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Embracing the magic of Nikola Jokic

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Only good things are coming from Nikola Jokic, so why ignore the hype?

Denver Nuggets

Every so often, we encounter those rare and intricate moments in life that may seem simple in the grand scheme of things but that are so monumental they pierce our very souls. Think of a child attending his first live sporting event with his father or that fleeting moment when you know you’ve found someone you want to spend the rest of your life with, or even those late nights with close friends filled with endless and meaningful conversation.

Such moments happen in basketball, too, and they serve to not only elevate our love for the game but as placeholders in our hearts. These moments capture the beauty and essence of what basketball and sports are all about, and for whatever reason we draw back on them frequently throughout our lives. Everybody has their own cache on hand, each story with its own unique and personal significance. Yet the beauty of it all remains the same whether these moments originate from unworldly individual accomplishments or team performances alike. Michael Jordan’s “The Shot” (or anything MJ did, really). Kobe Bryant’s 81 points. LeBron James in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. LeBron James in the 2016 NBA Finals. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs or the 2008 Boston Celtics. The list is infinite.

The Denver Nuggets franchise has had several of these moments over the years, even if the team has never had playoff success. Dikembe Mutombo clutching the ball for dear life after upsetting Seattle is one, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf torching the 72-10 Chicago Bulls is another. Even the Carmelo Anthony days and the 2009 playoffs had glimmers of these moments.

And then there’s Nikola Jokic, who has done some beautiful things on the basketball court this season. He has highlight-reel passes on a nightly basis, an automatic mid-range jump shot and is the focal point of one of the league’s most potent offenses. On February 3, Jokic recorded his first career triple-double when he put up 20 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists against the Milwaukee Bucks. Friday he dropped 40 under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in a spectacular and mesmerizing performance, then followed that up last night with 27 points, 13 boards and four assists in Cleveland.

In the past two months, Jokic has emerged as a star and has put together several games along the way that for many would qualify as one of those aforementioned moments. We’ll all remember where we were when he threw that baseball pass to Kenneth Faried who put it away for his tenth assist. But what makes Jokic so impressive and transcendent isn’t what he accomplishes on the court. It’s how and why he plays the way he does.

Nikola Jokic plays the game of basketball in it’s purest form. Not a single thing he does on the court is for his own gain or to feed his ego. Ask him if he likes scoring or passing more and he’ll say, “Passing makes two people happy. Scoring only makes one person happy.” Ask him how he feels about filling the stat sheet? “The game is more important than your name.”

And unlike many NBA players, his comments on the importance of team aren’t just empty words. In the locker room following his triple-double a little over a week ago, the first thing he did after he was presented with the game ball (besides nakedly hugging Malone) was go around the room and collect the signatures of his teammates. Without them, there is no triple-double. Without them, Jokic has no motivation to play.

Jokic’s selflessness and desire to help his teammates improve has rubbed off on the entire team. The Nuggets offense has been revolutionary as of late, and though he won’t admit it, it’s all because of him.

Perhaps nothing is more telling about his character than dedication to the team than a decision Jokic made in early November. The Nuggets started off the season by experimenting with Jokic starting at power forward next to Jusuf Nurkic, but after a poor start it was obvious that lineup wasn’t living up to the hype. As told to SI’s Lee Jenkins, Jokic went to coach Malone and offered to come off the bench instead in an effort to open up the Denver offense.

That move ended up being a horrible band-aid fix for the team in the end, but the principle remains the same: individual glory means nothing to the small-town Serbian kid who just wants to win.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For a franchise that is still in need of a new image following years of being branded as “Thuggets”, Jokic is the embodiment of everything the Nuggets culture needs to become. For fans used to ego-driven stars like Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith, Jokic’s temperament and joy for the game is a breath of fresh air, and it’s contagious as hell.

Jokic might not be an All-Star just yet or a top scorer in the league as of now, and the Nuggets might not be on the cusp of winning a championship in the near future. They might not even make the playoffs this year. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t special or irrelevant. In just his first two seasons, Jokic has already proven himself as a player unlike anyone who has ever played for the Nuggets. Not giving him and his teammates the attention they deserve at this point in the season is inexcusable and is a disservice to fans everywhere.

If we’re lucky, “Magic Jokic” will be in a Nuggets uniform for the next decade and a half. If not, at least for now we will have no shortage of those inexplicable moments that might not mean much, but that we’ll remember forever.