Following the Denver Nuggets’ 2023 NBA championship, Nikola Jokic is now widely regarded as the best player in the league, deservedly so. For years he has been considered one of the best passers, playmakers, and overall offensive players in the league. Jokic is also the best post player in the NBA, but the one area of concern was always his defense.
While some NBA talking heads claimed that Jokic was a non-existent rim protector, a traffic-cone on the perimeter, and that it would be impossible to build a championship-caliber defense around him, he proved everyone wrong. One of the biggest reasons as to why his defense did not suffer in the playoffs was due to great schematic team defense and Jokic’s ability to have active hands and get any part of his body into the passing lanes while covering screen-plays, including his knack for kicked balls.
Not only was Jokic 8th among qualifiers in the NBA in deflections per game (3.1), but he also made use of getting his legs and feet on the ball when needed, getting “foot deflections” or as they are more commonly known as, kicked balls. Jokic led the NBA with 47 kicked balls in 2022-2023, which was more than 27 other NBA teams. With there being 333 total kicked balls last season, Jokic accounted for 14.1% of all kicked balls. Here is the top 10 list for kicked balls in the 2022-2023 season:
- Nikola Jokic: 47 kicked ball violations
- Nikola Vucevic: 19 kicked ball violations
- Nic Claxton: 18 kicked ball violations
- Jakob Poeltl: 18 kicked ball violations
- Jaden McDaniels: 16 kicked ball violations
- Domantas Sabonis: 15 kicked ball violations
- Jusuf Nurkic: 13 kicked ball violations
- Luka Doncic: 11 kicked ball violations
- Jonas Valanciunas: 11 kicked ball violations
- Pascal Siakam: 10 kicked ball violations
In a world of defensive hurdles for NBA players, kicked balls are a valid form of defense for Jokic.
The NBA is a league where defending has become more and more difficult due to no hand-checking on defense, defensive 3-second violations, travels and carries not being called on offensive players, moving screens going unnoticed, and the overall spacing in the modern NBA.
For these reasons, any edge that a defensive player can get should be prioritized and celebrated, not criticized. Much to the dismay of some NBA analysts and casual fans, who claim that kicked balls are foul play and a cheap or lazy way to defend, it is an elite defensive tactic that takes skill, timing, and anticipation.
Zach Lowe with ESPN said on his podcast, “Jokic has 45 kicked ball violations this year. [Number two] has 17. It’s his way of saying ‘I just don’t feel like playing defense.’ It’s smart, but we shouldn’t allow guys to karate kick the ball…” Lowe does state that it is a smart defensive strategy from Jokic but that he simply does not like it, likely because it disrupts the flow of the game and is by definition, a violation.
Regardless, just because Jokic has found a way to cope and survive despite all of the defensive hurdles of the modern NBA, does not mean that he “doesn’t feel like playing defense”. If kicked balls were easy to do, more players, especially big men, would be doing it.
Kicked balls occur most often when a screen-play on the perimeter takes place and the opponent is attempting to feed a pass into a player who is cutting to the rim or posting up. Kicking the ball in that situation helps reset the defense and protects the rim, especially for a team whose leading blocker last season was Aaron Gordon at a measly 0.8 BPG.
When Jokic is kicking the ball, it is almost always when he is not in a good position to contest a backdoor cutter. It also allows the entire defense to take a moment for rest and recovery, which can be crucial in the playoffs when star players are playing 40+ minutes a night.
It’s entirely fair to say that more big men in the NBA should be adopting the kicked ball technique rather than trying to force Jokic to stop doing it. Look for Jokic to try to hit 50 kicked balls in 2023-2024 which would break the record he set last season.