Why the NBA world loves Nikola Jokic — the Nuggets' goofy, 7-foot Serbian star who's been compared to Tom Brady and is dominating the playoffs

AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images
  • Nikola Jokic is one of the best and most beloved players in the NBA.
  • Jokic has a unique game on the court, with a mix of old-school post moves and incredible passing skills that allow him to play a mix of center and point guard.
  • Off the court, Jokic is goofy, self-deprecating, loveable, and enjoyed by teammates and opponents alike.
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Nikola Jokic has become one of the best players in the NBA and a fan favourite in recent years.

The 24-year-old Denver Nuggets center was a little-known second-round pick from Serbia who exploded onto the scene in 2014 with a unique game. He’s now dominating the playoffs for the Nuggets, helping them try to advance to the Western Conference Finals.

On the court, he’s in a category of his own. He’s a slow, plodding big man with crafty post moves and razor-sharp passing skills that allow him to rack up triple-doubles at a historic pace. Despite a lack of traditional athleticism, no one can stop him.

Off the court, he’s goofy, self-deprecating, and light-hearted. He was admittedly a chubby kid growing up who loved sports, wanted to have fun and didn’t want to work out. That personality is still embedded within him, even if he’s now a world-class athlete.

Here’s how Jokic became one of the best and most beloved players in the NBA.


Jokic’s current stardom is even more impressive when considering his humble beginnings growing up in Serbia.


Jokic grew up playing basketball, but played several other sports, too, including soccer, water polo, and harness racing.

Source: Sports Illustrated


Despite being an active kid, Jokic was considered “obese” growing up, according to a former coach. Jokic had a love of sweets and drank as much as three litres of Coke per day.

“It was glass after glass. I couldn’t stop,” he told ESPN’s Zach Lowe in 2017.

Sources:ESPN, Sports Illustrated


When Jokic was 17, playing professionally in Serbia, he was 7 feet and weighed 300 lb, but couldn’t do a push-up.

Source:
Sports Illustrated


Despite concerns about his body, the Denver Nuggets scouts liked Jokic’s talent enough to eventually take him with the 41st overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.


However, Jokic remained overseas for another year and would have longer if not for a well-timed, poor performance.

According to Sports Illustrated, Jokic was prepared to sign a multi-year deal with FC Barcelona to stay overseas, delaying his move to the NBA. But while playing in front of Barcelona officials, he had a horrible, 4-point, 3-rebound game that gave them pause. When they delayed the signing, he decided to join the Nuggets in 2015.

Source: Sports Illustrated


Jokic still had work to do when he got to Denver. He gave up soda entirely, drinking his last Coke on the flight to Denver.

Source: Sports Illustrated


Jokic also had to improve his strength. The Nuggets put him through a plank test when he arrived from Serbia, and he couldn’t do a plank for longer than 20 seconds.

J Pat Carter/Getty Images

Source: ESPN


Jokic’s rookie season began slowly, but he eventually showed glimpses of his unique talent as he got more playing time.

He averaged 10 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists his rookie year, eventually making the All-Rookie First Team.


Jokic has made gigantic leaps each successive season, raising his scoring averages from 10 to 16 to 18 to 20 over his career. He made his first All-Star team in 2018-19 while averaging 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists per game.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Jokic has become one of the NBA’s elite triple-double threats. Over the last three seasons, he has 28 combined triple-doubles, fourth-most in the NBA.


Former NBA guard and ESPN analyst Chauncey Billups compared Jokic to prime Arvydas Sabonis — a huge compliment.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qfFunEiHbc0?start=171

Sabonis was a Lithuanian center with the skills of a point guard. He dominated European leagues for years, but didn’t come to the NBA until he was 31, meaning many American basketball fans never saw him in his prime.

Billups said Jokic is giving a glimpse at what Sabonis was like in his prime.

Source: ESPN


His game was lovingly described by SB Nation’s Seth Rosenthal as playing as if he was wearing flip-flops — a strangely perfect simile.


What stands out most about Jokic is his passing. He’s one of the best passers in the league, and by far the best among big men. He used to dub himself “a fat point guard.”

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Source:
Sports Illustrated


His passes range from beautiful no-looks…


… to laser passes that somehow bend around defenders…


… to full-court touchdown passes…


Jokic’s teammate Paul Millsap even recently compared Jokic to Tom Brady.

“He’s like a quarterback out there,” Millsap said. “I consider him like a Tom Brady. He’s always going to pick you apart and make the right reads. Commend him for doing that at this stage in his career. It’s unbelievable.”

Source: ESPN


Some think Jokic’s unique sense for passing comes from playing water polo. He said he’s always willing to try a different pass.

“If I see something, even if it’s risky, I am going to try it,” Jokic told ESPN. “Because maybe that mistake is going to open up something else, or next time it is going to be there just to give it a chance.”

Source:
ESPN


Nuggets GM Arturas Karnisovas compared Jokic to a brilliant painter: “He’s an artist. If you ask famous painters, ‘How’d you do that?’ they say, ‘I just did it.’ It’s the same if you ask Nikola: He has a hard time explaining. He just does it and it happens.”

David Zalubowski

Source: The Ringer


Jokic has taken his game up a level in the playoffs. He is averaging 24 points, 13 rebounds, and 9 assists per game on 50% shooting, 38% from three, while leading the Nuggets to their first series win in 10 years.

AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post/Getty Images

Jokic impressed observers in the second round of the playoffs when he had to play 65 minutes in a quadruple-overtime game. He totaled 33 points, 18 rebounds, and 14 assists, but the Nuggets lost to the Blazers.


Despite improving his conditioning, few would have described him as being in elite shape. Jokic laughed about the comments about his conditioning.

“To be honest, sometimes it is funny for me just because [sometimes what they say] it’s true, and [yet] I am still playing in the NBA.

“Someone said, ‘He’s not even in shape.’ I am playing in 80 games and he said that I’m not even in shape.”

Source: ESPN


Jokic’s personality has made him beloved in the NBA, too. He’s nicknamed “Joker” because of his last name and his wry sense of humour.

Getty Images

An ongoing subplot of the NBA playoffs has been Jokic’s struggles with the microphones at postgame press conferences.

He told ESPN: “It’s a fight … hopefully at the end of the season, I am going to beat the mic.”


Jokic’s brothers have also gained notoriety in the NBA world. Both former basketball players, they moved to the U.S. with Jokic and now follow him around.

Said Jokic of his brothers: “They look like serial killers, but they are actually really nice people when you meet them.”

Source:
ESPN


He’s kept pieces of his upbringing with him. He told ESPN’s Zach Lowe that he kept a stash of Serbian meats in his home, just for when he misses home-cooking the most.

Source: ESPN


Jokic also owns three horses back in Serbia and still loves watching horse racing. “I enjoy animals. Their nature. They’re really good animals. Every different horse has a different personality, like a human,” he said.

Source: ESPN


In some ways, Jokic is still the goofy kid from this old passport photo:


Now, check out why free agency could be a bonanza this year…

Matt Slocum/AP; Winslow Townson/AP; John Raoux;AP

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