Nikola Jokić possesses the most versatile skill set in the entire league. Assists — he’ll dish him. Points — he’ll score ‘em. Rebounds — he’ll grab ‘em in droves. His defensive impact is questionable, despite what metrics might imply, but there’s one area where his game-changing skill has translated to the other end.
Last season, the two-time reigning MVP led the entire league with eight kicked-ball violations. He surpassed that total 11 games into the season. With a month remaining in the regular season, Jokić is lapping The Association with 45 kicked-ball violations. The second-most frequent kickball violator recorded 17. For a point of reference, Nikola Vucevic led the league with 13 in 2022.
NBA advanced analytics are more invasive than a colonoscopy, and we’ve finally found a polyp within Jokić’s game. A century ago Bill Russell began his reign as the king of blocks. Jokić can barely leapfrog a phonebook. But place a bounce pass below the knees and he’s likely to send a screamer into the courtside seats.
The difference between Russell and Jokić is that kicked balls are illegal. The problem is that the NBA treats them like a misdemeanor and Jokić takes advantage of the light penance for kicked balls. The solution is to levy costlier penalties.
Move over, Draymond Green
For years, Draymond Green was the league’s kickball king, but in his advanced years, he’s more liable to use his fists than his feet. Jokić has dethroned him.
That trend is troubling because it’s not an accident either. In November when the current season was in its infancy, Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone praised Jokić’s dexterity with his feet. Back in November, Malone praised Jokić’s use of his feet and even went as far as to endorse it.
“I asked our staff if the NBA charts deflections with a kicked ball, and Nikola might be the best I’ve ever seen at that,” Malone explained to the Denver Post. “He would’ve been a hell of a goalie. Kick save. He’s amazing, not just with his hands but using his feet to disrupt pocket passes in pick and roll. He picks up a lot of those with not just his hands but also his feet. And in his activity around the basket, breaking up plays eight boards. His IQ, anticipation, and hand-eye coordination are just off the charts.”
Jokić’s proclivity for defending like he’s preparing for Serbia’s 2026 World Cup qualifying by redirecting passes with his feet has been bubbling beneath the surface. However, Zach Lowe’s vitriol towards Jokić’s proclivity on the recent edition of his eponymous podcast has pushed it to the forefront of the NBA discourse.
What do the rules say?
In the 2022-23 NBA rulebook, a kicked ball merely results in a reset of the shot clock. According to Rule No. 6, Section I, If the ball is kicked or punched during any throw-in, the ball will be returned to the original throw-in spot with all privileges remaining.
Under current NBA rules, intentionally deflecting passes with the wrong limbs is advantageous for the defense. Imagine if handballs in soccer were a throw-in. Defenders would be windmilling all over the box.
Across sports, everyone is searching for loopholes to exploit. The Philadelphia Eagles nearly became Super Bowl champions by deploying rugby-style pushes in the back on quarterback sneaks. Jokić found his, and the rate at which he’s beginning to reach into that well is escalating. This is a copycat league.
The NBA needs to drop the hammer on Jokić and any other lazy defenders who adopt this strategy. How? Under FIFA soccer rules, referees have the discretion to award a yellow card if a handball offense is egregious. Each kicked ball deemed under review, to be purposeful should be a tech and one free throw. After five kicked-ball violations, it’s an automatic one-game suspension. Continue that in five-game increments.
If that doesn’t get the message across, nothing will. Once again, Jokić has changed the game for the better. Give him his dead flowers.