“He’s an offensive juggernaut,” says one opposing coach.
“When he has the freedom to create, he’s a killer,” says another. “He’s a lot like Anthony Davis in that way.”
“The way he baits a defense can’t be taught,” says a third. “When all is said and done, he’ll be the best passing big man ever.”
Anyone who’s been paying attention this season won’t be surprised by the subject of these glowing reviews, but for casual sports fans just tuning in as the NBA playoffs approach, the juggernaut killer is liable to surprise. This is high praise from staff members employed to scout weaknesses in their opposition, and it’s about damn time you got to know Nikola Jokic.
Seated on a steel bench by himself in the corner of the National Basketball Players Association gym in midtown Manhattan—catching his breath while Malik Beasley, Gary Harris and Will Barton launch post-practice half court shots—the 24-year-old Serbian doesn’t exactly strike fear in those around him. Sure, at 7-0 and 250 pounds, Denver’s Renaissance Man is an intimidating presence. But in Jokic there’s a youthfulness often absent in the business-first NBA world. On this early February afternoon, Jokic is feeling good.
It doesn’t hurt that he was selected for his first All-Star Game earlier this week. Jokic doesn’t remember the first NBA All-Star Game that he watched (televised games were a rarity in Serbia), but once YouTube arrived, he had entire eras to devour. “I loved Shaq, KG and Tim Duncan. The big guys.”
Asked what he’s most excited about for the weekend in Charlotte, Jokic says, “No expectations, just hoping to have fun and relax a little bit. Honestly, the season is much more exciting.”
He’s right. After a decade of mid-postseason exits during the Carmelo Anthony era and three dismal seasons from 2013 to 2015, a painstakingly disciplined rebuild is bearing fruit thanks to shrewd drafting. The Nuggets aren’t just competitive, they’re one of the League’s six or so best teams and a top contender in the West. As with any team outside the Bay Area, growth is still necessary for title aspirations to be fulfilled, but Denver’s ready for the challenge. For that, Nuggets fans can thank the steadily evolving big man who’s happy to have teammates that feel like family, two older brothers nearby and a sunny home in a city that he’d never heard of before 2014.
“We don’t want individuals, we want one big team,” Jokic says of the Nuggets’ mindset this season. “We’re the second youngest team in the League and we’re showing that young players can bring a new energy to the League. It’s fun to play in Denver right now.”
NBA superstardom is almost always realized through a score-first lens. Think about it. The game’s greatest players—even walking triple-doubles like Russell Westbrook, James Harden and The King—are scorers first. As the best players in the world, that’s natural. Even LeBron, whose court vision is uncanny, has been criticized through much of his career for looking to his teammates in the biggest moments.
But Jokic is different. That’s not to say that he’s a better passer than James, but as a plodding big man who lulls defenders to sleep, every twirling, no-look delivery from “The Joker” is shockingly beautiful. He finds open men who other players would never see with passes ranging from full-court heaves to between-the-leg hikes, finger roll drops and pump-faked fades. “Passing is the most underrated skill in basketball,” says Jokic, who credits his passing prowess for the soft shooting touch that has him averaging a career-high 20.2 points per game. “A great passer makes a great shooter—he puts the ball where the shooter needs to complete the job.”
The big man passes with such abandon that Nuggets head coach Mike Malone often wishes that he would be more selfish. It’s something Jokic is working on—hence the career-high scoring—but his passion for creating will never fade.
For Jokic, sharing the rock is about more than basketball. It’s about life and brotherhood.
As the youngest of three boys in Sombor, Serbia, scoring wasn’t easy for Nikola. His best bet was to move the ball. The oldest brother, Strahinja, is a hulking 6-8 forward who played professionally in Serbia. Middle brother Nemanja—a 6-6 wing who grew up playing with Darko Milicic, No. 2 pick of the 2003 Draft—left Serbia to play college ball at the University of Detroit Mercy when Nikola was 10 years old. While Milicic rode the bench for the Detroit Pistons, college freshman Nemanja lived the NBA lifestyle alongside his friend. Once the assumed “next-Dirk Nowitzki,” Milicic never averaged more than 8.8 points in a season and was out of the League by 2012.
When Nemanja returned to Serbia in 2012—after one season with the now-defunct Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Steamers—Nikola was all grown up. At 17, the 7-0 tower had signed his first professional contract with Serbian powerhouse Mega Leks, but a poor diet and lack of discipline saw him weighing 300 pounds. This was doughy weight, too. Still, he averaged 11.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game as an 18-year-old in the competitive Adriatic League.
With both older brothers home, the trio committed to unleashing Nikola’s potential. “My brothers pushed me very hard to focus on being better,” says Jokic, whose brothers now live with him in Denver and are regulars at every home game. “They knew the chance that I had. But they also help me have fun in life.”
So who’s the alpha?
“There’s no alpha dog,” he chuckles. “We’re in this together. One dog. Three hearts.”
Scouts weren’t sure what to make of Jokic ahead of the 2014 NBA Draft. A common comparison was a 7-0 Bosnian also playing in the Adriatic League, current Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic. But with Nurkic a chiseled brute and Jokic, well, not, the two players’ games couldn’t have been more different. Concerns over Jokic’s weight led to questions about his work ethic and fearful comparisons to Milicic. In a results-based copycat league, no one wanted to be the team to draft another Serbian bust.
“Just as every hire is a reaction to the previous fire in the NBA, scouting is all about the residue of success,” says David Griffin, the former Cavaliers GM-turned-analyst for Turner Sports and NBA TV. “Denver benefited from the residue of failure being on Serbian bigs post-Darko.”
Ultimately, Denver team president Tim Connelly and GM Arturas Karnisovas, a former Lithuanian star himself, did their due diligence on the Jokic family. “You never know how kids are going to deal with adversity,” Griffin says. “So getting quality intel on what makes a kid tick, and who supports him, is important.”
The more favorable comparisons—like Vlade Divac, Arvydas Sabonis—won out, and Denver selected Jokic with the 41st pick. A low-risk second rounder. The same night, the Nuggets acquired Nurkic, the 16th overall pick, from Chicago. In need of grooming, Jokic spent one more year in Serbia before joining the Nuggets in 2015. With Nurkic injured, he started 55 games, scoring 10 points in just over 20 minutes per contest. Anyone with eyes could see that the Serb would soon be serving game across the NBA. The Nuggets traded Nurkic to Portland the following season and, in 2018, signed Jokic to a five-year, $147 million contract extension.
Along with his brothers and Karnisovas, Jokic credits Mike Miller for pushing him as a young pro. More than any muscle-toning, Jokic believes that mental acuity is key to NBA domination. “He was always there for me and pushing me when I played bad,” he says. “Mike played with LeBron and knows what it takes to be great.”
And what’s that?
“Every practice you have to be mentally focused,” Jokic says. “No shortcuts. That’s what I had to learn. But, we are still playing basketball. You have to be positive, because it is a game.”
Focus and fun exist in tandem in Denver. At 49-23 as of this writing, the Nuggets trail the first place Warriors by half a game, and young guards Harris, Beasley, Jamal Murray and Monte Morris are all breaking out. The Joker, though, is holding court. Averaging 20.2 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.6 assists, his All-Star appointment was a shoo-in. In October, he became the only player other than Wilt Chamberlain to log a 30-point triple-double without missing a shot, and he’s passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time triple-doubles chart. After outings like his 36-10-9 night in Denver’s February 26 win over Oklahoma City, Jokic is also becoming accustomed to “MVP” serenades from his home crowd.
“It’s crazy because I don’t feel like a vet—not even close,” Jokic says from the NBPA gym. “I’m just another player.”
Come playoff time, Denver better hope the last sentence isn’t true. In order for the Nuggets to make a run, the franchise player needs to become the juggernaut killer that opposing coaches fear. In other words, elevate more permanently to the MVP level he has periodically hit throughout the 2018-19 season.
By all accounts, Jokic is realizing his power. He may not admit it, but as the franchise centerpiece, he’s the leader of this team. “He’s been finding his voice [in the locker room] this season,” Malone says. “He’s a team guy, and he makes us go. So guys respond to him”
Still, critics will point out that on a team full of capable scorers, Denver lacks a “go-to guy,” the one player who can unequivocally get a bucket no matter the circumstance. With an endless list of slippery moves and range beyond the arc, Jokic is growing into the role. But in his current form, he creates for others, not himself. “He’s not going to back down in the moment,” Griffin says. “But championship teams have that one ball-dominant play creator who can get their own.”
Would Denver’s Three Musketeers mindset be enough to take down, say, the Oklahoma City Thunder in a second round best of seven? Time will tell, but the Nuggets lead the regular season series 3-0.
After returning from the All-Star break, Jokic and Connelly had a sit-down. They talked about goals, both for this season and beyond. The talk went well.
“I can be the Tim Duncan of Denver Nuggets,” Jokic told reporters. “Denver Nuggets Tim Duncan. Kind of a funny thing to think about, but it could be a reality.”
Matthew Foley is a contributor to SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @mattyfoles.
Photos via Getty.