A week after his team dismantled the Denver Nuggets, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle was preparing for a rematch. His Mavericks ran past the Nuggets in Dallas in mid-December, a loss that prompted Denver coach Michael Malone to shake up his lineup out of frustration.
The biggest move was moving Nikola Jokic from the backup to the starting center, a change that paid off immediately. Denver’s offense took off, scoring 132 and 127 points in blowout wins. Carlisle’s Dallas team was next up, and the coach fretted over Jokic’s impact and his length, going as far to argue that he was taller than his listed 6-10 height.
“That’s (B.S.); he is probably like 7-4,” Carlisle said before Denver’s 117-107 win. “His arms are crazy long. He’s a guy that plays an on-the-floor game, but he is some player.”
The flattering descriptions have kept coming for the 21-year-old Serb. Jokic has helped transformed the Nuggets from a scuffling team to a playoff contender with his all-around game. Since moving into the starting center role Jokic has become the focal point of the offense. In January alone he averaged 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists.
Three times he has come within two assists of a triple-double and one other game he had 11 assists and was two rebounds short of the milestone.
He has quickly become the most talked-about player in the NBA, but he has remained the most grounded member of the Nuggets team despite the increased attention.
“Nikola is truly beloved by all of his teammates,” says Malone. “He has no ego, he’s a young kid, he likes to have fun, he’s a little bit goofy, and the guys love him for that. For all the success that he’s having he’s still the same kid—and that’s why everybody cares about him and respects him.”
They also love him because he is making them better—as players and as a team. While some centers are a black hole on the court, when the ball goes into Jokic there’s a good chance it’s coming back out for a wide-open shot. He is a pass-happy big man with the court vision to find cutting teammates for layups.
“A point makes you happy; an assist makes you and your teammate happy,” Jokic said. “An assist makes two people happy.”
It is rare that the best passer on an NBA team is a young center in his second year in the League, but it is consistent with how Jokic has developed—first in Serbia and now in Denver. He has always seen the whole court instead of just his space on it, and his understanding of the game belies his years.
“He gets more joy out of making plays for others,” says Malone. “He’s unselfish, and he has a very high IQ for a young player that’s been in the League for one year.”
When the Nuggets grabbed Jokic in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft they planned to stash him overseas for a few years. But he came to training camp in 2015 and was so impressive that he stuck on the roster despite the presence of 7-foot center Nurkic. Nurkic, just six months older than Jokic, was the center of the future for Denver but offseason knee surgery opened the door for Jokic and he took advantage.
In 80 games—55 starts—he showed his promise, so much so that Malone decided to start both big men at the beginning of this season. But what had succeeded at the end of 2015-16 didn’t work this season. In the first 18 games Jokic scored in double figures only seven times, had 10 or more rebounds in just four games and he averaged 2.8 assists. Denver might be known for the Rocky Mountains, but having twin peaks in the starting lineup was clearly not working.
On the heels of losing eight times in 11 games Jokic was made the starting center against Dallas. By the end of January the Nuggets were in the eighth spot and trending up. Nurkic has since been traded in February, thanks to Jokic’s 2016-17 emergence.
“Jokic is a center, he’s had great success as a center,” says Malone. “Keep it simple stupid. Keep him there.”
Jokic didn’t complain when he was playing forward. He is easygoing and puts team ahead of his personal feelings. The only time he gets animated on the court is when he commits a silly foul, and then it’s usually because he’s mad with himself, so chances are nothing will rattle Jokic in the NBA.
The Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan tried during a Jan. 21 game but with little success. Jokic is too immune to what anybody can do to him after growing up with two brothers more than a decade older than him. Strahinja and Nemanja Jokic have been around Nikola from the time he joined the Nuggets, and they are a reminder of where he came from.
Jokic was born in Sombor, Serbia, and took to basketball as a young kid. He consumed it, first on YouTube and then on TV, following the play of greats like Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw and Shaquille O’Neal.
“I watched Magic Johnson, Hakeem (Olajuwan), Dirk, Tim Duncan,” says Jokic. “I watched Shaq of course. You can see something that you can try, but how you play, you can’t change.”
He watched other sports, too, including water polo. That fact became more interesting when Utah coach Quin Snyder commented before Jokic dropped 23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists on his Jazz that the Serb looked like a water polo player. An apt comparison—when you watch a lot of Jokic’s passes, especially the highlight-worthy ones, he’ll sling the ball with his long limbs, much like a polo player taking a shot at goal.
Jokic never did take to the water; basketball was the only game he played and he quickly excelled at it. He refined his passing ability while playing for KK Mega Vizura in Serbia for two years.
“When I was younger I always liked to pass,” says Jokic. “When I get the rebound—push the ball. That couple of seconds when you’re trying to find the point guard, you’re losing in transition. You rebound, push the ball and the whole game is faster.”
“A point makes you happy; an assist makes you and your teammate happy. An assist makes two people happy.”
Denver took him with the 41st pick in 2014—I don’t know how that happened,” says Phoenix coach Earl Watson—making him the steal of the draft. Jokic didn’t know if his game would translate to the NBA, but he knew he couldn’t play any other way than as a playmaking big man.
“I just wanted to come here,” he said. “I just wanted to help my teammates with how I play the game. I didn’t want to change to [isolation], one-on-one or whatever, I just wanted to play how I play.”
With Nurkic out for the first 33 games last season, Jokic got his chance and he took advantage of it. There were nights when his passing was on display, but not to the level he’s shown this season.
With the Nuggets struggling Malone’s decision to change the lineup was the breakthrough for Jokic. Denver went from a team struggling in the halfcourt with the back-to-the-basket Nurkic to a fluid, moving offense that pushed the ball.
A big part of that was giving Jokic the freedom to be who he was. If he got the rebound and saw an opportunity to push the ball, it was encouraged to lead the break.
“Last year I did it a couple of times and coach has told me, ‘Whenever you think you’re ready, you just go,’” says Jokic. “He gave me some confidence just to do that. As center you can push the ball. If you’re a big man and you can push the ball, or you can run fast, you can make a difference in the game.”
Jokic thrives more in the halfcourt than on the break simply because of his ability to read the defense. If he gets the ball on the block, he recognizes when a cutting teammate will be open and he delivers the ball for an easy layup.
Guard Gary Harris has excelled at that and the two have developed an unspoken language that has helped Harris average 14.3 points in the last five games.
“You see me and Gary on a free throw, I just show him with my eyes, ‘go,’ and if he’s open, he’s open,” says Jokic. “If not we’re going to play another action.”
Sometimes that’s an action that leads to a dunk. Jokic has mastered the no-look alley-oop to Kenneth Faried and the interior passing that takes defenders by surprise.
Against Phoenix on Jan. 26, Danilo Gallinari read that Jokic was in position for an offensive rebound, so he broke to the basket. As he entered the lane at full speed Jokic flipped him the ball for an uncontested dunk.
“It’s fun to play with him,” says Faried. “He’s a willing passer. He doesn’t care who scores the points as long as we’re winning. That’s a great player to play with.”
It was understandable, then, the level of concern with his teammates when Jokic went down in pain, clutching his left leg in the win over the Suns. What looked like a serious injury turned out to be a hip strain that kept him out of just a few games, much to the relief of his team.
Had it been a more serious injury Denver’s suddenly high-flying offense would have lost its mojo and a player who feels he can dissect even great defenses.
“If the defense is really good defense, offense can always beat it,” says Jokic. “There’s always going to be some play on the court that you’re going to be wide open and you’re going to have a shot.”
Jokic still gets his offense, but he’s efficient. He’s averaging 16.3 PPG on just 11.1 shots a game and his field goal percentage is .589. Jokic is shooting a respectable 36 percent from 3-point range, showing he can score from anywhere on the court.
“It’s fun to play with him. He’s a willing passer. He doesn’t care who scores the points as long as we’re winning. That’s a great player to play with.”–Kenneth Faried
Still, the biggest reaction from him or fans comes when he passes. He’s averaging 4.2 assists a contest, a number that only Draymond Green (7.4) bests, as far as big men are concerned. He has become so adept at it the Nuggets put together a video highlighting Jokic’s passing ability and sent it to teams around the League to promote his candidacy as a Western Conference All-Star.
“When you watch four minutes of his passing, it’s really remarkable,” says Malone. “The no-look passing; he knows where guys are going to be open before they know it because he’s a step ahead. He knows where the defense is and he knows where the cut’s going to be.”
The video didn’t get him a spot on the team, but he was selected to the Rising Stars Challenge showcasing the League’s best young talent for the second straight year.
With Jokic doing his thing in the middle, the Nuggets have a shot at the playoffs. The man who turns 22 on Feb. 19 has become the most important player on Denver since Carmelo Anthony was drafted third overall in 2003.
The Nuggets went to the playoffs for nine consecutive years after that. They’re hoping for a similar run with Jokic leading the way.