Nikola Jokić Says He'd Love to Win NBA's Most Improved Award
By Christopher Dempsey, Altitude Sports
Second-year Nuggets center Nikola Jokic’s preference is to stiff-arm the spotlight. But there is a postseason award even he can get behind; the NBA’s Most Improved Award.
“Yeah,” Jokic said. “Why not?”
And Jokic is on-board with this would-be slice of recognition mostly because of the premise behind it -- rewarding the player who has improved the most.
“It is really, I think, a nice thing to accomplish because I said to myself that I want to improve myself,” Jokic said. “So, if I get it I’m going to be happy.”
The race for most improved appears to be a two-player race between Jokic and Milwaukee’s young star Giannis Antetokounmpo. Both players have had noteworthy seasons. The winner, decided by a panel of media voters nationwide who have their ballots right now, is likely to come down to a simple question of what player does each person like best. Because the margins between the two are razor-thin.
Of the two, Jokic has had the more unexpected breakout season. He was a first-team all-Rookie selection last season, but Jokic has not just played better than a year ago, he’s vaulted himself among the best players in the league, regardless of age.
Going into Friday’s game, Jokic was ninth in the NBA in PER, the metric that measures the most impactful players in the league. At 26.39 (the league average is 15.00), he is ahead of players like Chris Paul of the L.A. Clippers, Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns and Portland’s Damian Lillard, although he’s a hair behind Antetokounmpo (26.43).
Since being placed in the Nuggets’ starting lineup on Dec. 15, Jokic has averaged 19.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.9 assists while shooting 58 percent in 29.6 minutes per game. Year-over-year overall, Jokic’s average has jumped six points from his rookie season, from 10.0 to 16.5. His rebounding is up from 7.0 as a rookie to nearly 10 per game this season.
Antetokounmpo’s scoring average has also jumped six points. He’s averaging career-highs and leading his Milwaukee Bucks in scoring, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. And he’s played the same 35 minutes per game that he did a year ago.
In other words, it’s as close a race as there will be for any award this season. Nuggets coach Michael Malone is understandably backing his guy.
“The numbers that Nikola Jokic is putting up are just a joke,” Malone said. “That’s no disrespect to Giannis, who is a (heck) of a player. His numbers are also pretty amazing in and of itself.
“But if you think about it, the first 25 games of the year, that’s not who we were. Once we made that lineup change on the 15th of December, his numbers from that point on are second-to-none, for anybody. So, I think Nikola is firmly entrenched as one of the best players in the NBA, and he’d be more than deserving to win the most improved award.”
Mudiay’s mindset. The last three games of the Nuggets’ recently-completed five-game road trip were much more familiar to point guard Emmanuel Mudiay, who found himself back on the court playing significant minutes in important games.
The Nuggets games at Miami and New Orleans were the two in which Mudiay was used most. And he delivered in those contests, averaging 16.0 points and 8.0 assists in 30.0 minutes. He played 15 minutes against the Rockets, and is expected to receive another bump up in minutes now that starter Jameer Nelson is out with a strained right calf.
Coming in ready to play has been a matter of keeping the right frame of mind, Mudiay said.
“It’s just fun getting to go out there and play again,” Mudiay said. “That’s what happens when you stay ready, keep your faith, believing in yourself and confidence. So, it’s been fun. I’ve just been in the gym, been working really hard. One thing that I know is the sun rises up every day. So, it’s a new opportunity, a new day.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com or Twitter: @chrisadempsey