Doug McDermott? Like many, I sat bewildered in front of the TV wondering just exactly what Denver Nuggets GM Tim Connelly was thinking. He didn’t have the aura of an elite NBA architect and master of identifying talent in the draft back in 2014. Quite the opposite in fact. Tim had been on the job for a year, completely botched his first free agent class and traded away a first rounder that turned into Rudy Gobert for cash. Now it appeared he was drafting a three point shooting wing for a team that already had Danilo Gallinari, Arron Afflalo and Wilson Chandler on the roster. The fit seemed odd. On the flip side, McDermott was a household name after his decorated college career at Creighton. Just as I was talking myself into it, the news came out that the Nuggets weren’t taking McDermott for themselves, but rather trading back in the draft, sending McDermott to the Chicago Bulls and getting Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris with 16th and 19th picks respectively. It was the first move that put Connelly on the map as a draft guru, but he made the ultimate move later that night. With the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, while a Taco Bell Quesorito commercial was playing during draft coverage, the Nuggets selected Nikola Jokic.

It was an afterthought, another 2nd round Euro draft and stash, something that rarely produced results. At the time the list of guys drafted as late as Joker and then stashed who actually became good was essentially three: Toni Kukoc, Manu Ginobli and Marc Gasol. And yet, Denver fans were intrigued. Ironically, they were probably more intrigued with Denver’s other draft and stash prospect from the year prior: Joffrey Lauvergne. King Joffrey as he was called (this was at the height of the Game of Thrones craze) was believed to be the more polished prospect. In fact, even Connelly was higher on Lauvergne in early 2015 saying “I think Joffrey’s much closer. He’s older, he is more physically mature” (about the 37:30 mark in the pod below) in an interview with Stiffs own Jeff Morton and Nate Timmons on Colorado Sports Guys. Stateside the Nuggets were floundering. The team completely fell apart under Brian Shaw’s leadership, star guard Ty Lawson went down a dark spiral, Danilo Gallinari just couldn’t stay healthy. It all led to Shaw being fired 3/4 of the way through the season, the Nuggets having their lowest win total in over a decade and a date with the draft lottery where Denver, in classic Denver style, didn’t move up and landed the seventh overall pick. They drafted Emmanuel Mudiay and the organization as a whole was extremely excited to be landing such a talented prospect.

Over in Europe, Jokic was starting to make noise. The once long shot prospect who Connelly said was further away than Lauvergne just months prior was tearing through Liga ABA with KK Mega Leks (aka KK Mega Basket) racking up round MVPs. Suddenly Jokic hype was becoming real. His performance in Serbia meant he would undoubtedly be playing for the Nuggets in the Summer, but Nuggets fans were still skeptical. These were fans who lived through European prospect debacles like Efthimios Rentzias and Nikoloz Tskitishvili and we were all convinced king Joffrey was the true godsend from Europe…but then Summer League happened.

If fans were excited about what Jokic was doing in Serbia, they were nearly delirious with optimism afterwards. Jokic was clunky at times, the games still had a very Summer League feel to them, but he was diming. It wasn’t that there were a bunch of cross court passes and flashy behind the back moves, but without fail, no matter how many defenders he had to toss it over or around, Nikola hit his man right in the shooters pocket, right in stride, right where his guy could make an easy basket. It was truly a site to behold and play that would forever be a part of Nuggets folklore Mudiay looked good too and there was renewed hope in Denver.

Unlike Mudiay, Jokic was not given the reigns from the get go. While Emmanuel started and got a consistent 27-33 minutes a game, Jokic came off the bench at around 17 minutes a game. Nurkic was still recovering from knee surgery that cut short an otherwise very promising rookie season and it was Lauvergne who got tabbed as the early season starter. There were signs early though and when Joffrey hurt his back just a few games into the season the Nuggets were forced to play small with their starting unit as new head coach Michael Malone was reluctant to insert the Serbian rookie into the starting lineup. Then Jokic dropped 23 points and 12 rebounds on Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs and forced Malone’s hand. He started the next game and followed up with an 11 and 11 double double a few games later against the 73 win Golden State Warriors. Once Joffrey returned though, it was back to the bench for Nikola shortly after. That continued until January when Nurkic returned. Surprisingly, Malone went with the hot hand and put Nikola in the starting unit, electing to bring Jusuf along slowly. For Nikola there were more 20+ point games, double doubles seemed more likely than not and that passing that would become the staple of his play started to seep through. Despite having what everyone thought was a rising star at point guard, it was the Nuggets center racking up four or five assists on any given night.

The final three games of Nikola’s rookie season Nuggets fans got a glimpse of what everyone thought was going to be the future: a twin tower lineup featuring Jokic and Nurkic. The results weren’t the greatest. Denver beat a Spurs team that was resting in preparation for the playoffs and then lost back to back games to close it out. You saw something that gave you hope in that last game though, Nurkic and Jokic combined for 29 points, 27 rebounds and 9 assists. There was little doubt the Nuggets had two extremely talented bigs, but there was some doubt on how they could make them work together.

Denver opened the 2016-2017 season full of good vibes. They had a young core with Jokic, Nurkic, Mudiay, Gary Harris and three rookies in Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley. They still had their veteran staples like Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried. They even brought back the classic Rainbow uniforms for a couple home games. Everyone was absolutely giddy about the twin towers Denver was going to roll out and getting to see a full season of what those bigs could do with the roster that surrounded them. However, the experiment didn’t yield the results everyone had hoped for. The lane was consistently clogged, the offense was sort of a mess and far too often Malone had to limit Jokic’s minutes because he needed a more traditional lineup. After eight games and a 3-5 record, Malone abandoned the experiment. He elected to put Jokic back on the bench. This wasn’t necessarily because Jokic was the wrong person to have with the starters, we have the benefit of hindsight now to know that was anything but the case, but a matter of egos and the fact that Jokic had none. Nurkic wanted to start, Jokic wanted to win. Nikola had no problem coming off the bench, in fact he even offered to do it.

The problem was, that didn’t exactly result in wins either. Denver continued to struggle to find wins with Nurkic as their starter. Next to Faried he still clogged the lane which prevented Mudiay, Gallinari and Chandler from driving to the basket with ease.  He wasn’t as effective of a rebounder as Jokic, his sometimes erratic shot selection near the basket made teams willing to challenge him one on one in the post instead of sending help and when they did double he didn’t have the passing ability to find the open man. He wasn’t terrible by any means, but the Nuggets weren’t having much success on offense. It was also very clearly being forced. Despite starting, Nurkic was routinely getting under 25 minutes a game while Malone opted for more and more minutes for Jokic and Nikola was playing well. The Nuggets were starting to run more of the offense through him, Jokic was diming guys like we had never seen. I’ll never forget the pass he threw to Jamal Murray against the kings. With Joker in the post and his back to the basket Jamal cut down the lane. Nikola never even turned around, he just sort of glanced over his shoulder, hucked this awkward looking pass over it…and hit Jamal perfectly in a 1″ window for a layup. That’s when I knew for sure he was the real deal.

On December 12, 2016 the Nuggets traveled to Dallas for a game with the Mavericks. Denver was off to what looked like another disappointing year. They were 9-15 and questions about their once promising young duo of Nurkic and Mudiay were starting to creep up. Nurkic bogged down the offense and Mudiay, for all his talent, was a turnover machine who struggled so much running the offense that Malone turned to veteran Jameer Nelson for playmaking or, yes, running the offense through his backup center. The thing was though, running his offense through the backup center was kind of really working, far better than his traditional offense with Nurkic at center in fact. The Mavericks were even more woeful than the Nuggets. This was the Deron Williams, Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews Mavericks (repeat: woeful). Denver came into the Mavs arena that night looking to get an easy W and instead got run out of the building. They trailed by 14 at half and lost by 20. The starters no showed. Mudiay led the starters with 17 points but had 4 turnovers, Gallinari was the only other starter to score double figures. The starting group plus Chandler (Wilson came off the bench for Darrell Arthur but DA played just under five minutes) was all -17 or worse. It was an embarrassing performance…Jokic scored 27 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and handed out 4 assists. He was the only rotation player on the positive side of +/- that night.

And then December 15th came.

Malone finally realized what had to be done. On December 15th, 2016 he inserted Nikola into the starting lineup and that has been the case ever since. It changed everything for the Nuggets. It didn’t happen right away but it was obvious to anyone paying attention it was the right move. Teams couldn’t clog the lane anymore because Jokic could step out to the three point line. He was skilled enough in the post to make teams pay for not sending help but when they did he made them pay by making the smart pass, the right play, every single time. Suddenly Faried’s lack of shooting prowess wasn’t an issue. If a team left him to double Nikola all Faried had to do was cut to the basket and Jokic would find him with a pocket pass or a lob. The Nuggets immediately went on a three game win streak, culminating with Jokic coming an assist shy of a monster triple double (he finished with 27/17/9) in a double digit win against those same Mavericks just a week later. Denver would go 31-26 the rest of the season. They’d miss the playoffs in painful fashion as the Portland Trail Blazers, who acquired Nurkic mid-season, won a pivotal game against Denver late in the season behind a big performance from Jusuf and beat the Nuggets out for the 8 seed by winning one more game that season.  A minor setback on the road to a major shift in the power of the NBA. The rest is history of course. Nurkic is a solid NBA player now on his third team and Jokic is the reigning Finals MVP and the best basketball player on earth.

And that my friends is why today, and every December 15th that has come and will come after 2016, is celebrated among Nuggets fans as Jokmas. The day that changed the fortunes of a franchise forever. It seems to get bigger and bigger every year as Nikola’s stardom grows and grows. No word yet if Serbia or Colorado plans on making it an official holiday but they both should. So drink some rakija, watch some cart racing and most of all be thankful to be a Nuggets fan and know that all the pain of Nugglife paid off in the form of getting the best, smartest, most humble and easiest to root for basketball player in the world who absolutely delivered on all of his promise. Happy Jokmas!