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The intrigue of Heat draft pick Nikola Jovic

What makes Pat Riley and the Heat so enthralled by the young prospect?

Miami Heat Draft Press Conference Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Miami Heat selected Serbian baller Nikola Jovic with the 27th pick in the 2022 NBA Draft, he became the franchise’s first international player selected without any US college experience since Martin Müürsepp in 1996.

History has shown that Miami doesn’t take many chances on international prospects, especially in the draft.

But the last decade saw a shift in the NBA, which works to the favor of skilled international recruits who enter the league having gained quality experience in pro leagues of their respective countries.

That’s why it should come as no surprise that many of the league’s elite ballers today are international studs, like the last two MVPs, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, and perennial candidates, such as Joel Embiid and Luka Doncic.

Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were integral in building the San Antonio Spurs’ dynasty. That type of foresight is a huge reason why they have five championships and was considered one of the forward-thinking franchises in the league.

Given recent results, it would behoove the Heat to give an international prospect a chance to blossom in their renowned developmental pool, paving the way for a possibly unique weapon as they want to contend for NBA championships now and in the future.

All that was required was the opportunistic moment to do so, which Miami had when it was their turn to draft last week.

“We just think this kid is a burgeoning talent that you couldn’t pass up at 27,” Heat president Pat Riley said about Jovic after the draft.

Days later, his sentiment only grew stronger.

“After two days of then taking a look at a lot of the things he’s done in his career, looking at the film, I’m even more excited,” Riley said during the rookie’s introductory presser on Monday.

“I think it’s an incredible opportunity. Spo and I just met with him for a half-hour and I think one of the only things he heard was… what was it?” he suddenly asked the 19-year-old.

“To work hard,” Jovic responded.

He’s already in with the program.

Jovic, who stands at nearly 6-foot-11, weighs 210 pounds, and moves like a guard on a basketball court, surprisingly didn’t take the sport seriously until he was 13, focusing on water polo beforehand.

But as the son of a professional basketball player, he developed his game quickly, aided by a growth spurt which made his combination of size (he now has a 7’0.25 feet wingspan), IQ, and skill enticing enough for a first-round peg on mock drafts.

He was the top-scorer for Serbia during their fourth-place performance in the 2021 FIBA Under-19 World Cup, averaging 18.1 points per contest and joining the likes of Chet Holmgren, Jaden Ivey, Zach Edey, and Victor Wembanyama on the honorary team – not bad company to be around.

Jovic then averaged 11.7 points (on 9.4 FGA), 4.4 rebounds, and 3.4 dimes in less than 28 minutes a contest for Mega Bemax as an 18-year-old starter in the Adriatic League, where the likes of Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Bojan Bogdanovic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Goran Dragic – a popular name in Heat lore – also honed their abilities before becoming NBA mainstays.

“[Jovic] was explaining to me some of the practices he [went] through where he was coached and his head coach was somewhat like me, that his practice [would last] for 3 and a half to 4 hours,” an amused Riley shared.

“I don’t know if you’re going to get that here today – not in this league – but he understands what hard work is all about and now it’s just taking that hard work, conditioning, then to player development and efficiency from that standpoint – that’s what it’s all about.”

So, what is it that Jovic can do?

For starters, he’s a solid shot creator from outside.

He already has moves to shake defenders free and get decent looks from deep, even when it involves step-backs and side-step triples. He has a quick trigger, the motion and energy retention of his body when rising for pull-ups are fluid, and his high release point enables him to shoot over most defenders, or at the least get a clean attempt.

The follow-through could use some consistency, but most of the fundamentals are there.

Watching him operate from beyond the arc makes you forget how tall he is because of how natural the process comes to him. Take this clutch dagger against Japan in the World Cup for example:

Jovic can get his shots whether in isolation or pick-and-roll, which is arguably the area he’s best at.

“From pick-and-roll, I can do a lot of things. I showed I can do a lot of things. I think it’ll happen a lot,” he told the Miami media.

Although he converted only 25% of midrange shots and just a hair above 50% at the rim, his combination of maneuvering in space and squeezing his slight frame through tight spaces allows him to get in the paint, where he can score with his right hand or dish to teammates.

A question as he enters the NBA is whether or not he can build the strength to operate against athletically-superior opponents, although neither he nor Riley seem too concerned about that at the moment.

“I think it helps a lot, playing pick-and-roll the whole year,” Jovic said about his time in the ABA. “I played in a really tough league against rough guys – they were really physical.”

Jovic shot 36% from downtown while launching five attempts from deep a game, but most of his misses were the ineffective pull-ups during stagnant isolation plays.

He was a much better shooter in catch-and-shoot situations (1.33 points per possession) and spot-ups (1.15 points per possession). When not the focal point on offense, he likes veering to the corners – where presumably most of his usage will come from in Spoelstra’s system – to receive the ball and launch, attack closeouts with a long first step, or cut when defenders turn their heads.

He’s as much of a threat off the ball as he is on the ball. Both will be helpful in Miami’s current offensive hierarchy.

Riley says they want to enhance Jovic into a “complete (offensive) player.”

“What is a complete player? Somebody who can pass, who can dribble, who can run pick-and-rolls, who can shoot the ball. He’s a long-ranged shooter, a mid-range shooter.”

“He’ll find out some new things that he’ll be taught that he says, ‘Wow, I can do these things.’”

Although the numbers – 0.41 points per possession on 22 total possessions – don’t validate it, theoretically Jovic’s shooting prowess should be a weapon in the low post, where he likes to utilize spins and half-spin moves for fadeaway jumpers, floaters, or hook shots.

Most of his success comes against smaller defenders whom he should be able to capitalize against when facing switch-heavy teams without the right personnel to execute the scheme efficiently.

Jovic is a menace in transition, where he scored on 1.12 points per possession. He’s big, fast for his size, can dribble, takes up a lot of space with each step, finishes lobs, scores, and passes on the break. His athleticism has come in question but he has explosive moments when there’s a runway available to the rim.

“He’ll take the ball and dunk it over somebody,” Riley said.

The Heat were 6th in the NBA in points per possession in transition last season (1.16), but only attempted a 7th-worst 15.6 transition possessions per game.

Jovic can change the latter for a team who was at a size disadvantage when a trip to the NBA Finals was on the line.

“I think it’s a perfect fit for me, especially because they’re really competitive and I think can learn a lot of things from them. Of course, I will do anything I can to help them do better than they did this year and that’s all,” the new guy said.

If he gets significant playing time, Jovic might make fantasy users happy. There are early signs his rebound and assist numbers will go up because he’s willing to contribute in those areas.

The workhorse from Serbia likes attacking offensive rebounds, typically from the weakside, and particularly when defenders forget to box-out or wait for the ball to land on their hands. At that size and speed, he’s ready to retrieve the leather and rise for a put-back in a second.

Jovic is also a willing passer. His height puts him at an advantage where he can see over opposing players while teammates cut and his passes won’t easily get picked off. He also has the ability to dish quick-flinch passes where he almost flicks the basketball with velocity at the top of his dribble.

The threat of his shooting invites hard close-outs which he likes to attack, opening the floor for multiple kick-out possibilities. He does this neat trick where he pauses for half a second after taking a dribble inside the arc to navigate the whole court and freezes the defense. That slight halt can yield delayed rotations for the guarding team.

“If it’s Luka’s PNR, if it’s Jokic’s low-post game, if it’s Jimmy’s defense – I’m learning something from everyone,” Jovic said.

The last bit is where he’ll require a bit of a learning curve.

Jovic is a stout off-ball defender. He can make rotations (handy in Spo’s trapping scheme), occasionally play passing lanes (guess who else from Miami is good here!), and use his size to bother attempts at the rim. He even limited opponents to 0.71 points per possessions on close-outs.

He does, however, struggle in two areas:

The first is on isolation switches against speedier playmakers who can take advantage of his lateral footspeed and lack of mobility. He will also have a tough time dealing with the strength of bruising penetrators once they get him on their hips.

Jovic also has issues holding his ground against bigger and stronger opponents in the post, especially those with sound footwork and patience. Bam Adebayo, who could use some post-game development, could turn him into a practice bag come training camp.

There are other avenues Jovic will have to work through that could lead to humbling nights in an 82-game regular season:

For starters, he needs to build confidence when dribbling left. His shot quality decreases when forced to operate from his off hand. He picks up his dribble earlier than he would when going right. Additionally, Jovic needs to be wiser when navigating off-ball screens that opponents will throw at him to get shooters open.

He could do a better job taking care of the ball and limit the inefficient isolation pull-ups. He’s a below-the-rim finisher, which means he’ll need to be crafty against high-leaping rim protectors Miami will face, such as Boston Celtics big man Robert Williams III.

Working on improving his body will be of utmost importance.

“We’ll start from day one, from a weight-training standpoint, and also the footwork drills, and stance, and that’s more of a coaching technique: how we play defense, how you shouldn’t play defense one-on-one, how do you play defense on the perimeter, how you play defense in the post, how you guard pick-and-rolls, the whole thing,” Riley explained.

Step one into incorporating all of that will be in Summer League, where Jovic should lead Miami’s roster along with Omer Yurtseven and Haywood Highsmith. Riley says the Heat will allow their new prospect to “let it fly” and will resist “overcoaching” him in a week.

“Nah, nah, not yet, but I look forward to it,” Jovic said when asked if he’s interacted with any of his teammates.

The competitive difference between the actual NBA and Summer League is wide, but it should give an idea of how far along Jovic is in his development.

From a macro standpoint, there’s more to be intrigued about the Heat’s new Serbian talent over the flaws that could hinder his potential. The intangible signs are present: he’s competitive, confident in his game, and willing to get better, which in Miami is required when you lace up for practice.

At that size and capability, it’s hard not to get excited about Jovic’s room for growth in the correct environment.

“We’ll see what happens,” Riley said in response to Jovic’s minutes. “Those are won, they’re not given, and he knows that.”

“One thing I immediately learned was I need to work here,” Jovic attested.

For now, Riley and the Heat will call him “Nik.”

Perhaps one day on the NBA court, he can be whoever he wants to be.

Trivia, statistics, and information courtesy of Heat.com, ID Prospects, and Synergy.