Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: In the Middle of a Basketball Youth Movement

June 09, 2021

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić is the 2020-21 NBA Most Valuable Player, and rightfully so. The lovable Serbian 7-footer received 91 first-place votes and took home the award with 971 points overall, 385 points ahead of second place (Philadelphia center Joel Embiid).

Jokić averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists while shooting 56.6% from the field (38.8% from 3) and 86.8% from the free-throw line. He played in every game and led the Nuggets to the No. 3 seed in the West despite the team’s best guard, Jamal Murray, going down for the season in April.

If you haven’t gotten many chances to see Jokić play (which is understandable if you live in Nebraska considering the stupid blackout rules on NBA TV and NBA League Pass), Denver’s playoff games should be appointment viewing if you’re at all interested in basketball (and I’m not just saying that because my beloved Phoenix Suns are Denver’s opponent).

“Positionless basketball” has become a popular phrase to describe where the game has been heading over the last handful of years, but that doesn’t really define Jokić’s game. At a listed 6-foot-11 and 284 pounds, a double-digit rebound average and the ability to punish defenders (big or small) around the rim with either brute force or insane skill, Jokić is every bit the traditional center. He’s also much more than that.

Jokić can step out and shoot 3s at a high clip and he acts as the team’s point guard on offense, often brining the ball up himself after a rebound and initiating offense from all over the floor in the halfcourt. He’s established himself as one of the best passing big men of all time and has a unique signature move in the Sombor Shuffle.

The best part? Jokić is just entering his prime at 26 years old.

Much was made of of how big of a loss it was for the league when Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors lost in the play-in tournament and when LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers bowed out in the first round (Go Suns), but in the absence of some of the biggest names of the sport, a new wave of stars have risen to the occasion.

The Nets (Kevin Durant at 32, James Harden at 31 and Kyrie Irving at 29) and the Clippers (Kawhi Leonard at 29, Paul George at 30) feature veteran cores, but the leading scorers for the other six quarterfinalists are all 27 or younger, and many of those guys have young running mates as well.

Jokic is obviously one of those, and his dominant center counterpart in the East in Embiid is the elder statesman of that group at 27 years old. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetoukounmpo won the previous two MVP awards and is only 26 years old.

Trae Young became the most hated man in New York in the first round at just 22 years old, and he lit up the 76ers in game one of the second round as well to help the Hawks get a split in Philadelphia. He’s the youngest in this bunch.

In the West, Devin Booker dropped 47 points including eight 3-pointers in a closeout game against James and the Lakers, and he was phenomenal in the fourth quarter of game one against Denver. Utah’s Donovan Mitchell just dropped 45 points in game one against the Clippers on Tuesday. Both are just 24.

That doesn’t include young stars like Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic and Ja Morant who dazzled in the first round but weren’t able to advance. Ben Simmons, Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges are some other names from the 24-and-under crowd who are playing big roles for title contenders.

The NBA is in a very good place right now, and if you’re not tuning in because LeBron or Steph aren’t playing, you’re missing out.

Moving closer to home, the state of Nebraska lost a lot of talent with the class of 2021 heading off to college. It’s going to be a long time before we see another duo like Hunter Sallis and Chucky Hepburn come through this state, and the depth of college talent at all levels was pretty spectacular.

But the cupboard definitely isn’t bare. The top of the 2022 class is strong once again with Grand Island’s Isaac Traudt and Millard North’s Jasen Green as the headliners. Traudt just visited Nebraska officially last weekend, and Green will do the same this week. Those are the only two in the class who currently hold high-major offers, but that could very well change come July.

Jayden Dawson, a 6-foot-4 guard from Omaha Central, is playing at an incredibly high level right now. I watched him play with the Eagles at the Bryan Shootout over the weekend and in four games he averaged 23.0 points on 52.4% from the field, 50% from 3 and 83.3% from the free-throw line. He’s always been a terrific shooter — most of the 3-pointers he buried were off the dribble, and more than half of them were contested — but as he’s continued to grow and develop athletically, he’s become a three-level scorer.

Though he currently only holds an offer from Radford, Dawson has visits upcoming at Drake, Loyola-Chicago and Illinois. He plays alongside Traudt and Green for Nebraska Supreme and will get a chance to impress Division I coaches in July on the Under Armour Association circuit.

He’s not technically a Nebraskan, but Council Bluffs is closer to Omaha than any other city in Iowa and Abraham Lincoln guard Josh Dix is one of the most entertaining players in the area. He also plays for the Omaha-based OSA Crusaders. Dix can shot the ball at a high clip, he finishes around the basket with either hand, he has a good feel for the game and he competes on defense. The 6-foot-4 guard holds high-major offers from Purdue, Wake Forest and Iowa and has interest from others including Creighton and Nebraska. He just visited Iowa City on Tuesday.

Looking way down the road, the 2025 class (man do I feel old) has a chance to produce some next-level players as well, and after what I’ve seen the last couple of weeks that starts with Chuck Love, a 6-foot-5 wing heading to Lincoln Southwest. Love is the son of the Nebraska women’s basketball assistant of the same name. He’s only played a handful of games against varsity competition so far but has not looked the the least bit intimidated. In Southwest’s four games at the Bryan Shootout, he shot 14-of-23 (60.9%) from 3 and continued to shoot the ball at a high rate at the Lincoln Supreme Summer League on Tuesday. Keep an eye out for that name because he has a chance to be a special player over the next four years and beyond.

We’re only one week into high school summer leagues and tournaments and then in July grassroots basketball starts back up with the first live periods since the summer of 2019 (including an Adidas 3SSB tournament coming to Omaha July 16-18). Between that and the NBA playoffs extending into July, the next couple of months should be heaven for basketball fans in this area, myself included.

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