We need to turn back the clock for a minute, and think about where it all began for Nikola Jokić. Let’s set aside Jokić’s MVP title, All-NBA teams and All-Star honors as well as All-Rookie Team accolade. Let’s momentarily forget his winning seasons and deep playoffs runs. What do you have? A 20-year-old kid averaging 8 PPG, 6,2 RPG and 1,4 APG in 2015 NBA Summer League.
At first glance, you see a slow-mo version of Vlade Divac who will obviously be outpaced in the spaced game of the NBA in 2015. However, you also see signs of a player who can be a kind of dominating force with a set of unique skills, especially considering today’s offensive friendly rules.
The first sign – the footwork.
Another sign was the touch on his floater.
Next, his long gun.
Yet another, the ability to pass the ball.
Then, it was the feel for the game.
The capacity to rebound the ball on the offensive glass.
Finally, maybe not so imposing, but nevertheless useful defensive capabilities – quick and agile hands.
Why are we spending so much time thinking about a young Nikola Jokić before he became THE Nikola Jokić? Because the Detroit Pistons also happen to have a young center who at first glance looks like outdated slow-mo version of some old-school bigs. And during this past Summer League, Luka Garza has shown to have similar package of skills that Jokić displayed in Summer League. It doesn’t mean that Luka will be the next Jokić.
But it does mean we might need to look at him differently if we want to imagine a successful career for him at the NBA level.
In this first clip, we can observe his footwork.
As with his predecessor, Luka has some nice advanced moves, which he mashes finely with pump fakes. Despite his size, he looks very natural in those plays, even more than Jokić, whose more stiff in them like Dino Radja. As the Nuggets’ center shows, there’s still a use for these kind of plays. However, the Pistons rookie needs to avoid relying on them too heavily in situations like this where you need to find less flashy but a more decisive, immediate solution.
Although, Garza didn’t show the signs of floater game, on these plays around the basket, as well as on the footwork moves from above, he showed that he definitely have touch which he can add to these drives (on which he in turn shows the ability to draw fouls, also known to be one of Jokić’s strengths as he has a career .295 FTr) to form something approaching Serbian baller floater game though maybe closer to the basket.
Luka’s plays around the basket
The long gun, in turn, is to Luka’s advantage. The young Piston was 8/20 on triples during Summer League, while Jokić managed to make 2 out of 7 treys during his summer competition.
The ability to pass the ball is also there. Luka sees the floor well and is able to hit his an open teammate in various situations.
Garza not yield to Jokić in the ability to rebound the ball on offensive glass as well.
I’d even say that he could be better as in those boards in the traffic he shows some traits of Bill Laimbeer (with whom, among couple of other things I mentioned elsewhere, he shares also this innocent toughness that isn’t known to Jokić).
And Luka is also using his hands well on defense, as we can observe in those stops at the rim.
As these clips show, he won’t be an imposing defender.
But neither is the Nuggets big man. I think he could work on being less ambivalent, more like in the first four clips than in the last two ones, in his execution of P&R drop coverage.
And this plus his active hands and plus this kind of rotations down low should suffice for him to be an overall impact player if he’ll be able to realize his offensive potential which, as the Jokić example shows, pretty much can contribute to winning nowadays.
In all of these good things as well as in those, like is the case with his older counterpart, an extraordinary basketball smarts and feel for the game flashes through.
Will Luka be another Jokić? Again, no. He had way better scoring stats than his predecessor: 15 PPG on 52/40/78.9 shooting splits compared to 8 PPG on 45.9/28.6/57.1 shooting (Luka was also better in other stats: 22.3 to 16.9 in TRB%; 15.5 to 10.2 AST%; 12.1 to 27.2 TOV; 129.6 to 86.5 ORTG; Jokić had a little better DRTG: 95.1 to 99.9).
On the other hand, he’s was two years older playing his summer competition. Yet, on the third hand they play a type of game for which the age isn’t this much relevant, as it relies rather more on experience that allows you to make a full use of your basketball smarts than youth carrying untapped physical potential, so we can treat them as equals since they both play the Summer League without any prior NBA experience in which their game can flourish.
But the thing is that the Detroit Pistons won’t need Luka to be so dominant presence in team’s offense like Jokić’s one since they’ll want to groom him among other young promising prospects who are supposed to share the load. And as a complementary piece, he has much more chances to be very productive Jokić-like player in contemporary NBA even if his numbers will be half of Jokić’s.
With his summer performance Luka Garza won hearts of Pistons fans. But, although we enjoyed his successful Las Vegas campaign, the prevailing sentiment is that it’s still a long shot to expect his game to translate to modern NBA. Nevertheless, things look different when we look outside the box. No, Luka won’t be next athletic, nimble conventional modern big with a long gun like Joel Embiid. But he still can be a very successful big in modern game if he’ll be able to cultivate the seeds of Jokić-like game he showed to have sown in him.