Nuggets center Nikola Jokic has outperformed expectations in his short NBA career.
Roughly 50 minutes remain before tip-off as Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic prances around the TD Garden visitors locker room wearing nothing but a navy, long-sleeve Denver Basketball T-shirt, black compression shorts, white mid-calf socks and flip flops.
Jokic doubles over his lanky 6’11” frame, sticking his face inside the large salad Mike Miller is chewing at his locker. His nose pokes just inches from Miller’s slab of salmon as he asks the veteran sharpshooter about his dinner. “You’re a legend,” Miller cracks.
As Jameer Nelson speaks to a reporter, Jokic waddles over to the injured point guard’s stall and grabs Nelson’s right arm. Nelson hardly offers a glance as Jokic begins massaging his wrist mid-interview, while his shorts still hang in a locker 20 feet away. “We’re used to it now, that’s just how he is,” Emmanuel Mudiay says. “He loosens up everybody.”
Jokic continues to bounce around the room, exhaling endless pregame enthusiasm and killing time before his turn for ankle taping. “He’s good at imitating players,” Darrell Arthur says. “He’s a great rookie.”
Jokic has cherished first-year player duties this season. “When we have to sing happy birthday for people, he dances pretty crazy. It’s pretty funny,” Mudiay says.
The 20-year-old’s youthful exuberance in the locker room extends from a close relationship with his two older brothers, Strahinja, 33, and Nemanja, 31, who played for the University of Detroit Mercy. The three brothers constantly engaged in tomfoolery as they grew up in Serbia. “We’d fight a lot,” Jokic says with a laugh. “But I think all brothers do that.” The physical bouts would eventually give way to strategical board and card games, like chess and a Serbian version of Monopoly. “I’m the smartest one,” Jokic says proudly. “I beat them in everything.”
Nemanja and Strahinja have joined their younger brother on his American odyssey. They christened their arrival in Colorado by hiking the Manitou Incline, a trail that remains from a defunct, three-foot narrow gauge funicular railway track that washed out during a 1990 rock slide. An hour’s drive south of Denver, the 2,700 step incline gains over 2,000 feet of elevation in less than one mile.
On their descent from the incline’s peak, the three brothers ventured off the trail in search of a shortcut to the bottom. “We get lost and we didn’t have water,” Jokic says. “It was two hours without water. It was really bad.”
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The Jokic family is now sticking to the course, as Nemanja and Strahinja follow the Nuggets to every game. They drove overnight from Denver to Las Vegas to witness Jokic’s Summer League debut this July. They logged 36 hours in the car from Colorado to New York to accompany Jokic for the NBA Rookie Transition Program.Nemanja and Strahinja then sped to preseason games in Dallas and Los Angeles.
The brothers’ voices are always audible to Jokic on the court, even when buried amongst a sea of fans. They heckle him in Serbian from the stands, kindling a fire inside one of league’s premier rookies. “No way am I gonna translate that,” Jokic says, smiling. “In every sentence they have one swear word.”
Through 48 games, Jokic has posted the second-highest PER for a 20-year-old rookie in NBA history (22.5), trailing only Shaquille O’Neal and a tied with fellow newbie Karl-Anthony Towns. “He wasn’t supposed to play this year,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone says. “He was supposed to come over to America, get used to the NBA, and now all of a sudden he’s starting.”
Jokic has now started 23 games—his first followed a 23-point, 12-rebound, 3-block performance in San Antonio—displaying a feathery shot and a crafty feel for the game. “His skill level, his shooting, his passing, the touch that he has, his IQ are really uncanny for a kid that is 20 years old and a rookie,” Malone says. “He might have one of the better handles on our team for a guy that is 7 feet tall and plays the center position.”
Jokic first blossomed in Serbian youth leagues as a point guard before a growth spurt stretched him into the frontcourt. He’s flashed those roots with a bevy of gorgeous assists this season, like a ridiculous behind-the-back feed to Kenneth Faried, which he somehow unfurled around two defenders in a January home game against Memphis. Denver can frequently run half-court sets through Jokic on either block or at each elbow.
“He reminds me a lot of Marc Gasol,” Mudiay says. “He’s like a point-center. He’s good at give-and-go’s, he’s good at just making plays himself, and getting other people open. I think he could be an All-Star [one day].”
Mudiay and Jokic first played together at the 2014 Nike Hoops Summit in Portland, harboring a pick-and-roll chemistry that wowed NBA scouts then and falls near the top of opposing team’s scouting reports now. “I think we know each other, we respect each other, we learn from each other,” Jokic says. The tandem will be on display in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend. Throw in Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, 25-year-old Will Barton, and four additional first-round picks the Nuggets are owed, and Denver has the foundation to build another playoff contender out West.
“There are nights where you want to pull what little hair you have left, and then you step back, and really, I mean this sincerely, these guys have a chance to be a really good nucleus and core moving forward,” Malone says. “It gives you some promise for the future.”
As Jokic finishes speaking to a reporter before the taking on the Celtics in Boston, he notices Barton has been staring at the interview. “Why are you looking at me?” Jokic says with a smile. As he continues to progress, adds muscle and increases his explosiveness, Jokic will have to get used to being Denver’s center of attention.