Inside Nikola Jovic's development into a Miami Heat starter -- and what comes next

It's been an up-and-down season for Nikola Jovic, but his work behind the scenes prepared him to make the most of his most recent opportunity with the Miami Heat.
Detroit Pistons v Miami Heat
Detroit Pistons v Miami Heat / Megan Briggs/GettyImages

Even though things are good now, Nikola Jovic isn’t taking it for granted.

Not the guy who started 10 straight games in January, only to play less than a dozen garbage-time minutes in the Miami Heat’s next 10. To say it’s been an up-and-down season for the second-year forward would be an understatement. It’s been closer to a game of tug of war, with Jovic being jerked in and out of the rotation depending on who the Heat have available.

“It was rough,” Nikola Jovic told me and my co-host during an interview for the "Locked On Heat” podcast

When Terry Rozier went down with a knee sprain in a Feb. 11 game against the Boston Celtics (a game Jovic did not play in), Jovic was reinserted into the starting lineup for the team’s next game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

It’s easy to see why coach Erik Spoelstra did this. He trusts his team to play hard enough and himself to pull the right levers to remain a top-10ish defense no matter the personnel, but he also knows he needs the right players on the court to muster enough offense to win games.

So when Tyler Herro sustained a knee injury in New Orleans nearly two weeks later and Rozier returned, Spoelstra decided to keep Jovic in the lineup for some offensive juice.

At 6-foot-10, Jovic provides a useful combination of size, shooting and playmaking. He pushes the pace more than any of his teammates, which helps feed Miami’s transition offense. This is what the Heat saw when they selected Jovic with the 27th pick in the 2022 draft, but he's been inconsistent for most of his first two seasons. When speaking with Jovic about his development, the word that comes up the most is "consistent."

“At the start [of the season] I would have a lot of ups and downs,” Jovic said. “I would play great defensively one game, the second one, I’d be terrible. It was hard for sure for coaches and for me to get that rhythm. And it was on me to somehow find a way to be consistent on a nightly basis.”

"I’m more focused on practices, which is the most important thing, and that’s where I get my rhythm."

Nikola Jovic

Until Jovic was more reliable on defense and more productive than theoretical on offense, he was going to have a hard time carving out a spot in the Heat's Finals-hardened rotation. Over this last month, Jovic appears to have taken a leap. He is in the starting lineup for now. For how long will depend on how quickly he can take the next step.

Earlier in the season, Heat coaches tasked Jovic with being a more solid rebounder, holding his own defensively and bulking up. (Jovic said he hasn't added much extra weight but “transferred more fat into muscle.")

When Jovic was out of the rotation, he worked with assistant coaches and trainers to smooth the rough edges of his game. It was the progress he made behind the scenes that buoyed his confidence when he wasn’t playing.

“It’s all about practices,” Jovic said. “That’s where I kept [my] confidence. I’m more focused on practices, which is the most important thing, and that’s where I get my rhythm, and that’s where coaches see I can be in a game and lock in.” 

As Jovic committed to his routine, Heat coaches noticed. Spoelstra values practice as much as any coach in the league -- or, better said, he values how players value practice. What happens upstairs at the Kaseya Center practice facility influences who gets to take the court downstairs during games.

“He continued to work, including after the Boston game, he went into the gym after the game and got more work in with the coaches," Spoelstra said. "When guys start to do that, you start to see things change.”

After not playing against the Celtics, Jovic was in the starting lineup in Milwaukee two nights later. He has started every game since -- except one in which he was serving a suspension for his role in last month's bench-clearing brawl in New Orleans. The Heat went 6-1 to begin the stretch before dropping three straight. Losses, especially ones like Sunday’s against the unserious Wizards, could prompt changes.

“We have those three losses in a row and you never know if things are going to change,” Jovic said. “I might be starting, might be on the bench, might be out of the rotation. So you never know.”

There’s a strong argument for Jovic to remain in the starting group. He has the highest plus-minus on the team, with the Heat outscoring opponents by 10.2 points every 100 possessions Jovic is on the court, according to Cleaning the Glass. Since making their mid-season roster changes, the Heat are plus-9.3 points per 100 possessions with Jovic playing next to Adebayo in the front court. 

“He’s taking advantage of his opportunity,” Adebayo said. “He’s a great passer, a willing passer and, when you play alongside somebody like that, it just makes your five much more dynamic.”

One more stat: The Heat are scoring 3.4 more transition points per 100 possessions with Jovic on the court, per CtG.

Those transition opportunities are the greatest value-add Jovic brings to the table. Spoelstra and Adebayo are quick to point out how fast Jovic is to rip down a rebound and lead the break. 

“He generates more inertia for our team in transition, for sure,” Spoelstra said after Jovic scored 24 points in a recent win against the Bucks. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that."

“They want me to do those things because, if you notice, we’re a little bit struggling in transition and we need more relief points,” Jovic said, “and that’s what they expect me to do.”

Nikola Jovic
Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks / Stacy Revere/GettyImages

Jovic is shooting 42% on threes, including 41.7% on 3.6 attempts over his last 10 games. As opponents double Butler and Adebayo in the paint, more outside shots will be open.

Jovic turned some heads when he shot 42.3% from three-point range during last summer’s FIBA World Cup, but it wasn’t enough to garner the respect of opposing defenses from beyond the arc. For most of this season, defenders refused to close out on Jovic, which doesn’t help Miami’s spacing.

That, however, is beginning to change.

“Things have changed and I can even here on the sideline when I get the ball, you can hear other coaches yelling ‘Shooter,’” Jovic said. “That’s the part I need to be great at, because you have all these guys that can be in the paint like Jimmy and Bam, who are just living there and are unbelievable there, and you got to double them. So, if someone doubles, I’m going to be open.”

A big reason for Miami’s three-game losing streak is that the Mavericks, Thunder and Wizards showed more help and double-teams on Butler and Adebayo than opponents have before. As a result, Butler was outscored by Luka Doncic, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kyle Kuzma by a combined 103-57 in those games. Adebayo didn’t fare much better.

Despite the attention being paid to Butler and Adebayo, Jovic totaled just 21 points and missed eight of his 10 three-point attempts in those games.

“I need to make those shots,” Jovic said.

If Jovic can consistently sink shots and make opponents hesitate to help off him to double Butler or Adebayo, it will be hard for Spoelstra to keep him off the court – even in a playoff setting.

There are other things, too. Jovic points to his court awareness on defense and rebounding as things he is trying to improve during the final month of the regular season. He says he’s improved as a one-on-one defender to the point where he’s being picked on less.

“Playoff-wise, the thing I know, people are going to matchup hunt,” Jovic said. “At this point, I feel like I’m really good at one-on-one defense. People are less and less trying to call me up because there’s not that big of a mismatch.”

Time will tell if Jovic will be in Miami’s playoff rotation. Even Spoelstra might not know at this point. That’s what makes these next 18 games so important, and no one on the Heat has more at stake than Jovic.

Jovic can count the Heat’s biggest stakeholders – Spoelstra, Adebayo and Butler – as supporters, but he still needs to prove he can help them win a championship. However it plays out, it’s hard not to consider this season a success for Jovic and his development.

Watch or listen to the full interview on the "Locked On Heat" podcast, available on YouTube or wherever you get podcasts.