Jovic left Heat impressed after productive season: ‘I often have to remind myself that Niko is 20’

For perspective on how productive this season was for Miami Heat forward Nikola Jovic, remember that he was logging more minutes in the G League than in the NBA in November and December.

By the end of Jovic’s second NBA season, the 20-year-old started more regular-season games for the Heat than any other player his age or younger in franchise history. Jovic, who started his final 26 appearances of the regular season, started 38 games for the Heat this regular season before starting in each of the Heat’s five playoff games this season.

Among the 10 players in franchise history who have started a regular-season game for the Heat at age 20 or younger, the only ones who started 15 or more games in a season are Jovic (36 starts this season), Bam Adebayo (19 starts in 2017-18), Michael Beasley (19 starts in 2008-09), Daequan Cook (19 starts in 2007-08) and Justise Winslow (15 starts in 2016-17).

The only players in franchise history who have started a playoff game for the Heat at age 20 or younger are Jovic, Tyler Herro and Winslow.

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“It means a lot,” Jovic said of becoming a full-time Heat starter in his second NBA season. “I’m happy they gave me a chance. I worked hard for it.”

The question is did Jovic do enough as the starting power forward this season to enter training camp in October as the front-runner for another starting role with the Heat next season?

Jovic, who played in just four of the Heat’s first 30 games this season after beginning the schedule completely out of the team’s rotation, flashed his impressive combination of size and skill at 6-foot-10 and 205 pounds after becoming a starter. He averaged 9.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 22.2 minutes per game while shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 39 percent on 4.5 three-point attempts per game during his string of 26 straight starts to close the regular season.

“I often have to remind myself that Niko is 20,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “But he’s getting better, he’s getting better by each month.”

On the offensive end, Jovic’s outside shooting turned into an asset as part of a Heat starting lineup that needs floor spacers around the leading duo of Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. Jovic became one of the Heat’s best spot-up shooters after being promoted to the starting lineup, shooting 39.2 percent on 3.9 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game during his run of 26 straight starts to close the regular season.

Jovic’s passing and knack for pushing the pace were also helpful for a Heat team that played at the second-slowest pace in the NBA this regular season.

“For me, when I’m open, I’m going to shoot it. They want me to shoot it,” Jovic said. “I’m shooting at a high percentage now. That’s what I should do, you know, catch-and-gos and being ready to shoot. And I think in transition, also, that’s the third thing. So those three things, I think I need to be really good at and just lock in for those three things.”

But Jovic’s growth on the defensive end is what made him a viable starting option midway through the season. With his defense an issue early in his career and well behind the development of his offensive game, he improved as a system and individual defender while also using his size to help as a rim protector and defensive rebounder this season.

Whether it was switching, zone or drop, Jovic was able to hold up defensively across the Heat’s multitude of coverages after beginning this season as a player who was widely considered to be a defensive liability.

“He’s gotten a lot better with his defensive fundamentals,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t know how many more guys on our roster, other than our young guys, that have done more defensive drills the last two years than Niko and that’s including during the summer and in preseason and all during the season.

“He’s big, he moves his feet well and all those 10,000 reps have helped. He’s starting to be able to do multiple coverages, which definitely helps the versatility. More than anything, though, forget above moving feet, forget about schemes, forget about understanding our system, it’s more of a mentality and mindset to defend and do tough things. That’s probably where he’s grown the most.”

This all translated into positive minutes for Jovic, as the Heat outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court after the mid-February All-Star break this regular season.

All of this was enough to leave the Heat’s best players and top decision makers impressed.

“It’s one of those thighs where if you get enough minutes, the game starts to slow down for you,” Adebayo said. “I feel like it’s slowed down for him a lot.”

“I’ve seen the work that he puts in. I see the film that he watches,” Butler said. “I understand how much he cares about the game and how much he cares about winning. So I know who he is, I know the type of player he is and I know, honestly, how much money he’s going to make in this league.”

“He’s a great athlete,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “He’s got great instincts, he’s unselfish, he’s a good rebounder, he’s a coast-to-coast guy.”

But most importantly, Jovic’s skill set appears to complement Adebayo’s game as starting frontcourt partners. The Heat outscored opponents by five points per 100 possessions in the 424 minutes that Adebayo and Jovic played together following the All-Star break this regular season.

“I think the whole thing with me and Bam, just rolling with two bigs, is something new to the league that all the top teams use,” Jovic said. “You can see teams like Denver, Milwaukee, OKC now, Minnesota. Just a lot of teams used that and I feel like sometimes it’s hard to play against them. Me and Bam kind of fit because I can space the floor and he’s unbelievable in the paint.”

Spoelstra added that Adebayo and Jovic present challenges to opponents as a frontcourt duo because “they both can handle, they both can initiate, they both can pass and Niko is fearless also in those moments of truth.”

Jovic is far from a finished product, though. He’ll turn 21 on June 9 and there’s still plenty of room for improvement for him on both ends of the court.

During the Heat’s five-game first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics that resulted in the end of Miami’s season, Jovic averaged 9.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game while shooting 40.9 percent on 4.4 three-point attempts per game.

Those numbers aren’t far off from what Jovic produced in the regular season. But Jovic came away from his first significant on-court NBA playoff experience disappointed because the Heat lost the best-of-7 series 4-1 and was outscored by 24.5 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court in the first round.

“I just think it’s not enough,” Jovic said of his performance in the playoffs. “I think I got to be a lot better for this team. On offense, too, I think they deserve to see me get better. I just see how hard I need to work to be at the level I need to be at in the playoffs. That’s what I’m going to focus on.”

Jovic has two seasons left on his current rookie-scale contract, including a $2.5 million salary for next season. After closing his second NBA season as the Heat’s starting power forward, he’s arguably the most intriguing player on the Heat’s roster but he’s also an attractive trade chip.

For now, Jovic will focus on taking the lessons he learned from this season into what he hopes turns into another offseason of growth. It’s an offseason that could include an appearance in the Paris Olympics this summer as a member of the Serbian national team.

“He’s 20. So I always do need to remind myself of that,” Spoelstra said. “I hold him to an incredibly high standard because our standards are not going to change. Our expectations are always going to be championship-level expectations. Yes, I’m expecting him to rise to that. Is he there now? No. Am I going to stop driving him and pushing him? No. But I’ve been very encouraged by the progress that he’s made, in particular in the last 12 months.”