Gasol, Jokic among top big-man playmakers
The least common of all National Basketball Association centers is the playmaker. Only a handful of these mystical beings exist, but when they do it’s a sight to behold. These players possess the unholy combination of big-man size, the skills of a six-footer and a knack for the creative. With shockingly solid handles, unexpectedly smooth jumpers and eyes in the back of their heads, the offense runs through these gods among men. Instead of looking to score when they get the ball in a half-court set, they look to facilitate the action, often getting the ball with pin-point precision to teammates curling on the wing or cutting to the rim. In a lineage that goes back to Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis, the torch of the playmaking center has been carried proudly for the past half decade by Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol. While other excellent players like Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol are also models of this kind of center, only Marc Gasol has finished in the top four of all centers in both assist percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio in every one of the past five seasons. Statistically, the younger Gasol is putting up a career year, but his reign as the gold standard of playmaking centers is facing an unprecedented challenge. The challenger? NBA twitter and hipster darling Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic.
Jokic has emerged this season as one of the NBA’s best young players. Entering the league last season as an unheralded prospect from Serbia, Jokic rose from the 41st pick in the draft to the All-Rookie first team. Still largely unknown entering this season, Jokic and the Nuggets had a rough start to the season, culminating in the 22-year old being moved to the second unit in mid-November. Since rejoining the starting lineup in mid-December, Jokic has averaged an outstanding 19.1 points, 10.6 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. With these gaudy stats, Jokic has joined Russell Westbrook and James Harden on the NBA’s absurd nightly triple-double watch. Jokic passes the eye test too. The big man weaves between defenders on fast breaks, flips up shots near the rim that have no business going in and, with his back to the basket, routinely throws the ball over his head to teammates that he couldn’t possibly have known were there. He is, very simply, a joy to watch. In only his second year, Jokic is a contender for the playmaking center crown. Comparing the facilitating ability of both he and Gasol is one way to figure out who has it.
Effective passing is a requirement for the playmaking center. Just like a point guard, these players can be judged based on how well they create opportunities for other players. While Jokic gets style points for his no-look passes, results matter too. Here, things get close. Jokic and Gasol currently possess the second and third best assist percentages of all centers, behind only DeMarcus Cousins, with 26.3 percent and 24.7 percent, respectively. However, Jokic assists on a larger number of made field goals while he’s in the game, but he also turns the ball over more than Gasol. Here, Gasol’s 2.13 assist-to-turnover ratio is slightly better than Jokic’s 2.07. While this slight difference may seem insignificant, Gasol plays over seven more minutes-per-game. This indicates that Gasol has far more opportunities than Jokic to turn the ball over and yet he doesn’t, suggesting that Gasol is a more controlled ball-handler than the young Jokic.
Another wrinkle to this comparison is in the assists themselves. By definition, assists are dependent on the ball going in the basket. This, in turn, is in part dependent on the quality of the shooters who are being passed the ball. As a team, the Nuggets have a 46.7 percent field goal percentage, seventh in the NBA, while the Grizzlies are dead last with a 43.5 percent field goal percentage. This suggests that it would be more likely that a pass from Jokic to a shooter would go in the basket than a pass from Gasol to a shooter on his own team. This is reflected in the percentage of potential assists (passes that lead to a shot) that are converted into actual assists. Here, Jokic has a far higher percentage of potential assists that become actual assists than Gasol, with 59 percent vs. 49 percent, respectively. This likely accounts for the difference between the two players in assist percentage. If Gasol were with better shooters, would his assist percentage be higher because the shots would actually be made? It’s definitely possible, but we can’t know for sure. However, the fact that Gasol is producing similar assist percentage numbers without a massive difference in pure volume of passes per game is noteworthy. At 51.8 for Gasol, compared to 48.1 for Jokic, and on a much worse shooting team, it seems like Gasol is perhaps doing more to put his team in position to score than Jokic.
Right now, I think the facilitating edge in the great center playmaking debate stays with the vet, Gasol. Though his passes might not seem like they were thrown by Neo after he figured out the matrix, Gasol is a more controlled ball-handler and is doing just as much with a lot less around him than Jokic. The Grizzlies big-man has not allowed his younger competitor to best him yet, as he has continued his many years of dominance on the court. With NBA rosters and style of play evolving however, Jokic is looking to change that status. The 22-year old Serbian is on the rise, and as soon as he figures out how to stay on the court longer and cut down on turnovers, he will surpass Gasol as the very best playmaking center in the league.