Earlier this week the Denver Nuggets visited the Milwaukee Bucks for a dog-day NBA clash that few could have predicted would leave fans panting. On one side there was reigning league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, aka the Greek Freak; on the other, a supremely talented Serbian named Nikola Jokić. But in today’s NBA, Jokic, a center who still plays with his back to the basket, is the real freak.
In the era of positionless basketball, Jokić doesn’t just stand his ground; he holds the line for the generations of big men who preceded him. While Antetokounmpo picked-and-rolled his way to a respectable 27 points and eight rebounds, it was Jokić who ultimately grabbed headlines with his 37-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist night. It was the ninth triple-double for Jokic this season and the 50th of his career. The only center who has more is Wilt Chamberlain, not the easiest numbers-to-numbers comparison these days – especially not in the decades since big men have drifted farther and farther from the paint as the NBA has evolved from a bruising battle into a run-and-gun game.
Jokić, though, is a delightful combination of old and new school. He can do the traditional tough stuff like blocking shots and grabbing contested rebounds but also drain a three or even rifle a pass behind a defender’s head. Surely, somewhere the great Arvydas Sabonis – still one of the sweetest bigs I have ever seen – is smiling. Jokić is finishing the business he started, after all.
Averaging an eye-popping 27.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 8.6 assists through Thursday, Jokić has been the triggerman for a Nuggets offense that has been top five in the NBA for much of the season and best-in-show in the eight games through the Milwaukee contest. More to the point: unlike his teammate Jamal Murray, who cooled down from his supernova streak in last season’s bubble, Jokić has stayed plenty hot enough to keep Denver in the playoff hunt. So it figures that when the NBA All-Star game tips off on Sunday, Jokić, the league’s leader in efficiency, will make his third career appearance – this time as a starter for Team LeBron.
You figure a guy like Jokić must have been hard to miss as a kid, and he was in a sense. Growing up in Serbia, Jokić was less pick-and-roll than roly-poly, a 300lbs teen who downed three liters of Coca-Cola per day and dabbled in soccer and volleyball before falling into a basketball career in European leagues and dazzling as a passer. And though his lack of muscle definition and athleticism turned off NBA talent evaluators, who dismissed Jokić as a “soft Serbian” in the mold of Darko Miličić, Jokić nonetheless played well enough to earn a lucrative offer from FC Barcelona. But just before sealing the deal he played one of his worst-ever games, and the offer was snatched off the table.
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That opened the door for the Nuggets to take him 41st overall in 2014 in what might be one of the most slept-on draft picks ever. There was no bear-hugging the commissioner on stage or boisterous reaction shot with the family at home. There was just his name on a sports ticker during a Taco Bell commercial. Jokic himself had to be woken up by his older brother when the news broke, which should provide some sense of the laid-back personality we’re dealing with. Beat reporters didn’t even realize they were mispronouncing his name until Orlando’s Nikola Vučević pointed it out before his first All-Star appearance in 2019. “I just don’t care,” Jokić told a bewildered media gaggle, “because I don’t wanna, like, fix you guys.” Nor does he seem to mind sharing a nickname, Joker, with another of Serbia’s sporting heroes, Novak Djokovic.
In Denver, Jokić was slotted behind the big Bosnian Jusuf Nurkić. Before long a fast-mounting pile of triple-doubles from Jokić shoved Nurkić out of the way and on to Portland. Still it wasn’t until the Nuggets’ heart-stopping run to the 2020 Western Conference finals that Jokić truly made the jump from big kid to Big Effin’ Deal. Ever since Jokić hasn’t just proven that bubble season was no fluke; this year he’s made a lane for himself in the MVP race. That his biggest competition right now is a fellow center, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, must warm the hearts of Sabonis and Patrick Ewing.
A year ago that generation of NBA centers was dreading the extinction of the traditional center. Jokić, though, isn’t just proof of life. He’s exactly the player Sabonis or Ewing might’ve rounded into if they didn’t have to reckon with man defenses and hand-checking, if they weren’t honor-bound to smash any of the mice that came scrambling into the paint – if they had come along 30 years later, really. Even more impressive: Unlike Embiid – who is in the midst of a career season, too – Jokic somehow managed to unlock all this potential without having to suffer any embarrassing public lectures from his elders. That’s a testament to the instruction he received from his older brothers, his European coaches and the Nuggets staff.
Not only is Nuggets head coach Mike Malone the son of Brendan Malone, a legendary NBA assistant who made his name molding the bruisers on the Bad Boy Pistons, but also Mike broke into the league as a deputy under Jeff Van Gundy on the fin-de-siècle Knicks – one of the most stubbornly half-court NBA squads there ever was. Which is to say when a 6ft 11in Serbian trundled onto his court in Denver, Malone knew exactly what to do with him. Jokić’s Wilt Chamberlain imitation in Milwaukee, the coach said afterward, “just speaks to his greatness. The guy doesn’t get tired. When he was out of the game, he was in the huddles. He’s on the bench imploring his teammates to rebound and play defense and move the ball. When your best player is doing that, it really sends a message.”
That’s not to say Jokić doesn’t have his flaws, and the fact that he isn’t a fearsome defensive presence in the paint can hold Denver back. Heading into the All-Star break the Nuggets are once again treading just above the postseason Mendoza line. If Jokić is going to persuade voters to look past LeBron James or James Harden and make him – not Embiid – the league’s first MVP center since Shaq snatched the prize in 2000, it’ll be by lifting the Nuggets into the western elite. The good news for him is there’s still plenty of time to reel in the Utah Jazz.
Any way you slice it, Jokić holds all the cards. Because he came into the league with virtually no expectations, all he can do is amaze. The idea that, in fewer than six seasons, he could go from EuroLeague reject to a throwaway draft pick to the NBA’s center of attention, well, what else can you call this Joker but wild.