The text group chat chimes incessantly with emojis, congratulatory notes, jokes and even some trash talk “every time someone has a good game” among the six active Serbian players currently populating the NBA, according to Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic.
So, you could imagine the thumb power at play in the wake of the league’s announcement Tuesday that Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic is the 2020-21 Kia Most Valuable Player.
Jokic becomes the first center to win the Kia MVP award since Shaquille O’Neal accomplished the feat in 1999-2000.
Most importantly, the Nuggets star is the first Serbian player to receive the honor.
“I think he didn’t expect it,” Bogdanovic said. “You can ask him. I think even he didn’t expect it as far as [what] I know [of] him. But the way he was playing in Serbia back home, he was the kid who was joking with the basketball. He goes on the floor, and he jokes with you on the floor. He makes moves and it kind of sometimes looks sloppy. But now, I think he’s brought it all together: the skills, that talent that he can throw some no-look passes and crazy passes that you’ve never seen, then some moves under the rim in the post. He’s different.
“He’s brought it definitely to the next level, and I think no one expected it. He’s one of the for sure motivations for all the kids [in Serbia]. He’s one of the biggest examples that it doesn’t matter how high you are ranked, and it doesn’t matter when you start playing basketball. It all doesn’t matter. You just have to keep on working and doing it your way.”
Jokic certainly did that, despite expressing ambivalence about winning the award on multiple occasions.
“I can just say that I think this season is probably the best season I’ve had in my life,” Jokic said back in May. “The team, we’re playing good the whole season. We had ups and downs, but mainly we are going in the right direction. If it happens, [it] happens.”
By virtue of a historic season, Jokic actually earned it.
Jokic cobbled together career-high averages in scoring (26.4 points per game) and assists (8.3), in addition to tying a career best in rebounds (10.8) while shooting 56.6% from the field, 38.8% from deep and 86.8% from the free-throw line. Jokic continuously wowed with gaudy numbers, but perhaps more impressively, he managed to unflinchingly lead a Denver team that was riddled with injuries to the postseason.
The Nuggets lost second-leading scorer Jamal Murray for the season with a torn ACL, while Will Barton (hamstring) and PJ Dozier (adductor) still haven’t made their postseason debuts after lengthy absences.
None of that stopped or even slowed Jokic, as he becomes the first MVP since Kobe Bryant in 2007-08 to play in all of his team’s games.
This also marks just the second time that an international player was named MVP for three years in a row, after Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo won the honor for two consecutive seasons. Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki were the last pair of international players to win MVP for three straight years (2004-07).
The 41st pick of the 2014 draft, Jokic is the lowest-drafted player to win the MVP and the first Denver Nugget to take home the honor.
Dallas Mavericks center Boban Marjanovic playfully disagreed with Bogdanovic’s assessment that nobody saw Jokic’s ascension coming.
Marjanovic and Jokic first met when the Nuggets’ star was a teenager, and they spent time as teammates in the Adriatic League with Mega Leks.
“Nikola is [a] great guy. I know him, he show[ed] up and we basically played together on the same team,” Marjanovic said. “I played the 5, he played the 4. Back over there [in Serbia], that skill level that he has right now, he had that back over there. He was really good. All the potential, all the nice touches, all the movement, all the brain, all the passes was like what he’s doing right now in Denver.
“He’s amazing and I know everybody says, ‘I know he will be somebody someday.’ But I really knew it because you really know how Nikola is thinking, how he plays, how he makes great decisions in great moments. And he is my friend [laughs]. I am so proud of him. It would mean a lot for sure for Serbia. It mean[s] a lot for my country, but a lot for me. Nikola is my friend, one of my closest friends. We don’t talk every single day, but we are online very often. It mean[s] a lot for me and of course for him and of course for our country that we have the MVP of [the] NBA league, the best league in the world. For him to win MVP it’s amazing, it’s great.”
Bogdanovic agreed and anticipated the group chat — which also includes Nemanja Bjelica, Aleksej Pokusevski and Alen Smailagic — will be “on fire” with Tuesday’s announcement. The players started the group chat amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to stay in touch as they shuffled through the rigors of the season, which were intensified by all the coronavirus health and safety protocols.
The Serbian players also compete in plenty of online gaming, according to Bogdanovic, making a solid group chat a must.
“So, yeah, we are all rooting for him,” Bogdanovic said. “He knows [we’ve] got [his] back for that [MVP]. He did his job. For us [our job] is to make sure they hear [our] opinion about the MVP, us as players. It would mean a lot for our country for sure, the first time ever, [with us] never doing it. That’s something special, for real. He did a lot of work this year and a lot of years of work behind him. He proved that he had an MVP year this season.”
The Serbian players won’t spend time together again until the offseason, especially with Jokic and Bogdanovic still fighting through the semifinals in their respective conferences. When Marjanovic spoke with NBA.com on Monday, he had just walked out of an exit meeting on the heels of the Dallas Mavericks suffering elimination in the first round at the hands of the LA Clippers.
During the few times during the season that they’re afforded the opportunity to fellowship, Bogdanovic said “usually family is there” and “they cook for us, some domestic food, something nice so [we] don’t get homesick.”
At least now, Jokic has finally brought the NBA a distinct taste of Serbia.
“His mental preparation to make [the] right plays in every moment, this is like what make[s] a good basketball player into a great basketball player,” Marjanovic said. “Of course, everything he do[es] like dribbling, passing, shooting, but to make [the] right plays, the intelligence part, it’s amazing. This is what makes him to be the MVP right now. I always expected him to be great. Maybe not MVP great, but he would be great.”