There isn't a superstar in the NBA like Nikola Jokić.
He doesn't bound up and down the floor and rampage through defenses like LeBron James. As a center, he isn't a ferocious shot-swatter or dunk-crammer like prime Dwight Howard or Anthony Davis. He doesn't light up defenses with a barrage of threes like Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard.
There's really no comparison point for Jokić; from a historical standpoint, he's like some strange combination of Hakeem Olajuwon, Larry Bird, and Steve Nash.
His style of play isn't the only thing that makes him a one-on-one. His personality, too, makes him stand apart from his peers.
He's quiet. Reserved. Family oriented. He's got a subtle but undeniably hilarious sense of humor. He treats those around him with kindness. He's driven but does so without coming off as braggadocious or exaggerated. Most of all, he's got wisdom beyond his years as a 28-year-old.
Even the way he discussed winning his first Conference Finals was unique. He offered perspective on the accomplishment, and in moments, showed vulnerability.
"When we win, the win was nice, and like about half an hour after that, we were just, okay, it's a win. I thought it was going to be much bigger feeling, to be honest," said Jokić on Saturday. "And I didn't celebrate or whatever. I was just enjoying relaxing."
It's rare you get this level of honesty from an athlete, especially in such a big moment after advancing to the first NBA Finals in franchise history. But that's Nikola for you; he's not afraid to speak his mind, even if it doesn't fit under the umbrella of the machismo and hyper-competitiveness of the NBA. The moment didn't meet his expectations, for whatever reason, and he was honest about it. He didn't ham it up for television viewers, didn't create a false sense of bravado. He just... spoke his mind.
"We won the game and I was really happy, yes, yes, we made history, this, that. But at the end of the day, next year, nobody is going to remember us or two years from now," said Jokić. "So maybe if we win it all, maybe it's going to be different but we will see."
Jokić has been in the NBA for 8 years now. He's well aware of how narrative-driven the league's coverage can be, and how fast-paced its fans can switch from newsworthy item to newsworthy item. There's probably some truth in Jokić's statements; in one year's time, we could be talking about a different team as champions. But it's rare you hear an athlete get so reflective about things like this.
Part of it is that Jokić is motivated by things outside of basketball. His family, as mentioned, is incredibly important to him. His wife and daughter, as well as his siblings and their families, are his biggest priorities in life.
"Basketball is not main thing in my life, and probably never going to be," said Jokić on Saturday. "And to be honest, I look at it because I have something more at home [his family] that is more important than basketball."
Nikola's brothers, Nemanja and Strahinja, have been with him for his entire basketball journey. That was incredibly helpful for a player that made the move to the United States all the way from Sombor, Serbia to play in the NBA.
"To be honest, when I was coming to United States, I was happy that I'm going to be with them. When you're a kid and you're small, you always want to be around with the big brothers," explained Jokić. "I was more happy to be around them than being in NBA."
His head coach, Michael Malone, gave his star player major kudos for staying grounded and true to himself throughout his NBA journey. No matter how many accolades have come along the way—MVP awards, supermax contracts, and now an NBA Finals appearance—Jokić has remained humble.
"He's never changed," said Malone. "I think we all see it in all walks of life. How does fame, fortune affect you? And for most people, it goes to their head and they become something different. Sometimes they forget where they've come from and who helped them get to where they've gotten to. And the one thing I really love about Nikola, just forget basketball, just as a young man who is a proud father and a husband, but through all the success, the MVPs, the max contracts, all that stuff, he's still the same guy. I marvel at that because I've been in the league and around this game a long time.
That is a rarity in this business. And for a celebrity, a superstar in general. The fact that Nikola is still a humble, selfless person and he cares about home, he cares about family, he cares about his horses—like the guy is just who he is. I couldn't have more respect for him as a man because of that."
Jokić was asked about what keeps him so grounded. He paused for a second to think, as he does many times. He's a pensive thinker, and he's never one to blurt out an answer. He then responded with...
"I think probably my family, my close friends, my family, you need to ask them. I think I didn't change because I still have the same friends, same family, same spot that I'm going, same things that I'm doing," said Jokić. "But maybe you need to ask my friends and my family."
Then, jokingly of course, he concluded with, "But they are not going to answer you."
Make no mistake, just because Jokić sees his family as "more than basketball" does not mean he isn't one of the best competitors on planet Earth. Rookie Christian Braun commended him for his work ethic and detailed just how religious Jokić is about his craft.
"Everybody kind of talks about his routine. He comes in and does the same exact routine every single day, the same shots, the same step-backs, the same fadeaways, the same free throw routine. He doesn't take any shortcuts. He's here early. He's here getting treatment," said Braun. "His consistency with what he does is obviously the most impressive part... Those shots that he hits, all the fadeaways, all the one-legged-behind-his-head shots that he's hitting, like he shoots these things every day. So, he's not surprised when they go in, and I think that consistency is what everybody wants to take away from him."
Braun also commented on Jokić's mastery of the mental aspects of the game, stating "he knows the game" better than anyone he's played with or worked with in his basketball career.
"He knows the game better than anybody I've ever been around and I think that everybody would say the same," said Braun. "Him and Coach see eye-to-eye on a lot of things and they are on the same page, and that's probably built up over however many years they have been together... Just the knowledge that he brings, and he's not a guy that wants to take over in the huddle. He listens to Coach and does what Coach wants him to, and when he sees things, he points them out."
Jokić and the Nuggets are just days away from their first NBA Finals appearance against the Miami HEAT.
So, how has Jokić, who has as good of a case as anyone as the best player of the 2023 postseason, been preparing?
"I didn't watch Game 5, so I don't know. I was walking with my daughter—I'm lying. I watched the first quarter. Today, I don't know what we're going to do but I think... I'm going to watch with family," said Jokić about how he planned to watch Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
And then, the king of dry humor himself said in his trademarked deadpan tone, "...Or not."