to find a rhythm. Uncharacteristically, he scuffled for a while, and was saddled by foul trouble. Then, with the Lakers briefly taking an 85-84 lead early in the fourth quarter and James beginning to recall his younger self, a switch went on inside Jokic.

Suddenly, there it was, the whole arsenal. Deflections, rebounds and orbital jump shots. Scooping, angling passes. Jokic dribbled up the court, a commanding, surveying point guard. He methodically backed down a Lakers defender. Time seemed to grind to something near a standstill. Then Jokic spun, twirled, and sped briefly to the basket to knock in a soft layup as if it were a one-inch putt.

This was Zen: Wait patiently, clear the mind, calm the body, see the opening, strike. That’s Jokic.

When Jokic is on the court, no matter the circumstance, he seems to control time. Credit…Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports, via Reuters Con

Denver pulled away, Jokic (and his sidekick Jamal Murray) in full flight. When Jokic catapulted in a 25-foot 3-pointer with about three minutes left, the Nuggets surged ahead by 10 points. Eventually they won, 119-108.

How did he become such a master?

Jokic turned pro 11 years ago in his native Serbia when he was a rawboned 17-year-old. His coach, Dejan Milojevic, now an assistant with the Golden State Warriors, recalls Jokic operating in those days with the same uncanny understanding. He moved without haste, at what Milojevic prefers to call “the speed optimum for Nikola.”

What Jokic needed, at least at the start of his professional career, was the strength or stamina to prosper. His old coach claims that Jokic had to undergo a crash conditioning course because he couldn’t complete even two push-ups. Once he got in shape, the blossoming began.

But getting in shape and being well coached can’t be the whole story. If so, there would be 1,000 players like Jokic.

Is there something about how he is wired?

“The way he tracks information around him, knowing where everybody is on the court, making perfectly timed passes all the time to open teammates, takes a special mental ability,” said Greg Appelbaum, director of the Human Performance Optimization Lab at U.C. San Diego, where scientists study athletes’ cognition.

“Prospective inference” Appelbaum called Jokic’s capacity to stay one, two, and sometimes three steps ahead of the action on a 94-by-50-foot hardwood swath.

Prospective what?

An analogy can be found in a cheetah’s amplified ability to scan terrain and extrapolate the possible escape routes of prey. In sports, it’s the skill to predict the future movements of opponents and teammates, said Appelbaum, shortly after watching Denver’s Game 3 win. “It sure looked like Jokic did that tonight.”

It did, indeed.

Of course, no matter the cause of his mastery, none of it happens if Jokic takes himself off balance by rushing. That’s the foundation.

Speed defines our society. Faster, faster, faster is the mantra — sometimes for the better and, as it is becoming increasingly clear, often for the worse. But watching Nikola Jokic provides an antidote: the enduring power of taking one’s time.

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