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CHARLOTTE — The NBA is in a new era of positionless basketball, where point guards are no longer ball-dominant, forwards are no longer flooding the paint and centers are no longer limited to dunks and layups.
This age of basketball expects its players to do just about everything on the court, particularly in spreading the floor and shooting the 3-pointer.
Luka Doncic, Nikola Vucevic and Nikola Jokic — all having career years and all participating in the 17th Skills Challenge on Saturday night in Charlotte — perfectly exemplify this drastic shift.
There will be a competition within a competition brewing between this international trio at the Spectrum Center.
“I would probably say Jokic in the Skills Challenge. I’m excited about [competing against him],” Doncic said. “Because we were both from ex-Yugoslavia. And Nikola Vucevic, too. So I want to compete against them.”
Karl-Anthony Towns was the first non-guard to win the Skills Challenge in 2016. One year later, and Kristaps Porzingis became the first European player to claim the crown for the three-round, obstacle-course event that requires perfectly executed dribbles, passes, 3-point shots and weaving movements.
No longer is there a prototypical mold to win this competition — one that was previously dominated by the likes of two-time champion guards Steve Nash, Dwyane Wade and Damian Lillard.
“[Jokic is] a player with a very, very high basketball IQ, so very skilled,” Vucevic said. “He can do so many things as a big man that you don’t see a lot of big men do. His passing makes it very hard with the players that he has around him, for other teams to defend it because he can involve everybody.”
Jokic is the No. 1 passing center in basketball (career-high 7.7 assists per game), with Vucevic trailing closely behind (career-high 3.8). Vucevic is shooting a career-high 38 percent from 3-point range, while both are top-five scorers and top-10 rebounders among centers.
Whether they are inside or outside — Jokic and Vucevic are always in their comfort zones.
That versatile trend is rapidly developing among international bigs in the NBA — from Porzingis to Vucevic to Jokic to Towns to Marc Gasol to Joel Embiid to Lauri Markkanen.
“It just fits me,” Markkanen said. “I grew up, believe it or not, I was a guard. I wasn’t that tall. So I grew up playing point guard and shooting guard, so I was always doing that type of stuff, and then I happened to grow a little bit. So it just fits me. I didn’t have to change my game or anything at all.”
Forwards and centers can now shoot. They can now pass. They can now spread the floor and play just about everywhere.
“[Jokic is] hard to guard,” said Ben Simmons, a 6-foot-10 “point guard.” “Physically, he’s a big guy. He can score the ball, he can shoot outside the paint, he can pass the ball. He can bring it up. He can really do everything.”
Jokic was modest when it came to his chances of claiming the 2019 crown.
“I need to be perfect,” he said. “I need to make my three. I need to make the pass the first time. That’s the only chance.”
Doncic might not have the same stature as this group — featuring a 6-7, 218-pound frame — but he is just as positionless. His ball-handling abilities forced the Dallas Mavericks to move on from Dennis Smith Jr., and their acquisition of Porzingis furthers the team’s interest in spreading the floor with a fast-paced, multi-skilled unit.
“I love watching [Doncic] play,” Atlanta’s Trae Young said. “He’s a very smart player. He can really score the ball. I think there are a lot of similarities in our game as far as playing style. He’s definitely a little bit taller than me, but besides that, there are a lot of similarities with our cerebral ability and things like that.”
The 19-year-old leads all rookies in points (20.7), and places second in rebounds (7.2) and assists (5.6). In doing so, the NBA has awarded him all three Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards.
“The guys that can do a little bit of everything in this league are pretty successful,” Boston’s Jayson Tatum said.
The interconnected nature of Doncic, Vucevic and Jokic comes from their international roots, tall height and wide-ranging skillsets. Being able to do it all is a necessity for winning the Skills Challenge — also, more importantly, a necessity for being compatible in this era of positionless basketball.