By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Editor’s Note: This is one in a series of features that spotlights innovative, unique figures around the NBA who could change the league forever.
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DENVER -- Nikola Jokic still doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know what all the fuss is about. Perhaps that’s why he still floats into the Denver Nuggets’ practice court, with photo stations and interview spots covering the entire floor, and acts more like the interviewer than the man everyone is waiting to interview.
Maybe that’s what makes the All-NBA big man who and what he is, that ability to stay in the same space, the same comfort zone he’s always occupied, when seemingly everything in his direct orbit has changed dramatically since he first hit this same practice court as a wide-eyed rookie four years ago.
“I’m just playing basketball, the same way I have always played, from juniors and even back to middle school, I’m just doing it the same way,” Jokic said when asked about the distinguishing characteristics of his game. “Nothing different. Just a team game, playing and having fun and trying to play the right way.”
At a time when the international influence on the NBA game is at an all-time high — reigning Kia MVP (Giannis Antetokounmpo) hails from Greece and the reigning Rookie of the Year (Luka Doncic) is from Slovenia — Jokic is representing the new-age center in this age of position-less basketball and his native Serbia to the fullest.
Jokic earned his first All-Star bid last season and finished fourth in the voting for Kia MVP. After guiding the Nuggets to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference playoff chase last season, earning first-team All-NBA honors in the process, Jokic has entered a space no one forecasted for him when the Nuggets took a flier on him with the 41st pick of the 2014 Draft.
Any conversation about the best big man in basketball has to begin and end with Jokic and Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, two nimble behemoths with the skills to play all over the floor, players who personify the present and future at their position.
But Jokic’s value to the Nuggets goes beyond him being the centerpiece of the franchise and the sort of talent, at 24, that you can build around for years to come.
He literally changed the game for a Nuggets team searching for an identity and a path to the ranks of contenders in the rugged Western Conference. He’s a foundational piece the Nuggets were desperate to find, even if he came into it without such grandiose expectations for himself.
That five-year, $148 million max contract he agreed to last summer serves as a reflection of the faith both sides have in one another, while also guaranteeing that wherever Jokic’s game goes from here, the Nuggets will ride that wave as well.
“That’s the thing you love about the kid, he’s that rare find in our league these days in that no one really saw him coming. And it’s part of what makes him one of my favorite players to watch right now,” said a Western Conference coach who asked to remain anonymous for fear of running afoul of the NBA’s new stringent tampering rules. “Embiid is an unbelievable talent, one of the very best in our league. But I don’t know if you can build out your team and what you do around him the way you can around Jokic. He’s hands down the best passing big man in the league, he’s an excellent rebounder and can score at every level. He’s not great on defense but he’s sound. His fundamentals are at the top of the charts in every area. And he’s so unselfish, always making the right play and he doesn’t play with an ounce of the entitlement that has permeated the game on so many levels. He really is a breath of fresh air in that respect … I mean, I just love the kid.”
‘He’s like Steve Nash for bigs’
The Nuggets already had several bigs on the roster and in place ahead of him when they used that second-round pick on Jokic, who didn’t come over until the summer of 2015. So they knew they could take their time with his development. There was no rush. And quite frankly, they weren’t quite sure what they had in the massive youngster.
Jokic wasn’t sure either. He admits now to spending his early moments with the Nuggets wondering if he’d find his way to a more prominent role on the team.
“That first practice was a shock,” Jokic said, leaning back in his chair to make his point. “These guys were just jumping out of the gym. They were really athletic. J.J. Hickson was there, [Kenneth] Faried, [Jusuf] Nurkic was hurt, but also Joffrey Lauvergne was there. I was like the fifth or sixth option. I was just working hard. I’d lost a lot of pounds and I prepared my body and mind to work hard and make sure I got a chance.”
Nuggets player development coach and Serbian native Ognjen Stojakovic had connections back home who told him Jokic was a talent. But talent alone doesn’t always translate.
The raw talent was evident. But Jokic didn’t wow anyone in his first summer league stint, averaging 8.0 points and 6.2 rebounds in five games.
“I know who he is and how he plays,” Stojakovic said. “He was one of the most talented kids in Serbia. You could see the talent even then. But the game was so different from Serbia to the NBA that you had to find him the right position, because the way he played was just different.”
Jokic was an accomplished player in Serbia, winning MVP honors in his second professional season and putting up unbelievable, triple-double like numbers as a teenager. And yet there was no indication that he was destined for NBA stardom. He just didn’t look the part to talent evaluators who couldn’t see past his “pudgy facade,” as one scout put it.
“He was just a basketball machine in Serbia,” Stojakovic said. “He was capable of doing basically everything. But he needed time when he came here. It was step-by-step, working on his entire game.”
The first year it was refining his post game on both ends, drilling constantly on post positioning and the right shots around the basket. Then it was mastering the pick and roll game and spacing. Then two years ago they went to work on his shooting from beyond the 3-point line and unlocking a perimeter arsenal to complete his offensive toolbox.
The result last season was a 7-footer with an uncanny knack for passing and initiating the offense as effectively as any point guard, a conduit for everything the Nuggets want to do offensively and a player capable of dominating games with or without the ball in his hands at any given moment.
“This is my line and it’s funny for me,” Stojakovic said, “but he is like Steve Nash for bigs. He’s like that. He’s not super athletic, he’s not super fast. But he’s just like, doing everything. The other thing I always say about him is that he’s like the first of his own kind. We’ve had back in the days the Vlade Divac and Arvydas Sabonis. And then we had the Gasol brothers. And now he’s the first big who’s actually a playmaker who catches the ball and can pass or shoot it, can handle the ball, push the ball and can transform any possession from the post to the perimeter on his own. He’s the first of his own kind.”
A franchise-changing decision
That doesn’t mean everyone recognized it instantly.
Nuggets coach Mike Malone was hired the summer Jokic arrived in time for his first NBA Summer League and didn’t leave Las Vegas convinced they had a franchise player on their hands.
“Not once did I say, ‘wow, we’ve got something special on our hands,’ ” Malone said. “I’d be lying if I said I did.”
Jokic was admittedly overweight and had no idea what kind of leap he was making then. But he showed up to training camp 30 pounds lighter and earned first-team All-Rookie honors as a 55-game starter.
It was a game that season against the San Antonio Spurs that flashed the first sign of something special for Malone.
“He goes out against the Spurs with Tim Duncan and finishes with 26 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists and I’m like, ‘wow, this kid is special.’ He’s a great kid, a hard worker and he’s committed. That was the first time I said to myself that I have to play this kid more.”
Malone was still trying to sort out how to play both of his young big men and even tried playing them together. It was a failed experiment, though, as Jokic was out of his depths trying to cover power forwards out on the perimeter. The confidence of both Nurkic and Jokic suffered as Malone and his staff continued to explore the possibilities.
By December of his Jokic’s second season, it was clear that Malone had seen enough and knew enough about the strengths and weaknesses of his entire group that he was ready to decide who and what worked best for the greater good. Jokic replaced Nurkic as the starter and the Nuggets took off.
“Dec. 15  is a big date in the history of this franchise,” Malone said. “That was the day I made the decision that Nikola is our starting center and we’re going to play a certain way of basketball and everything changed from there. We had one of the best offenses in the league and we never looked back. That gave us our identity, our style of play and now everything we do is, ‘how does it affect Nikola? Or how does he play with Nikola?’”
A beautiful basketball mind
That’s the same calculus Paul Millsap used as a free agent in 2017 when deciding where he wanted to play next after forming an All-Star big man tandem with Al Horford in Atlanta. That combination produced All-Star bids, a 60-win season and trip to the Eastern Conference finals in their second season together (2014-15).
Millsap understood how talented Jokic was from competing against him. He looked at the way the Nuggets had transformed their team to play off of Jokic’s strengths as a jumbo facilitator. That said, he's been at this a long time. He’s seen the next-big-thing coming a time or two, only to see things end up far from expectations.
Those summer league legends and workout warriors in open runs leading up to training camp don’t always shine when the bright lights come on. Sometimes a larger sample size than promising season or even two, just isn’t enough.
Jokic, however, was different. Millsap said it’s not just the clever nature of Jokic’s game but more the brilliant basketball mind lurking behind that playful smile.
“The great thing about him is he’s a sponge,” Millsap said. “Anything you say to him, you only have to say it one time. He grasps it, really understands the concept, and runs with it. I recognized that when I was in Atlanta and he busted out and had that season with all those triple-doubles and they had the No. 1 offense in the league. It’s something that has to happen in the game, not in practice or in these summer videos of guys working out.
"A lot of guys have raw talent and can drill hard and show potential like that, but can you transfer that to the real games? He’s been able to do that. And that’s where the respect for his work comes from, on this team and around the entire league.”
The basketball world knows now. Malone has issued the same challenge to his superstar big man that he does to everyone on the roster.
“We challenge all of our guy to come back every year an improved player,” Malone said. “For Nikola, it’s not about working on your left hand or working on your post moves. He’s already a great player, MVP candidate and our best player. So now it’s about can he embrace being the leader of this team? Can he understand the importance of not getting into foul trouble and not letting his emotions take hold where he gets thrown out of a game? He’s too important to us for that.”
There is universal respect for Jokic’s game now.
You don’t rise the way he has in such a relatively short period of time without earning the respect of the competition.
And ultimately, that’s all Jokic ever wanted.
He plays the game he loves, the way he’s always loved to play it, the way he learned it growing up in Sambor, playing with his older brothers and friends, never dreaming his journey would lead him to where he is now: as one of the most dominant players in the game.
“My first year I was adjusting to the [NBA], my second year I was building and building, trying to learn as much as possible and then my third year I was strong and I felt like I can run, I can bully people and do some of the things I like to do,” Jokic said. “But listen, it’s a game, it’s fun and competitive. But it’s a game, and really simple that way. I’m always going to have fun with it, because that’s just my thing.”
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