It is without a doubt the slowest period of the year for the NBA, but for Denver Nuggets superstar center Nikola Jokic and his home country of Serbia, the past couple weeks have been extremely important.
Serbia is currently fighting to qualify for the FIBA World Cup, which is much easier said than done. That is why, for Jokic and the country of Serbia, these past two games with the MVP anchoring their roster have been hyper-important.
Many teams struggle to qualify for the FIBA World Cup because nearly all of their elite players are playing in the NBA during the bulk of the qualifying games. The first round of qualifiers were in November, February and June while the second round of qualifiers — which is currently ongoing — take place in August, November and February of 2023. Ultimately, Serbia is attempting to be one of the 12 European countries who qualify for the FIBA World Cup, which is in August and September of 2023.
So, while Serbia has the potential to put together a roster that could win the World Cup, most of them are not participating due to the World Cup Qualifiers taking place during the NBA season. To make matters worse for the International teams looking to qualify, some players would rather use their offseason to rest and recover for the upcoming NBA season which in turn eliminates their inclusion on World Cup rosters.
But for two games, Serbia had Jokic on the roster spearheading their attack against opponents; a massive boon for their chances to be one of the 12 teams who make it to the World Cup.
Jokic did what he does best; effortlessly put up numbers in a hurry to start games and personally close out opponents to secure the win. Against Greece and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jokic went toe-to-toe with one of the most recent NBA MVP’s and led the Serbians to a six-point win in overtime. Against Turkey, Jokic sprinted out of the gates to give Serbia a cushion and brought the win home with a game-sealing layup late in the fourth quarter.
Jokic showed that not only is he interested in assisting his home country of Serbia win games on the international circuit, but that he is only getting better despite being the back-to-back MVP; a terrifying fact for anyone who stands against Jokic and whatever team he is leading.
Serbia defeats Greece 100-94 in overtime
Watching Antetokounmpo and Jokic battle in late August was a treat for every NBA fan. For the majority of the second half, Antetokounmpo and Jokic were matched up with one another on both ends of the floor making for an incredibly fun clash of NBA titans which ultimately led to Jokic leading the Serbian team to victory in overtime.
By the time overtime ended and Serbia found themselves on the right side of the scoreboard, Jokic had racked up 29 points, eight rebounds, and six assists on 11-16 shooting from the field. Despite his six turnovers and lack of chemistry with his teammates, Jokic was masterful as usual, but what made his performance truly eye-opening was how well he was defending Antetokounmpo with the game on the line.
Let’s start chronologically with this roll to the rim and dunk from a lean and — dare I say it — explosive Jokic.
This play is not anything particularly special, but it serves as more of a reminder that, prior to last season, Jokic likely would not or could not finish above the rim the way he does now. His confidence in his body, now that he has slowly transformed it since his rookie season, allows Jokic to attack defenses in more ways than before and gives him the faith that he can explode to the rim and finish the play.
When looking back, it really is impressive just how far Jokic has come as an athlete.
Still, while a Jokic dunk should always be perceived as a piece of art, nothing is as stunning as when Jokic uncorks a fully-extended somber shuffle and this might be the somber shuffle at this point in time.
Yes, that is Antetokounmpo providing pressure en grande before Jokic decided to unleash arguably his most ridiculous somber shuffle.
I mean, come on. What is Giannis supposed to do? The shot clock was nearing its end, there was under two minutes before regulation ended during a five-point game, and he was draped over Jokic like a weighted blanket. None of that pressure, physically or mentally, mattered in the slightest.
For Jokic to hit that shot, in those circumstances, and over Giannis of all opponents is just basketball magic. What a move.
Still, one filthy somber shuffle was not enough for Jokic to take his foot off the accelerator. As the game entered overtime Jokic was primarily defended by Antetokounmpo, but he continued to attack and attack as if Giannis was just another defender in his way.
Again, what is Antetokounmpo supposed to do? Despite being stronger, longer and more athletic than nearly everyone he has ever matched up with, Jokic just plowed through him for the bucket. No longer is Jokic finding where he fits in the NBA hierarchy; he is now demolishing other MVP candidates during his spare time in the NBA offseason simply for fun.
While all of that talk about Jokic’s offense is already known, what was eye-opening about his performance against Greece was his individual defense; especially on Giannis and especially late in the game.
Containing Giannis driving to the rim is one of the most difficult tasks in all of basketball. The Milwaukee Bucks literally won a championship specifically because no one could stop Giannis when he decided to put his head down and drive. Despite that, here is Jokic containing Giannis, forcing him towards the baseline, and burying his drive to the rim underneath the backboard where Antetokounmpo ends up turning the ball over because he has nowhere to go with it.
That is textbook defense from Jokic on one of the toughest players to guard on earth.
That was not the only strong defensive moment Jokic had on Giannis either. He tried Jokic more than a few times throughout the matchup, but ultimately lost the battle against the NBA’s reigning MVP.
Once again, Jokic defends Antetokounmpo’s drive perfectly. Look at how Jokic stays below the screen so Giannis does not get any free drives to the rim, the way Jokic physically gets into Giannis’ body to alter his trajectory towards the rim, and buries him against the baseline once he has driven too far.
If Jokic can really take a leap defensively this year due to slightly better mobility and a deeper understanding of how to use his strength on that end of the floor, the Nuggets ceiling will only keep increasing.
As the cherry on top of his fantastic performance in Serbia’s win over Greece, Jokic grabbed a steal and turned it into a bucket that acted as the final nail in the coffin for Greece as Serbia grabbed an important overtime win.
With just 90 seconds remaining in overtime and Serbia’s lead only three points, Jokic called for the ball and went to work locking down the win with a bucket after securing the steal that led to the possession in the first place.
That is putting the team on your back and securing the win; that is the definition of being clutch and Jokic did so on the defensive end of the floor in addition to his offensive magnificence.
Serbia defeats Turkey 79-72
While Jokic’s escapades against Greece were great, his accomplishments did not end there. He then helped Serbia take on Turkey for the final game of this window of World Cup Qualifiers.
Turkey is not a roster full of pushovers. They have NBA players in Furkan Korkmaz, Cedi Osman and Alphren Sengun on the team as well as former NBA point guard Shane Larkin. Korkamz, Osman and Sengun combined for 57 of Turkey’s 72 total points while grabbing 22 of Turkey’s 38 rebounds.
Despite their strong showing, Jokic’s 25 points and 10 rebounds on 10-16 shooting was too much to overcome and he wasted no time getting started.
Jokic, as soon as the ball was tipped to begin the game, got in the post and called for the ball before barreling through Sengun for an easy two points to start Serbia off strong.
Poor Sengun; he had truly no chance to slow Jokic one-on-one in the post and provided as much resistance as a windbreaker during a Chicago winter. That being said, regardless of who his competition is, seeing Jokic set the tone by immediately getting post position and attacking shows his understanding of his role when he is on the floor; regardless of who he is playing for. No longer is Jokic timid as a scorer like he was a few years ago. Now, he knows no one can stop him and takes advantage of that fact.
The very next offensive possession for Serbia, Jokic kept it rolling with this drive and dunk on Sengun.
Again, Jokic did not have this type of explosion or trust in his athletic ability prior to last season, but now it seems that his understanding of his own body as percolated into his game allowing Jokic to attack more directly when needed. While Sengun is far from a lockdown defender, he is clearly a NBA-caliber big man. Despite that, Jokic made him look like he physically does not belong on the same floor as the reigning MVP.
Jokic eventually scored eight of Serbia’s first 14 points on the way to 19 points in the first half on 8-10 shooting. He was unstoppable; plain and simple.
As the game came to a close, Turkey crawled within arms reach of Serbia, but as the game clock slid under one minute of play in regulation, Jokic took over. He had two gigantic defensive rebounds to finish defensive possessions and sealed the win with this offensive rebound that led to a putback layup which stretched Serbia’s lead to seven points with just over 47 seconds remaining.
By the time Jokic’s two qualifying games with Serbia were up, he averaged 26.5 points, nine rebounds and three assists per outing while shooting 21-32 from the field, 2-3 from beyond the three-point arc, and 9-15 from the foul line; numbers he puts up routinely regardless of how difficult they are to amass.
Jokic showed what has made him a consecutive MVP winner and one of the greatest offensive players ever, but his defense still shined brightest. In the 35 possessions he was the primary defender over two games, Jokic held opponents to 10-32 from the field and just over 0.7 points per possessions according to Synergy Sports.
If Jokic’s performance in the FIBA World Cup Qualifiers is any indication as to what is to come, the Nuggets are in a great place entering the 2022-23 NBA season.