Most of the discussion surrounding the NBA draft focuses on the top picks, and even more so in the Houston Rockets’ case, as Houston secured the worst record in the NBA and are guaranteed a top-5 selection.
Aside from that, though, the Rockets also have the 17th pick in the draft which they acquired from the Brooklyn in the James Harden deal, so let’s shed some light on the prospects that should be available around that range.
First up: Nikola Jovic (born on June 9th, 2003).
If I had to rank my favorite prospects of the 2022 NBA draft class, Nikola Jovic would be at the top of the list. The 18-year-old Serbian with the familiar name may not impress casual observers with his athleticism, but he does deserve more of your attention.
Jovic broke out at FIBA’s u-19 world cup last summer, receiving first-team honors along with notable draft prospects Chet Holmgren, Jaden Ivey, and Victor Wembanyama. Listed at 6’10”, Nikola, who has an excellent handle for his size, is one of the class’ best shooters, passers, and smartest players, an incredibly intriguing package that fits the modern game perfectly.
Despite his youth and inexperience, Jovic was good enough to start in the Adriatic League, where he put up averages of 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists per game on 42/36/75 splits. But while his numbers won’t blow you out of the water, the offensive skillset does.
Jovic, who has put up some of the wildest threes I’ve seen from a prospect, has an excellent form, showcasing impressive shot versatility over the past year. Shooting range & proficiency aside, his ability to create space for dribble jumpers is what separates him most from typical NBA stretch bigs, leading me to arrive on the high-end of his shooting projection. Did anyone say Danillo Gallinari?
Besides the shooting upside, Jovic brings to the table an advanced passing repertoire, living up to his name. He’s a master of the skip pass, throws more lobs than any other 6’10” player I’ve seen, and is a great pick and roll facilitator. The thing that stands out most with Jovic’s passing is how quickly he processes the game, and how willing he is to hit open teammates. He anticipates the defense’s reaction to his move, and reacts accordingly:
Nikola Jovic’s shooting and passing are guard-like, but what about his handle? Is it good enough to create easy shots for himself, and get to spots on the floor where his skills shine? This is where things get interesting.
Jovic has a lot of “Shake” to his handle and likes to create space for himself with step-backs. He sells his moves and covers a lot of ground with large strides, leading to high-level flashes of off-dribble shooting. When a 6’10 dude is capable of doing this on a consistent basis, the possibilities seem endless:
On the flip side of the coin, Jovic’s handle needs a lot of work. He dribbles the ball too high and gets stripped quite often as a result. Consequently, He’s uncomfortable in tight spaces, and his proficiency as a creator craters when guarded by someone who pressures his handle.
Really, we can’t discuss Jovic’s handle without talking about his lack of flexibility and ability to decelerate, perhaps the biggest flaws in his entire game. That, along with his struggle to change directions has notably limited him as a driver and casts doubts on his potential as a perimeter initiator. Here are a couple of plays to demonstrate my point. When he’s not given up space to pull up from deep, even if he’s guarded by a slower player, the quality of his shot plummets:
It should be noted, however, that Jovic did have a 28 FTr% in the Adriatic league — not an overly strong number, but a respectable one, which he was able to achieve with his decisiveness attacking the basket. When given a driving lane, Nikola never hesitates to take it. It’s just that in addition to his athletic limitations, he also lacks the strength, craft, and touch to finish well around the basket at this stage:
One thing that Nikola Jovic hasn’t been asked to do much is to operate in the in-between area. Despite getting his fair share of pick and roll reps, he’s mostly faced defensive schemes that switch, hedge, or blitz (bring 2 to the ball) to defend these actions. In the NBA, he will be tasked with beating “drop” coverage (meaning the big stays in the paint), and playing at his own pace, as well as the development of a floater, would greatly help him in these situations.
Jovic has the potential to be a drop killer with his vision and tendency to throw lob passes, but he will need to offer more as a scorer to keep the defense guessing and draw help. Given the lack of reps against traditional coverage, his current level as a pick and roll scorer is hard to gauge, but I do believe he has the touch necessary to develop a floater, in due time.
Let’s slow down for a second. Jovic’s driving from the perimeter is an issue, but he is 6’10” after all. Maybe he won’t blow by pesky defenders who apply pressure at the point of attack, but why would he, if punishing them down low is an option?
Contrary to other young, tall ball handlers like Josh Giddey and Ousmane Dieng, when Jovic is matched up against a smaller guard, he immediately attempts to take advantage of his size and post him up. Until he acquires more strength, he won’t be able to bully anyone in the paint, and he doesn’t really have much of a skill set in the post. What he does have, however, is a reliable post fadeaway, being able to just rise up and shoot over his defender, showcasing a sweet touch from the mid-range:
Poise and Patience are things most younger players struggle with, especially ones like Jovic who didn’t start playing basketball seriously until they were 13. It has a lot to do with a player’s approach, comfort level, and experience. With that being said, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prospect as impatient as Nikola Jovic is at his current stage.
When Jovic spots an opening in the defense, he’ll immediately attempt to deliver a pass, and quite often it results in mind-boggling turnovers and attempted passes that have no chance of converting. Jovic maps the floor well, though his delivery is far from being consistently accurate. At times, he shows great IQ and picks apart the defense perfectly, and some other times plays like the ones below happen. Please, WAIT for a second!
Here’s the thing with Jovic: he is one of the most skilled players in the draft, but he’s not there *yet*. He’s a good, versatile shooter, whose shot chucking from deep decreases the value generated from his shooting. He’s one of the draft’s best passers, whose passing accuracy and patience need to improve. He can legitimately cook guys off the dribble, and yet his handle is too high and limits him in tight spaces.
Due to his current status as a player, I’d be surprised if Nikola Jovic makes an all-rookie team, and I still have him as one of the class’ absolute best offensive prospects. Jovic has *it*- the fearlessness, the incredible flashes, the domination over his similarily-aged peers. He just needs polishing, and meditating pre-games probably wouldn’t hurt.
Projecting his long-term outlook as an offensive player, Nikola Jovic will always be somewhat limited as a creator due to his athletic limitations. And yet, his ability to create space and his comfort level shooting over smaller players, whether it’s from the perimeter or out of the post, leads me to believe he’s destined to become a matchup problem in the NBA, in addition to being an excellent spacer, cutter, and connector.
At the highest of levels, your success as a creator largely depends on your ability to generate easy shots for yourself, which is the main thing Jovic is missing as a scorer. To reach his ceiling, he’ll have to take significant strides as a driver and ball-handler, getting more comfortable in the painted area and improving at playing big. I see him ending up as a secondary creator in the league, being utilized in all sorts of ways in the offense.
While the shooting and IQ will make him a high-level off-ball player, offensively speaking, the defensive side of the floor is worrying. The immobility of his hips comes back to bite him on closeouts, where he often stumbles and easily gives up an advantage. He struggles to fight through screens and get in a stance with his high center of gravity, is not an overly smart defender, and is not someone who will battle on the interior. Defensive struggles, especially in his rookie year, are to be expected:
It needs to be said that while examples of poor closeouts and defending on the move were easy to find, clips of players beating him in iso situations were not.
While part of it is due to the lower frequency of isolation plays in the European game, Jovic is good at staying in front, stronger than you’d think, capable of using his 6’11 wingspan to contest and usually has a good motor. Watching him, it feels like he needs to learn *how* to play defense and be more consistent. While he’ll always be a limited defender, a lot of his issues could fade away by his 3rd year. Here are some of his better defensive plays:
It is worth noting that we have seen international players such as Deni Avdija and Lauri Markkanen struggle defensively as prospects, then notably improve as they gain more strength, go through NBA training, and learn how to use their length better, though each player develops differently, and they had better tools to work with.
In the draft, it’s wise to bet on the most confident players, as they rarely seem to fail, and you won’t see many players play with the same swag as Jovic. For all his flaws, Nikola was his team’s best creator for the majority of the season, a bar I do not think many other prospects would’ve cleared in his place.
One more thing to consider is that Nikola Jovic was born in June of 2003. How many times have we seen players struggle with their handle, poise, and footwork on defense at a young age before making notable improvements in the NBA? Of course, Jovic’s flaws matter- But not as much as they do for other prospects who are a couple of years older than him.
If Nikola Jovic does go in the lottery, like I think he should, he’d be the worst defender drafted in the top 14. His limitations on both ends will likely prevent him from reaching stardom in the NBA, and the Rockets aren’t exactly in a position to add more lackluster defenders to their squad but don’t get it twisted- Nikola Jovic’s flashes and combination of skill are so special, that Houston, and any other team, should feel very fortunate to draft him in the teens.