Alex English, David Thompson, Dikembe Mutumbo, and Carmelo Anthony. These four pillars of Denver Nuggets history stand as the foundation of the franchise. Each guy was a game-changing franchise player and represented more than just being the best player at a particular time. They represented the introduction of a new era to Nuggets basketball.
Armed with a five-year, $148 million deal, Nikola Jokic is set to join them.
On Monday afternoon, Jokic and Will Barton were at Pepsi Center signing on the dotted line and holding court in a media session. Both players appeared to be happy to be back in town, and the mood of the room was pleasant. It’s interesting that Jokic would sign his contract on the same day as Barton. While each possesses distinct personality differences, the two each had a tough path to the table where they sat together.
The progression of the Serbian center is already the stuff of legends. Growing up in the small city of Sombor, Serbia, Jokic was never expected to be a star basketball player. His two older brothers, Strahinja and Nemanja, were tough on him, helping him develop a thick skin. From Lee Jenkins’ 2017 Jokic feature on Sports Illustrated:
“In 2012–13, [Darko] Milicic played his last pro game with the Celtics, and [Nemanja] Jokic with the Steamers. Jokic flew back to his hometown of Sombor for the first time in seven years and reconnected with his two brothers. He had always been close with his older brother, Strahinja, a 6’8” bruiser who played professionally in Serbia. But his younger brother, Nikola, was only 10 when he left for America. He remembered Nikola mainly as the little kid Strahinja used to terrorize, tossing him from one bed to another in the family’s small apartment, often during heated games on a plastic mini hoop. “He once held down my arms and threw knives all around my head,” Nikola adds, punishment for refusing to climb a tree during a picnic. ‘That was a little crazy.’”
The story also included tidbits about basketball initially being about fun rather than Jokic’s life goal. His passions at the time were “soccer, water polo, volleyball, and horse racing,” because of course they were. For a player who threw tons of behind-the-back, one-handed, and full-court passes bordering on crazy for being such amazing highlights, Jokic’s life wasn’t about being the star of a basketball show. It was just something Jokic turned out to be really good at.
It’s anecdotes like these that help fans understand and appreciate Nikola Jokic a little better. Unlike a traditional star, Jokic has demonstrated unnaturally high levels of humility and selflessness, and lightheartedness.
“When I was younger, my dream was not to sign a big contract or whatever,” Jokic said at the press conference Monday. My dream to have fun and win games, win championship rings, and whatever. So, [a contract] is a big part, a big thing, but the contract isn’t just about my accomplishment. It was about my family, my brothers, my girlfriend, all of my exes and ex-coaches-”
“Exes?” asked Will Barton, to which the crowd burst out laughing.
After signing his first professional contract with Mega Vizura in Serbia at the age of 17, Jokic went from playing on the Junior club to becoming the MVP of the Adriatic League in 2014-15 at age 19-20. He led the league in Performance Index Rating (a European basketball statistical measurement) and was the league’s top rebounder.
Jokic was drafted just prior to this point with the 41st overall pick in the 2014 draft. After spending the 2014-15 season abroad, Jokic came stateside for Summer League in 2015. Our own Adam Mares first saw greatness in the pudgy center prospect there, citing Jokic’s advanced feel for passing, shooting, footwork, and court awareness. Nuggets fans that know Jokic’s game now are nodding their heads, so take a bow Adam for calling this before anyone else outside of the Nuggets organization could:
“The physicality of the NBA will be a huge adjustment for Jokic and playing him heavy minutes at center might be tough to ask of him, as a rookie. The Nuggets signed him to a very cheap, four-year deal and he is probably a three-year project.
Nevertheless, Jokic has a tremendous upside and is arguably the best young prospect on the roster outside of Mudiay. His talents fit very nicely with the direction that the league is moving and his skill set fits very well alongside Jusuf Nurkic. There is a very realistic scenario in which both players develop into starting quality bigs over the next two or three seasons.”
During his rookie season, Jokic not only became a starter, but arguably the best player on the roster. Averaging 10.0 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.4 assists in 80 games (55 starts) quickly put Jokic on the map. It was his second season that truly started the hype though. 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists from a center who started only 59 of the 73 games he played. It was clear that he possessed star traits, from this moment:
To this moment:
To this moment:
There were still concerns with Jokic’s abilities after his second season though. The defense hadn’t improved, he was fouling consistently, and he hadn’t quite learned how to take over games and carry the team.
Fast forward through the third season, and it’s clear that he’s learned how to do just that.
With a playoff spot on the line, the entire season in the balance, the Nuggets needed Nikola Jokic to be the best he could be down the stretch, and he didn’t disappoint. During the second half of the 2017-18 season, Jokic averaged 21.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 6.5 assists on a 63.3 True Shooting percentage, numbers that have only been achieved across a full season by Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, and Kevin Garnett. It wasn’t just about the production though. The Nuggets were the NBA’s best offense during the second half of the season last year. They tied for the best offense in the NBA during the second half the previous year.
The season culminated with an excellent finale against Karl-Anthony Towns and the Minnesota Timberwolves. In a must-win game, Jokic showed up in a big way, putting up 35 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 assists, outplaying Towns and showing why Nuggets fans are so high on the young Serbian, rightfully so.
The common denominator during each of these scoring outbursts has been fully committing to Jokic being the most important player. Even his rookie season shows an amazing trend.
|Year||Jokic MPG Pre All-Star||O-Rating Pre All-Star||Jokic MPG Post All-Star||O-Rating Post All-Star|
As the Nuggets have learned to trust Jokic more and more, their offense has become better and better. The biggest trend is the minutes played. Nobody would’ve ever expected a 41st overall pick to go from playing overseas to playing 35 minutes per game in the largest role on a team competing for the playoffs.
Year after year, the Nuggets have been slow as an organization to outright say that this is Nikola Jokic’s team, but year after year, he has shattered expectations and barriers that a normal second round pick would have. When asked about how he would like to improve individually on Monday, Jokic noted that the next steps for him were mental: remembering to communicate better on defense, staying locked in on that end, not complaining to the refs, and continuing with a “get better” mentality. These are all limiting factors for him at this point, defense especially. His positioning improved from his second to his third year, but the more minutes he plays every game, the more opportunities there are for opponents to attack him in the pick and roll. He’s likely never to be a great pick and roll defender, but he doesn’t have to be in order to justify his new contract. He just has to take steps to improve.
A couple of seasons ago, James Harden was under immense scrutiny to improve on the defensive side of the ball. Before that, Stephen Curry was the poster child for needing to improve defensively to become truly elite. Another player, unlike the prior two who improved defensively: Carmelo Anthony never did. It’s one of the reasons the Nuggets rarely moved beyond a first round exit. All three are prime examples of offensive stars who needed to improve on defense to be a superstar. The former two did. Carmelo did not, and it’s one of the (minor) reasons both Curry and Harden are MVPs.
Jokic sounds like he’s being genuine regarding his desire to improve defensively. As a player who grew up simply wanting to have fun and win games, it sounds like he’s learning HOW to win in the NBA, and it involves attention to detail on the less fun end. Whether he can improve or not remains to be seen. During his three seasons in Denver, the Nuggets have ranked 24th, 29th, and 26th respectively, so the team improvement certainly isn’t happening. I’ve made the argument before that while Jokic has been a problem defensively, he hasn’t been the problem, and there’s reason to believe that defenders improving around him will help Denver out, regardless of if Jokic is in the lineup or not.
Still, can Denver ever be a championship contender with Jokic as the anchor defensively? It’s hard to tell right now. Jokic will likely look far different now than he does at the end of his max contract, in which he’s in the middle of his prime. The answer may change over time, but there’s no question that Jokic can anchor a championship contending offense, which is extremely encouraging. The numbers back it up, as does the game film in Minnesota.
Overall though, the dynamic has shifted. Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, and Michael Porter Jr. may have star potential, but Jokic is officially there. He has a new five-year deal to prove it, and it’s important for everyone involved to understand that. It doesn’t mean he takes every single important shot, or make every single important decision, or be asked to score 25 points every night (I genuinely believe he could if he wanted). It means that when the going gets tough, the Nuggets look to him, and he has to step up.
Circling back to the Mount Rushmore of Nuggets players (Thompson, English, Mutumbo, and Anthony), I firmly believe Jokic will end up there some time soon. He has begun to leave a mark on the franchise, but in order to truly make an impact, it has to be more than that. I suspect that before too long, the team will reflect his best traits and help to cover up for his worst ones. If that happens, and Jokic remains impactful, he may end up being the best Nuggets player of all-time (winning a championship wouldn’t hurt that cause). Winning a ring has been something no Nuggets player has accomplished with the franchise, but as abnormal as Jokic’s stardom is, I believe it lends itself to a championship contending squad down the line.
The Nuggets are officially Nikola’s team, and while this humble star may never really feel like it, he deserves every penny of his deal. Now, it’s time to improve even more, move beyond the moniker of “one of the most underrated players” and move toward “top 10 talent and impact.” If he does, the Nuggets will be providing more than just first round exits in the coming years.