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Miami Heat Film Room: A deeper look into Nikola Jovic’s defense

We’ve heard so much about the offense — what about his defense?

NBA: Draft Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

It’s understandable why the Miami Heat are entranced with Nikola Jovic’s game.

No, no, not because his name is eerily similar to Denver Nuggets reigning back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic. But because he’s essentially a 6-foot-11 point forward; he can initiate the pick-and-roll as a ballhandler, spearhead your team’s transition attack off a steal or rebound and hit players in stride in the halfcourt. His playmaking, for his age and experience, is absurd.

Jovic shot 31.5 percent from 3-point range last season with Mega Basket in the Adriatic League, but canned 36.4 percent of his triples in the U19 World Cup, when he averaged 18.1 points per contest. His shot may very well translate to the next level. He’s not the most explosive athlete and will need to improve in the post, at the rim and in his in-between attack — but the groundwork and upside clearly exists offensively.

Though a contentious talking point has been Jovic’s defense.

Heat president Pat Riley was quick to point out Thursday night that 19-21-year-olds are “never really great defenders” when they enter the NBA. The same will likely hold true for Jovic.

“The whole defensive disposition first has to come in your mind and in your heart,” Riley told reporters Thursday evening. “I think the kid’s athletic enough, quick enough, long enough to play defense that we want him to.

“The thing that impressed us the most [about Jovic] was that he’s got great size, great length, great skills, he’s young and he’s going to get better. And how we play — switching all the time, position-less basketball — he has the ability to do those things. So that’s how we see him. How he develops will determine whether or not he evolves into the kind of player that we can keep.”

Riley joked that opposing NBA players would “probably pick on him like they pick on everyone else” but raved about his size and length that could unlock his overall defensive potential.

Though my first reaction after plunging into hours of Jovic defensive film: Yeah, Erik Spoelstra can coach this up.

It’s the job of analysts and NBA scouts to evaluate any player’s strengths and weaknesses while offering a fair projection for how their game translates the current realm of that sport. Not just for basketball, but for all sports. We’re not doing our job if we don’t.

Zooming in on basketball itself, there probably hasn’t been a single player in NBA History without at least flaw. I didn’t scout LeBron James’ high school games or burn Kevin Durant’s collegiate tape — I was still a young child — but I’m sure they had a flaw or two (believe it or not) that made a scout or evaluator go “Hm...”. But I digress.

With Jovic, it’s no different. He was lambasted pre-draft because of his somewhat lackluster defense. Some of the warts — being out of position, mistiming rotations, the lack of quickness in space, falling for the pump fake bait, etc. — were evident, but I think it’s been a little bit overblown.

Were there obvious mistakes? Yes. Are they fixable? Yes! Were there some awkward movements? Also yes! But were there flashes of “Woah...there’s something there”? Yes!!!

Let’s get some of the bad I’ve seen out of the way first.


Questionable Closeouts:

Even though Jovic occasionally played the passing lanes to generate deflections, his (long) closeouts and off-the-ball defense raised my eyebrows most often in the clips I saw. His length was enough assisted covering a rich amount of ground quickly. But he would oftentimes bite on the pump fake, be too upright or take the wrong angle.

In this first clip, it’s the victim of the latter. Jovic gets caught helping on the interior. He turns around and is forced to rush out to the corner shooter once he sees the kick-out pass. Jovic never gets in front of the defender, allowing him to go middle and get two feet in the paint, though it ended with a miss.

Here was one of his better close outs I saw, but I still thought he let the defender get a little too deep before space closed and catching any contact — a personal vendetta. Some might consider that a decent close out — but I don’t love it. Maybe that’s why I’m not a scout for a living? Eh, maybe — but Jovic is still there to provide a decent contest on the lay-in.

Whew buddy. Jovic caught the bait like a fish on this one. The shooter provided a very subtle shot fake before ripping right (to Jovic’s low foot, mind you), and before you know it, he blows right by Jovic for the easy right-handed lay-in. Also don’t love how closes out with his right foot in front (prompting him to go middle from this angle) instead of his left foot. Maybe that’s by design, but that’s neither here nor there.

Untimely weakside rotations:

I also witnessed a few minor mistimed rotations off-the-ball.

In this one above, Jovic is the second tag defender. In fairness, the shooter on the left wing does a good job of lifting and pulling the first tagger with him, unveiling the lane for the roller after the initial tag.

Though Jovic is late to recognize the help and is put in a bind — splitting the difference — with defending the corner spacer and the roller, resulting in an easy lay-in.

This second clip showed a little bit of a hesitation with his weakside help responsibility. He’s defending the corner shoot with one foot in the paint initially. He hesitates on whether to help base line with “happy feet”.

The post-player does a good job reading the basket cut for the finish, but ideally, a player from the strong side should stunt-and-recover and/or Jovic help sooner if he sees the player turning baseline.

Neither happens. With a little bit of coaching and much better team defense surrounding Jovic — these are simple fixes that take time and experience. Remember, Jovic didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 13; there’s still significant development to be had.

Now let’s touch upon some of the good!


Rim protection — Stays straight up

Perhaps one of his best traits that stood out most to me when watching Jovic’s defense: Rim protection.

He averaged nearly two blocks per game in the U19 world up and showed real potential swatting shots and remaining straight up. Yes, he might commit one bad foul or two, or baits on a shot fake (like I mentioned above). Though when he’s outstretched and vertical, he’s a difficult player to finish over and will be even tougher as his frame progresses.

In the clip above, he’s dropping on the pick-and-roll. The ballhandler gets to the cup and attempts to go right through his chest but Jovic stays firm and straight up, rejecting the shot out-of-bounds. Solid drop rep! And he had many of these.

This second example I’ll show is perhaps my favorite defensive sequences I’ve seen from him, given some of the struggles I talked about above.

After pinching on the interior, he closes out on the opposite wing. It was shorter than you’d expect for a player covering that much ground, and he didn’t have high hands, but still showcased great body control, discipline and instincts. Jovic slid his feet, absorbed the noticeable contact, goes straight up and prompts the miss.

Jovic begins on the weakside corner this rep. His man moves up the lane to possibly set an on-ball screen; the ball-hander disregards it, attacks the rim and Jovic rotates well to contest the shot.

These aren’t perfect reps, but rather promising. He was caught out of position periodically. Though it’s not something I’d be necessarily concerned with long term.

Perimeter potential:

He might not be able to consistently defend in-space at the NBA level tomorrow, but Jovic still showed multiple glimpses of capable 1-on-1 perimeter defense — despite the propensity to get blown-by at times.

Just look at a few of these below:

Sure, this isn’t a perfect rep in space.

Jovic still might be a little too upright and could get backed off his ground against NBA-level competition. But he moved his feet, shifted his hips fluidly and forced a tough contested 2-pointer. Credit here is still warranted nonetheless.

Here, he’s left pretty much on an island against a smaller, quicker guard. Jovic is a smidge late to react with his hips after the right-left crossover, but the outcome renders it negligible. Jovic still recovers and forces the contested lay-in. Good rep!

Seriously, there’s potential here. Just look at this two-play sequence:

The ingredients for success are present.

It’s expected that a general manager would try to hype up his selection(s) when addressing the media. But Riley was incredibly bullish on Jovic’s game.

“He grew about seven or eight inches over the last couple of years, so he still knows more development’s going to come,” he added. “I think all of the competition internationally — whether it was in Europe or wherever the players come from — the quality of competition has really gone up. He’s played against some really good teams, a lot of good players and he’s been coached very well ... We feel like we got a very good pick.”

He does mention how the international talent discrepancy has shrunk — i.e. Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, Joel Embiid, etc. And that may explain how Thursday was the first time Miami ever drafted an international prospect outright in the first round (without collegiate experience) in its franchise’s history. It was the second time it’s even left the first round with one since Martin Muursepp in 1996 after getting traded by the Utah Jazz.

What’s made the power forward so vital for Miami over the last few seasons has been the importance of possessing another versatile defensive cog next to Adebayo, thus allowing him to roam and/or switch onto the perimeter if they needed him to.

Go on down the line: Andre Iguodala, Trevor Ariza, Jae Crowder and, most recently, Markieff Morris and PJ Tucker. The best — Tucker and Crowder — have offered the most toughness and versatility that’s prompted vital success. I don’t want to belabor it home, but Jovic offers on-ball skills offensively that Miami’s 4s have not possessed. It’s a distinguishable trade off.

That only adds interest to intrigue for Jovic, who just turned 19 over two weeks ago. This selection’s might be similar to trying a new food or finding a hobby — it adds the ying to your yang or the zip to your zap. While that outcome can be harmful or suboptimal, it could be equally as enticing or captivating.

With one of the best developmental organizations in the Association, you can’t help but think it leans more towards the latter — as of right now, of course.

It’s a rarity that prospects immediately shine defensively because the spacing, quickness and sheer shotmaking is just different in the NBA. There’s always going to be a learning curve. How quick a prospect overcomes that obstacle and can adapt is a different question.

For Jovic, it will be a development. Whether he improves 20 percent or 30 percent or whatnot defensively as a rookie remains to be seen. More experience, more strength and playing alongside excellent team defenders on a top-3 defense should do wonders for the budding young talent.

Coach Erik Spoelstra and Co. will now be tasked to improve his shiny new toy fundamentally and physically. It might be a tough task initially, but none too daunting to overcome. There’s plenty of tools in the tool box .

If Jovic continues refining his game — Miami’s truly got something here. I’ve had to remind myself how difficult it is hitting on late first-round selections. We truly don’t know what his ceiling is (#NoCeiling?), so it’s difficult to project — even when the raw talent is alluring.

What we do know is that Heat fans and evaluators will be watching Jovic’s every moment like a hawk over Summer League and throughout his rookie campaign — but that’s only going to be the beginning of what’s to come with his future in South Beach.

And it can’t come soon enough.

P.S. Is Pat Riley the only GM in the league who would immediately recommend his rookie run 10 miles to run off anxiety on the phone call welcoming him to the team? Genuine question.