Nikola Jović Is The Next Serbian Slayer
Heat fans have been given a glimpse into the future over these past two injury-riddled games. In the first two starts of his career, 19-year-old rookie Nikola Jović has stepped up, averaging 15.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game with a respectable 64.2 percent true-shooting percentage (TS%). The excitement alone warrants a deep dive into his performance as a starter and a prediction about where he may fit in as reinforcements make their way back into the rotation.
Nikola Jović on Offense
One thing that is certain about Jović is that he has very good instincts as a play-finisher and playmaker on offense. He has already demonstrated a knack for finishing plays around the cup, scoring 1.67 points per possession as a roller, per InStat.
What stands out to me (and should stand out to you, too) is Jović’s versatility as a finisher. Like Bam, he has a keen sense of how to time his rolls and what space to occupy on the floor when rolling. But, as a prospect, you get the impression that he is more advanced than Bam was at 19, especially upon studying how he’s getting his buckets. The ability to use his off (left) hand so artfully makes it more difficult for defenders to predict when and how he will get his shots up around the rim. In general, he has an uncanny capacity to loft feathery layups up and around contesting defenders.
Outside of the paint, Jović is 2-for-3 on catch-and-shoot 3s during these first two career starts. The tape reveals a quick trigger and a soft jumper.
This is a skill that bodes well for his ability to play alongside the Heat’s superstar duo of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. If he’s willing to hoist from above the break early and often, this could give Bam and Jimmy the breathing room their games need.
But, perhaps more promisingly, his game has not been all finesse. He’s currently leading the team in free throw attempts per game over these last two games, putting up seven free-throw attempts (FTA) per game and hitting them at a 92.9 percent clip. In what should be a theme at this point, when assessing the ways in which he draws fouls, the quantity is less astounding than the variety.
He’s drawing contact from attacking off well-timed cuts, from crashing the boards, from attacking vulnerable defenders in transition, from fighting in the post, from frustrated opponents, and from handsy, undisciplined defenders. He’s drawing legitimate fouls across a range of sets and situations. In this respect, his game is already modeled after Jimmy’s.
Beyond the overwhelming display of bucket-getting, Jović is proving that he can be an above-average connector on offense, as well. Over the past two games, he’s one of only 2 starters dishing out more passes per game (35) than they receive (30.5). Passes like this one show you how advanced his ability to read the floor is.
Beyond his playmaking in the short roll, he is a willing and savvy passer around the perimeter and out of the post. (Of course, Heat fans who have also glanced at his tape from the Adriatic League days know that Jović can make plays as a pick ‘n’ roll handler, although Spoelstra has yet to take this particular skill for a test drive at the NBA level.)
Besides setting others up with a timely pass, Jović has the frame and the body control to be a solid screener. The baseline hammer screen below might lead Heat fans to reminisce about last season’s starting 4.
In short, the rookie has all of the tools to contribute to this team’s offense from either of the two frontcourt positions. Increased playing time is simply a matter of continuing to refine those tools so that he can deploy them consistently and earn the full confidence of the coaching staff. For now, what matters most is that all the flashes indicate he fits in in more than just a few ways.
Nikola Jović on Defense
Jović has much more room to grow on the defensive end. Though the stat is imperfect, he is allowing a jarring 72.2% defensive field-goal percentage (DFG%) when serving as primary defender. This number suggests some of what is lacking in his defensive game: namely, clean, decisive contests, especially around the rim.
Momentarily shelving this number to dive into the tape, Jović mostly played drop defense against the pick ‘n’ roll. In a recent thread, I covered how he fared in the drop against the Raptors, whose attack is led by a drop killer and elite passer in Fred VanVleet.
Looked back at some of Jovic’s reps on defense and wasn’t as discouraged as I thought I’d be
For example, here he does a good job staying glued to Young and providing opportune help. Leads to a miss and an easy board. Not sure why Caleb didn’t follow Banton to the corner. pic.twitter.com/FBgNZafSxl
— optimistic Heat fan (@kellyoburner) November 17, 2022
The results are mixed. There are some solid reps, in which Jović keeps VanVleet contained but also remains close enough to the roller to contest. There are also some clips that show he needs work. For instance, see the FVV-to-Koloko alley-oop, which largely results from Jović getting caught in no-man’s land.
In his reps as a help defender below, we may see a theme emerging.
In stark contrast to his processing speed and sharp playmaking on the offensive end, Jović seems a step slow and indecisive on the defensive end. Despite the unreliability of the stat, his high DFG% does track the fact that he is sometimes a bit late to the party when contesting. He also has a tendency to set himself up for a charge when it would usually be more prudent of him to stick his long arms straight up and provide a vertical contest.
In his defense, he has started these two games as the lone big man on the floor. This is unfamiliar territory for a prospect that has spent most of his pre-NBA career alongside other bigs.
Perhaps the best version of Jović could be one that plays drop against the pick ‘n’ roll alongside Bam Adebayo, who could roam the weak side and clean up messes when necessary.
Where The Rookie Goes From Here?
Anybody with eyes can see that Nikola Jović has the potential to be a superb complementary offensive player for Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, and practically every other player in the Heat rotation. His ability to finish around the rim, shoot off the catch, make point guard reads, play in transition, and set solid screens make him an ideal candidate to start in the frontcourt or to be the first frontcourt player off the bench.
Yes, the defense needs time. He will inevitably study the tape and soak up valuable practice reps with Udonis Haslem and Malik Allen. Still, some might say that the best way to improve is to try, succeed, and even fail to apply the defensive principles he formulates on the practice court in-game.
Above all else, Heat fans should be excited about Jović. He has the exact combination of skill and size that this team has been desperately lacking out of the frontcourt during this slow start to the season. Although it is unwise for a playoff team to rely on consistent production from a rookie, I believe that Jović is much closer to filling an urgent team need than many of us may have anticipated.