The day Nikola Jokić won MVP
The bemused look on Mason Plumlee’s face said it all.
“[Nikola Jokić] won what five years ago?,” the Nuggets reserve center asked following the team’s win against the Bucks on March 9. “I had no idea. Jok’s not the type to tout his own accolades.”
March 26, 2020 marks the fifth anniversary of Jokić winning MVP in Serbia’s top professional basketball league, the Adriatic League (Liga ABA), during the 2014-15 campaign. It was a significant accomplishment for the then-20-year-old, who rose from being an intriguing prospect from the small town of Sombor to a star in his country’s capital in Belgrade with Mega Basket.
Jokić averaged 15.4 points, a Liga ABA-leading 9.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, while leading the league in its analytical index rating of 22 – a stat that is similar to PER in the NBA. The Liga ABA announcement praised the center for being confident and assertive from the start of the season in a statement on the league’s English website:
“From the very beginning, Nikola Jokić made it clear to everyone that this will be his season. In the first round, he had the overall index rating 44 in the game between Mega Leks and MZT Skopje Aerodrom... It turned out that it was the highest valuation of any player on a single game in the entire season!”
It was his final season in Serbia before making the jump to the NBA with the Nuggets, the team that drafted him in the second round a year before. As impressive as that season was, it’s one with little fanfare outside of Serbia. Jokić likely prefers it that way.
Gary Harris is the longest-tenured Nugget, having spent six years in Denver, and he has gotten to know Jokić well since he arrived in the Mile High City in 2015. During their five seasons together, Harris has seen Jokić blossom into a two-time All-Star and first-team All-NBA star. In the summer of 2018, Harris also traveled to Serbia to help Jokić conduct youth basketball clinics. Yet, even he didn’t know about the award. It doesn’t surprise Harris.
“He wouldn’t talk about something like that.” Harris said to Nuggets.com laughing. “If it wasn’t for the media, he wouldn’t even tell us he’s an All-Star,”
Although most of Jokić’s teammates were surprised to learn about his MVP award from five years ago, Vlatko Čančar is well aware of it. Čančar would star for Mega shortly after Jokić departed for the NBA, joining the Serbian club in 2016 and playing there for two seasons.
“That is a big achievement because the Adriatic League is really good and back then it was even better” Čančar explained to Nuggets.com. “I feel like it’s a big deal.”
Outside of Spain’s Liga ACB, largely considered to be the second-best basketball league in the world, ranking Europe’s other professional basketball leagues can be difficult for a variety of reasons. Solvency can often determine just how competitive a league is.
“The problem is teams throughout the season aren’t financially stable enough, so a lot of players leave, the competition towards the end is not there,” Čančar said.
Still, Čančar and Nuggets general manager Artūras Karnišovas both rated Liga ABA as one of Europe’s elite leagues during Jokić’s time there.
“In terms of those [top] international leagues, the Adriatic League would be close.” Karnišovas told Nuggets.com. “At that time, it was maybe a top five, top six [league].”
Here are some stories from that MVP campaign:
The rise from Sombor to Capital stardom
Ognjen Stojaković has served on the Nuggets’ coaching staff since 2013, but he has known Jokić since he was a teen.
Back then Stojaković ran his own basketball development program in Serbia and attended one of Jokić’s games with Mega’s youth team, the U18s.
“I remember one situation where he had like 20-something points, 12 rebounds and five or six assists, [his coach] was like ‘he can’t do better this,’” Stojaković recalled.
The Mega youth basketball staff would immediately change their minds after rewatching the game tape.
“[The coach] was like ‘OK, Nikola, the last time I said you can’t do better. Actually, you can.’ He went on to score 28 points, 17 rebounds and had eight or nine assists [in the next game].”
Stojaković was very high on Jokić after those two games.
“The first time I saw him, he looked like a mix of [Dirk] Nowitzki and Marc Gasol,” he said. “The thing about it now, is he’s way more. He’s the Steve Nash of bigs.”
In Stojaković’s opinion, those youth games are emblematic of Jokić’s career.
“Nikola came from Sombor, a small town, to the big team [in Serbia] and he needed a little bit of time to adjust. As soon as he did, he became one of the best youth players in Serbia,” he said. “After that, he started to play with pros and it was the same thing, he became one of the best players, actually the best player in the league. He went to the NBA and it is the same thing, he needed time to adjust and now he’s one of the best players in the league.”
The race to secure Jokić’s signature
Nuggets general manager Artūras Karnišovas is largely credited for helping his team discover Jokić and he scouted the big man extensively before Denver drafted him in 2014. Karnišovas was immediately drawn to Jokić’s intelligence and innate ability to see a play develop before most opponents could. Karnišovas was confident the Nuggets had a player who could contribute on the NBA level. If Jokić came to the Mile High City, that is.
Jokić’s MVP-caliber campaign validated Karnišovas and the Nuggets’ views of the center, but it also increased the pressure to ensure he would sign with the team.
“We already had the rights to Nikola during that year he became the MVP, but the worry was with all of the guys who you draft and leave overseas is [them] being picked up by bigger teams [in Europe],” Karnišovas explained to Nuggets.com. “Him signing a long-term contract was the worry.”
The NBA is littered with examples of players who have been drafted overseas who have never made an appearance in the league, with Fran Vázquez serving as the most infamous example. Vázquez was the No. 11 overall selection in the 2005 draft by the Orlando Magic, but he never played a minute in the NBA as the now 36-year-old remained in Spain, where he played for FC Barcelona. If the odds of finding a franchise player and MVP-caliber star with the 41st overall pick were incredibly rare to begin with, the Nuggets relied on even more luck to ensure he would come to Denver.
“We lucked out,” Karnišovas said. “Big-time European clubs came to watch him [for a game] and he had his worst game of the season. That actually kind of helped us to land Nikola for the following season.”
As the Nuggets inched closer to finalizing Jokić’s move to the NBA, the center was formally announced as the Liga ABA MVP. Karnišovas remembers calling Jokić after he won the award, though the details remain hazy.
“The details of that conversation I don’t remember because we were so excited [about him potentially joining the team],” Karnišovas said. “I was so focused on trying to bring him the following year [to Denver].”
Once Jokić officially became a Nugget, Karnišovas’ confidence in the team’s young center and his potential grew after learning more of the type of person he was.
“I was really high on him and his family and how much his family cared,” Karnišovas said. “They [were like] a team that was interested in seeing this young man succeed and they were really close. I love that about him because he values his family, he loves his family.”
With the Nuggets trying to create a winning culture after years of rebuilding, Karnišovas saw players like Jokić as the type of pieces they wanted to build around. It is no coincidence that the team has developed its core consisting of players such as Harris, Will Barton III, Jamal Murray, Paul Millsap among others who value family as a key component in their lives.
“In terms of the environment that we have with our team and that we’re looking to develop, [he] matched,” Karnišovas said.
As Jokić adapted to the NBA’s level of play and became comfortable with the English language, he would continue to exceed any conceivable expectations. Aside from his aforementioned achievements in the NBA, Jokić is just four triple-doubles away from breaking Fat Lever’s all-time franchise record of 43. It’s a feat that is all the more incredible, considering Jokić just turned 25 last month. With Jokić already arguably one of the NBA’s top 10 players, Karnišovas believes the center’s next area of development will be leadership. It’s an area the general manager believes the Serbian has made significant strides in this season.
““It was just another change that I saw and the maturity level that he’s got to right now…I think he understands how good we are,” Karnišovas said. “He’s our engine and he’s embracing it now.”
He added, “I think every year he’s added more confidence…He’s added some leadership qualities with this group. This group obviously appreciates how good of a player he is, how great it is to play with him because he’s making everybody around him better.”
With Jokić just entering his prime, it is easy to imagine him earning more accolades in the future. And if that is the case, his first significant accolade from five years ago can be regarded as the stepping stone that launched him into stardom.