Following the most complete game of his career, Nikola Jovic credited Jimmy Butler for giving him confidence through an up-and-down season, calling him an “older brother” figure.
With Butler, Haywood Highsmith and Caleb Martin sidelined with injuries, Jovic got the start in the Heat’s 110-96 win over the Lakers at Crypto.com Arena Wednesday. It was the first game the Heat have won in Jovic’s three starts this season, a fact that was not lost on the second-year forward.
“I started a lot of games but unfortunately, we didn’t win a lot of them,” Jovic told Bally Sports after finishing the game with 15 points, eight rebounds, an assist and a steal in 28 minutes. “This year this is my first win as a starter and it means a lot to me. I don’t want to be out there and losing games.”
After scoring his season-high in the Heat's win over the Lakers, Nikola Jovic credited Jimmy Butler for helping him stay confident during an up-and-down season.
That the team win was the first thing Jovic pointed out during his interview will be received well by the Heat’s coaching staff and front office. It’s been, at times, a frustrating season for Jovic, who was selected in the first round of the 2022 draft but has played only sparingly in his second season.
This was just Jovic’s eighth appearance in Miami’s first 34 games. He’s averaging 6.1 points on 53.1% shooting, 4.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists. All marks are improvements over his rookie season, but Jovic has been surpassed on the depth chart by rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Highsmith. Even with injuries to the roster, Jovic has had a hard time getting on the court.
He had started in two others before Wednesday night (Oct. 28 vs Minnesota, Dec. 30 at Utah), but short-handed Heat lineups lost on both occasions.
The Heat are intrigued with Jovic’s skillset who, as a 6-foot-10 forward, can handle, shoot and pass. But the organization is asking for him to make easier decisions on offense and improve defensively so he can stay on the floor.
As Jovic has watched most Heat games from the bench or been sent to Sioux Falls for G League assignments, Butler has been steadfast in his vocal support for the young player.
Before the season, Butler went out of his way to praise Jovic in training camp, saying, “He’s gonna play a significant role for us this season.” After Butler flew to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to watch Jovic play in a G League game in November, he doubled down, saying Jovic is improving and is part of the franchise’s long-term plans.
“I feel like he’s my older brother,” Jovic said of Butler. “First of all confidence. Working out with him and being around him, he just always helps me to actually believe in myself.”
Behind the scenes, Butler challenges Jovic to games of 1 on 1 after practice, as he did in past seasons with others like Caleb Martin and Max Strus to help develop them into rotation players.
“Working out with him [means] a lot to me because if I can score on Jimmy and guard Jimmy, then I can do that against anybody,” Jovic said.
On Wednesday, Jovic made 6 of 11 shots from the field and 3 of 5 from 3-point range. He played a season-high in minutes in a prime-time, nationally televised game against LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers, and finished two rebounds shy of his first career double-double.
Jovic scored Miami’s first field goal of the game on a trailing 3-pointer from Kyle Lowry. Later in the first quarter, he rebounded a Davis miss, took five dribbles to get down the court, and drove past the Lakers’ unprepared defense for a coast-to-coast layup.
In the second quarter, he ran the floor and made himself available for an alley-oop from Lowry. In the third, he rebounded the ball, brought it up the floor, dumped it into Bam Adebayo in the post and cut behind the Lakers defense for a wide-open layup under the basket. He also provided some needed size against a big Lakers lineup and was a featured part of Miami’s zone defense that helped limit James to 12 points on 6 of 18 shooting.
When asked how he went about scoring his season-high, Jovic again pointed to his teammates, saying that it’s about playing off Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and others. It sounds simple, but the simpler Jovic makes the game for himself, the better.
“I just need to be in the right spot at the right moment and make shots,” Jovic said. “That’s it.”