Discovering Nikola Jokić: How the Denver Nuggets found the NBA's most unlikely superstar

by Eric Spyropoulos
Staff Writer
@Eric_Spyros

When Nikola Jokić was announced as the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Serbian big man was fast asleep. In fact, if it wasn’t for his older brother Nemanja, Jokić would have slept through the entire draft. Nemanja called Nikola from New York to celebrate the news but as he popped open a bottle of champagne, he was greeted by a groggy younger brother on the other end of the line.

The drafting of Nikola Jokić was received in a similar fashion around the league. Fan interest wanes as the NBA Draft turns to the second round each year, and when Jokić’s name was revealed on the bottom ticker of the screen during a Taco Bell commercial, it’s easy to understand why the league and its fan base wasn’t taken by storm right away.

“It’s such an inexact science,” Nuggets president of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly told the Denver Post when discussing the NBA draft. “Nikola, up to that point, his professional numbers (in Europe) had not been something that would jump off the page, and certainly the body type is one that it’s easy to have questions about.”

However, it wasn’t a sure thing that Jokić would be available for any team in the 2014 draft. Just ten days before the draft, Jokić’s then-agent Misko Raznatovic declared that his client was being pulled from the draft. According to league sources that spoke to Mike Singer of the Denver Post, it took a promise from the Nuggets that they would draft Jokić at pick 41 to get Raznatovic to keep his client in the draft.

“We thought about past drafts of teams that missed on guys like him,” Connelly said on Sports Radio 104.3 The Fan. “Like Marc Gasol wasn't exactly Adonis (a Greek mythological figure known for his physique) when he was selected in the second round and he turned into a great player. So, all of these things come into play and then you say well, he's an elite passer, he's got great feel for the game.”

Jokić’s basketball career has a humble beginning. The 24-year-old big man began playing basketball on a small toy hoop that hung on a door in his family’s house, which housed three brothers, two parents and a grandmother in two bedrooms. As a result of Jokić being the youngest of the brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja (the oldest of the three) would sit down to level the playing field.

Jokić left home to join KK Mega Leks at 16 years old, where he continued to develop his unique game over three years. “He just wanted to have fun,” Nemanja says. He wanted to stand at the high post, ball in his hands, and bend fancy no-look lobs around defenders’ ears. The first time I saw him play, he was throwing these behind-the-back passes that no one else would even try.”

After being drafted by the Nuggets, Jokić continued to play in Serbia for Mega Leks, for whom he took on a more featured role during the 2014-15 season. Jokić quickly became one of the most valuable players in the Adriatic League (which includes teams from six countries, including Serbia) as he averaged 15.4 points, a league-leading 9.3 rebounds per game and 3.5 assists per game.

“The year after we drafted him we watched his first pro game,” Connelly said. “We were all watching it in a room and we were just like 'wow, this guy is really good.' He's throwing no-look, bounce passes, he's shooting threes, he's operating in the post. We thought he was going to be a pretty good NBA player, but (after) the first glimmer, (we thought) he might be better than a pretty good NBA player. That was the first time we kind of saw glimmers of a guy that potentially could be a showpiece guy.”

During the year following the 2014 draft, the Nuggets took a measured approach to integrate and connect Jokić to the team. "The best thing with Nikola is the minute we drafted him we made him part of the team,” Connelly said. “We spent countless hours seeing him in Serbia, getting to know his brothers, his family and creating that level of trust.”

Given how careers have tended to evolve overseas, Connelly was well aware of the opportunities that were going to be made available to Jokić as his star continued to rise.

“The European market is really unique. The next step for Nikola (there) was a big contract in Turkey or Spain or Russia, and we did not want him to sign a big contract because we thought his game was unique enough that he could quickly get lost in the shuffle of a more traditional European brand of basketball."

That was exactly how things began to play out for Jokić, as team officials from FC Barcelona traveled to New Belgrade during the winter of the 2014-15 season to finalize a deal with the Serbian big man. As Raznatovic revealed in an interview with Serbian news magazine Nedeljnik, “A deal with Barcelona was in place. An unfortunate event happened in his last game before signing the contract, which proved to be a blessing in disguise. He played before Barcelona representatives and the signing of the contract was postponed.”

As a result, a path to join the Nuggets opened for Jokić, and after Mega Leks was eliminated in the semifinals of the Serbian League, Jokić decided to part ways with the team and pursue his NBA career. The first step in that journey was to participate in 2015 Summer League with the Nuggets.

Right off the bat, Jokić showcased his soft touch around the rim and was a presence on the boards. After he averaged eight points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game across five contests (21 minutes per game), he signed a multi-year deal with Denver and fully joined the team for the 2015-16 season.

Joining the Nuggets as a relatively unknown player didn’t stop Jokić from demonstrating his talents and making an impression on his teammates and the organization as a whole. Jokić was serious about putting his stamp on the Nuggets and the NBA, using his transition to Denver as an opportunity to make changes to his diet, which included cutting out soda, of which Jokić used to drink three liters per day. Jokić would later reveal in 2017 that he had his last soda on his flight to Denver and gave credit to the Nuggets’ strength and conditioning coaches for helping him transform his diet and body to prepare for the NBA.

"I think back to the training camp that first fall when Nikola arrived in Denver,” said Josh Kroenke, Vice President and Chairman of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment at a press conference to announce Jokić’s five-year contract extension last summer. “I remember Mike Miller was a part of our group at that time and he texted me after the first practice and it was along the lines of 'I'm not really sure what's going to happen, but this guy is really, really good.' Then you really started to see Nikola's confidence start to grow."

Among Denver’s current roster, only Gary Harris and Will Barton were teammates of Jokić back in 2015. As Will Barton will attest to, Jokić made his presence felt during his first NBA training camp. “When we had that first training camp in his rookie year, he was just happy to be here. He wasn't trying to be a star,” Barton said after signing a new four-year contract in 2018. “He was just having fun on-and-off the court. Then you see him on the court and it's just like 'wow.'”

Jokić didn’t just impress Barton during his first training camp. His head coach Michael Malone also took notice of the young Serbian’s game as he prepared to lead the Nuggets for the first time.

“Nikola Jokić, he’s a young kid and I’m not saying he’s ready, but he does things every practice that make you say ‘Wow, this kid has a chance to be a (heck of a) player,’” Malone said back in 2015. “For him to be that young and that skilled is really exciting to see. The fact that he’s gotten so much better even from summer league.”

The reigns weren’t handed to Jokić right from the start during Michael Malone’s first season as head coach. There was stiff competition at center, with Jokić competing with the likes of Jusuf Nurkić, J.J. Hickson and Joffrey Lauvergne for playing time. However, as the season went on, Jokić continued to receive more opportunities, with his first NBA start coming on Nov. 20, 2015.

“He gave you glimpses at first, though he wasn't playing that much to begin,” Barton said. “But then he really came on strong to end the year and you realize that he can really do some things.”

As Jokić continued to receive more playing time, he rewarded his coach and teammates with some eye-popping numbers. On Jan. 10, 2016, The Serbian big man posted a then career-high nine assists in a win over the Charlotte Hornets. On February 1, Jokić scored a then career-high 27 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a victory over the Toronto Raptors. Then on April 8, the rookie grabbed a then career-high 15 rebounds in a close win over the San Antonio Spurs.

“I’ve never once looked at a player and looked at when were you picked? What round, it doesn’t matter to me,” Malone said when reflecting on the early stages of Jokić’s career. “Whether you’re undrafted, second round, lottery pick, if you can play, if you can help us, you’re going to get a chance to do so.”

In the end, Jokić finished his rookie season with averages of 10.0 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, all while he connected on 51.2 percent of his shots. Translated to per-36 minutes, Jokić averaged 16.5 points, 11.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists. As a result of his stellar play, Jokić was rewarded with NBA All-Rookie First Team honors and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting.

The 2016-17 campaign was marked by breakout performances and impressive numbers from Jokić. After coming off the bench and playing in a two-big frontcourt alignment for the first 25 games of the season, Jokić was tapped as the team’s starting center on Dec. 15, 2016. From that point on, Denver lit up the NBA with its high-powered offense, with Jokić at the center of the attack.

“When you talk about trust, you have to prove to be trustworthy,” Malone said. “And Nikola was a player up until that point, on Dec. 15 of that season, year two, when I said, ‘Enough is enough. He’s our starting center moving forward, and I’m going to play through him.’ He had shown me time and time again that he was more than capable of being the anchor of our offense.”

Jokić went on to set career-highs across the board on a seemingly weekly basis. Perhaps his most well-known performance came on Feb. 10, 2017, when he torched the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden to the tune of 40 points, nine rebounds and five assists on 17-of-23 shooting from the field. In the end, Jokić finished the season with six triple-doubles and finished second in voting for Most Improved Player of the Year behind Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Jokić’s rise wasn’t just on a personal level. After the then 21-year-old center took over as the starting center, Denver went 31-26 and had the league’s top-ranked offense over the final four months of the season. The glimpses had started to become a reality for Jokić and the Nuggets.

As Jokić’s role continued to rise in the 2017-18 season, so did the Nuggets. After winning 33 games in 2015-16 and 40 games during Jokić’s true breakout season in 2016-17, Denver was back to its winning ways in 2017-18, as the Nuggets finished with 46 wins, which was the team’s most in a season since 2012-13.

Jokić started in 73 games two seasons ago and rewarded his team with averages of 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game. Although Denver fell short of a playoff spot on the last night of the regular season, Jokić cemented himself as one of the game’s best centers and top young players.

“He gets better every day, game and season, and I'm really proud to be a part of his growth,” Barton said. “He's a special person and a special player. I'm just happy to be a part of his rise."

The most recent stop on Jokić’s journey saw him make his first All-Star team and receive All-NBA First Team honors, all while leading the Nuggets to 54 wins and an appearance in the Western Conference semifinals.

After putting up 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game during the regular season, The 24-year-old stepped up his play in his playoff debut. In 14 games, Jokić averaged 25.1 points, 13.0 rebounds (which led the postseason) and 8.4 assists per game, all while playing 39.8 minutes per contest.

"Jokic is a hybrid center, a guard-center,” NBA legend Scottie Pippen said during Denver’s second-round series. “I haven't seen big guys bring the ball up the floor like that. I haven't seen big guys come off the pick-and-roll and shoot a 3. I haven't seen big guys find the open player like he does. He's special, something new to our game.”

READ MORE: Jokić’s playoff debut stacks up to the all-time greats

“It (Jokić’s playoff performance) has only strengthened my belief that he’s a future Hall of Famer,” Malone said ahead of Denver’s Game 7 victory over the Spurs. “He’s an All-NBA player, an MVP candidate. It’s his first time in the playoffs and this guy is going out there and playing at an unbelievably high level. You want to see how guys react to those situations. Do they shy away from it? Do they embrace it? Nikola embraces it.”

The expectations on Jokić and the Nuggets will only continue to rise in subsequent seasons. For Denver to continue to compete at a high level in the Western Conference, Jokić will have to continue to raise his level and lead the Nuggets. That is one thing that his head coach certainly isn’t worried about.

“Nikola did everything that was asked of him and that much more,” Malone said at the conclusion of the 2018-19 season. “I know he'll come back a much better player this year than he was last year because he's done that every summer."

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