Since Nikola Jokic (@jokicnikola15) came onto the scene with the Denver Nuggets a year ago, he’s made a habit of surpassing expectations. First with his coaches and team, quickly adding Nuggets fans and local media, with the national media following suit at a slow trickle. As Jokic enters his second season with the Nuggets, Denver Stiffs got a few moments to learn more about what makes the Serbian center tick, on and off the court. Today, part two of two. Part one is here.
Stiffs: You have a reputation for being an intelligent player with a high basketball IQ. In previous interviews, you've mentioned how much you enjoy learning the game. What else did you enjoy studying when you were young, whether it was in school or as a hobby?
Jokic: In school, I really liked math when I was younger. When it started to be really hard, I didn't try as hard as I should any more, and I don't know why. But I still like math. Numbers and problem solving, I really like that. I also think math is really connected with basketball.
It's true, I do like learning. Even though I have other things I like to do, my favorite thing to learn is here (at the Pepsi Center). I like coming here every day and learning and growing. When we play, watch film, work out, I learn every day. I try to think about ways I can use what I learn at the right moment, and to try to know everything so that at any moment, I can use it. I love to learn and I want to be prepared.
Stiffs: I'm sure that affinity for learning plays into this, but I want your thoughts on it: How did starting out as a point guard influence your game as a center today?
Jokic: Wow... a lot, because that's the spot where you learn to really dribble the ball, control the ball, and control the game. Just to put your teammates in the right spot, and talk and work with them. I think that learning is what built the passing skills that I have.
When I was learning as a point guard, I was passing a lot. Passing was my main option. Now that helps me a lot, just passing, passing, passing. When you pass the ball, it's just so much easier to play.
(Olson: I was planning on dropping a video highlight of Jokic's jaw-dropping passing, but just on the first page of the search there were ten choices too tough to choose from. It's here, bon appetit.)
Stiffs: You do make some wicked passes. That position change that you made, it's a unique shift for a player on the court. Usually, when you see a guy swap spots, whether over the course of their careers or for a specific lineup, it's usually going up or down a spot. A two moves to a three or a three moves to a four, something like that. I'm admittedly not an NBA historian, but I'll bet not many guys have gone from the one to the five in their careers.
Jokic: Yeah (chuckles), I moved from the one to the five. But come on, that's like seven years ago. And I was actually the backup point guard. When the primary guy would step out, I would take his spot and play point. Maybe 10 or 15 minutes in a game.
Stiffs: So only partially a position change, but still a change there. You also talked about so many changes since you were a teen, including playing out of a new city for a home base every year until this year. There was another big change you made along the way. From the day the Nuggets drafted you to that season's opening (42 days), you dropped 30 pounds. What the hell exactly did Steve Hess DO to you?
Jokic: He's Steve Hess (pauses, as if that is perfectly self-explanatory... laughs).
I think losing that weight was one of the biggest things I ever did in my career. Felipe (Eichenberger, Hess' first lieutenant) and Steve Hess have helped me to get things right in the weight room, gave me some special foods. Now I eat six to eight meals a day, I eat protein shakes, salads, meats like chicken, beef, fish, everything. But it's like cooked in some healthy way which, maybe a specific oil, which... (pauses to reflect) I don't know, it tastes, really... you know...
(we both laugh for several seconds, as I was sure he was going somewhere positive with that until the last word.)
It was just bad. Really bad. But I learned to eat healthy, and I am still eating healthy right now. I want to continue seeing what I saw (last year). It's a little bit hard as the season moves on, as you don't always have the time or ways to eat healthy because we travel a lot. Getting in shape did help me a lot, and I think that thing was the most important thing I did when I came to the NBA.
Stiffs: So, obviously you liked other kinds of food. Before Hess changed up your diet, what were eating?
Jokic: Ohhhh... (laughs). Maybe I won't say. I'll just tell you I drank literally a gallon of Coke every day. Literally.
Stiffs: You mean like a 2-litre?
Jokic: A GALLON.
Stiffs: Oof, ok, that's a lot. But that was my bad habit, too. Coca-Cola. No Pepsi.
Jokic: Yeah, agreed. I liked Coke. But now I haven't drank one in a year and a half, so...
Stiffs: Nicely done, sir. All of these changes culminated in an interesting Olympics for you, didn't they? You had a breakout game in your first match against Team USA, with 25 points on 11 of 15 shooting, six rebounds and three assists. The US was having a tough time stopping you.
Jokic: That game, I think it was because my teammates played such a strong game. We all shared the ball, and they passed me the ball a lot in good places to score. I can say 10 or 15 points of that was really easy, easy, easy.
So, my teammates helped me a lot on that, and I need to thank them for it. We had a really good game. Bogdanovic (Serbian national team guard Bogdan Bogdanovic) was a shot away from overtime. A tough loss, and we had to turn right around for the next game, the quarterfinals against Croatia, which had to be our main focus.
Stiffs: I have to tell you, Nikola, That USA game was the moment where a lot of people outside of Nuggets Nation said, "who is this guy?" (Jokic laughs) I can vouch for it. Several personal friends who know I follow the Nuggets reached out after that game, asking about you. I'm actually surprised more people outside of Denver basketball fandom don't know you, as you have such a great story. A second round draft pick who had an unexpectedly good rookie season, culminating in a third-place Rookie of the Year vote. A few folks even felt you should have placed higher than third. You are also at-or-somewhere-near the top of most boards ranking international players in the NBA. Why do you think so many people didn't notice you until that Team USA game?
Jokic: I don't know, I'm not really a splashy guy. I'm not a superstar, or a guy who makes the top ten plays. I'm just a... I guess a normal player who is hoping to help his team to win in every game.
Stiffs: How did the US play you differently in the gold medal game?
Jokic: I don't think they played me or us that much differently, I think we just didn't come out with any energy, and they had a lot. When we beat Australia in the semifinals, it was a big win for us, an emotional win. We beat them by nearly thirty points, and I think we used up too much energy. We just didn't have the energy or the passion when we played the USA, we were a little bit down.
Stiffs: That makes sense. And still, when I went back and re-watched the gold medal game, I noticed that you were still working as hard as you could, even as a tired team fell behind. You seem to always be playing hard, even when you're way ahead or way behind. Did you come to that on your own? If not, who taught you that habit?
Jokic: I learned that from my family. Never give up. That's my motto, that's our motto. I also learned more of that at Mega Leks. It always applies well to the court. You never know what may happen, so you might as well try. So, I want to never give up, I want to play hard. I just want to win every game, and that's how I'm going to play until my last game. Here, on the road, back home, everywhere.
Stiffs: I love that, it makes you fun to watch. The Denver Nuggets as a whole were fun to watch last season, especially as you started to gel and find a rhythm during the last half of the year, even after Danilo Gallinari went down to injury. How do you expect the team to come out of the gates this season?
Jokic: Last season was a good thing and a bad thing. We had some injuries that hurt Wilson (Chandler), Jameer (Nelson), and Gallo and even some of the young players. But we young players had to play. In ways, that is a good thing as it forced us to get some experience. We played a long stretch of the season with me, Jusuf (Nurkic), Emmanuel (Mudiay), and Gary (Harris) and we got to experience a lot. Hopefully that will help us into next season.
Stiffs: It's not the easiest start. Six of your first seven games are on the road this year. Do you do anything different to prepare when you kick the season off on a long road trip?
Jokic: Nothing specific, just get your mind ready to start on the road. I think we'll still start well this season, with all the great work we're currently putting in at the Pepsi Center (Olson: this interview preceded the Nuggets current stay in Nebraska). We're getting better, we're getting stronger, so things should be really good. Our season-long goal is to have a better season than last year, so hopefully we will do at least that.
Even last year, we started the season with a win on the road and a loss at home. It happens, even though it's easier for us to play here because of the altitude, and it's always easier to play at your home. Just like last year, wherever we play, we need to play hard. That's the number one goal for us. Play hard enough to win every game.
Stiffs: Where do you expect the team to improve the most this season?
Jokic: I think we need to improve in three-point defense. I think we were 27th in the league last year, so teams scored a lot of threes on us, and I think that's simple. It's easier to score two threes than it is to score three twos, so we need to protect the three point line more, and I think that's going to take some improvement from our team to do that.
Stiffs: Coach Malone said some very similar things when we chatted earlier this summer.
Jokic: (laughs) Yeah, to us too...
Stiffs: Thank you so much for all the time you gave us, Nikola. You've been very generous in chatting so long with us. Lots of Denver Nuggets fans drop by to visit the site. Any last words for Nuggets Nation?
Jokic: Yes. Sparky is the best equipment manager in the whole world.
Stiffs: (laughing, thinking I misunderstood) I'm sorry, Nikola? Would you say that again?
Jokic: Sparky is the best equipment manager in the whole world. (starts to laugh) He said he was going to kick my @$$ if I didn't say that.
Stiffs: (laughing now myself) That is very good information to know.
Jokic: Yes (still laughing)... just say that our equipment manager, Sparky, is the best equipment manager in the whole NBA.
Stiffs: Nikola, I think maybe we can make him the most famous equipment manager in the whole league.
What a lot of fun. Many thanks to the Joker, Nikola Jokic for taking the time to catch up with Denver Stiffs, and as always, to the Denver Nuggets organization and Tim Gelt for giving Stiffs this access.