- An unlikely headliner, Nikola Jokic is delighting and amusing in Denver after undergoing a physical transformation. Can the Nuggets' intriguing big man become the NBA's next unicorn?
In the summer of 2004, Darko Milicic invited an old friend from Serbia to a mansion in the Detroit suburbs. Milicic had been drafted by the Pistons the previous year—second overall, ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade—but his rookie season was a disappointment. Though Detroit won the championship, the 7’0” phenom failed to crack the rotation, averaging 1.4 points in 4.7 minutes. Milicic struggled to fit in with his new teammates, so he kept in touch with old ones, including a dynamic 6’6” wing named Nemanja Jokic. Jokic, who starred alongside Milicic on Serbian club teams since they were 16, was interested in moving to the United States and playing college basketball.
Jokic accepted a scholarship to Detroit Mercy, in part because of Milicic. Jokic lived on Milicic’s estate in Rochester Hills, down the block from Tayshaun Prince’s place. He had access to Milicic’s expanding fleet of cars. He was a regular at Pistons games. “I was living a NBA player’s life,” Jokic says. “I was throwing the best parties on campus—at his house.” He watched awestruck as Milicic bought a second home in Detroit, a yacht, toys galore. The fun lasted for a year-and-a-half, until Milicic was traded to Orlando and Jokic was forced into a dorm.
He came off the bench for three seasons at Detroit Mercy, then transferred to C.W. Post in Long Island and signed with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Steamers of the fledgling Premier Basketball League. “I made mistakes,” Jokic says. “When I was young, basketball wasn’t my No. 1 priority. Going out, having fun, drinking, girls, that was my No. 1 priority. I was making my own decisions—‘I’m not going to practice’—when I still needed family support. That’s what I was missing.”
His buddy missed the same. Darko bounced from Orlando to Memphis, New York to Minnesota, the specter of Melo and D-Wade forever hovering over his frosted tips. The Human Victory Cigar clashed with coaches and lashed out at referees. He gained weight. He never averaged more than 8.8 points in a season. “There was so much pressure put on him,” Jokic recalls, “and he put so much pressure on himself. I think he had too much going on in his life. The houses, the cars, there wasn’t anyone to tell him he didn’t need all those things.”
In 2012–13, Milicic played his last pro game with the Celtics, and Jokic with the Steamers. Jokic flew back to his hometown of Sombor for the first time in seven years and reconnected with his two brothers. He had always been close with his older brother, Strahinja, a 6’8” bruiser who played professionally in Serbia. But his younger brother, Nikola, was only 10 when he left for America. He remembered Nikola mainly as the little kid Strahinja used to terrorize, tossing him from one bed to another in the family’s small apartment, often during heated games on a plastic mini hoop. “He once held down my arms and threw knives all around my head,” Nikola adds, punishment for refusing to climb a tree during a picnic. “That was a little crazy.”
Now, Nikola was 17, bigger than both of them. He liked basketball, but he also liked soccer and water polo, volleyball and harness racing. He was overweight—“Obese,” clarifies one of his strength coaches—chugging three liters of Coca-Cola every day and chowing on fatty cheese pies called bureks for breakfast. When he signed his first contract with Mega Leks in New Belgrade, he stood almost 7’0” and weighed nearly 300 pounds, but he could not do a single pushup. “He just wanted to have fun,” Nemanja says. He wanted to stand at the high post, ball in his hands, and bend fancy no-look lobs around defenders’ ears. His favorite game was half-court three-on-three, where he didn’t have to worry about transition defense. “The first time I saw him play, he was throwing these behind-the-back passes that no one else would even try,” Nemanja recounts. “And everybody let him. They didn’t tell him he couldn’t do it. They knew he had this really unique skill.”
He’d need to cut the weight, quit the soda and hit the iron. He’d need to overcome tired stereotypes, born from Darko, and buck astronomic odds. He’d need a little dumb luck and a lot of tough love. The Joker, as he is known, would have to get serious. Nemanja had no idea how long such a metamorphosis would take. But he knew one thing for sure. When the time came for Serbia to unleash its next prodigal giant on the NBA, everything would be different.
The 41st pick in the draft has produced Cuttino Mobley and Jodie Meeks, Bobby Simmons and Willie Green, longshots made good. More often, it has yielded the likes of Jamaal Franklin and James Augustine, who played fewer than 30 NBA games, Jason Lawson and Jason Sasser, who played fewer than 20, David Young and Chris Carawell, who didn’t play any at all. A front office that is shrewd—and charmed—can find a contributor at 41. What you can’t find, even if you go all the way back to Popeye Jones, is a big man to build around.
Ten days before the 2014 draft, Misko Raznatovic fired off a tweet declaring that Nikola Jokic was withdrawing from consideration and returning to Mega. Raznatovic, Jokic’s agent, had received scant interest from NBA organizations. “There was an appearance bias,” says one general manager. “The guy had no muscle definition. He couldn’t really jump.” Jokic referred to himself as a “fat point guard” and coined all sorts of colorful nicknames for his fleshy pectorals. Raznatovic used to tell him before big games, “Close your eyes and imagine you’re playing me and my daughter for chocolate chip cookies.” Jokic never lacked for motivation. When Mega lost, coaches made the team run 50 suicides. “I hated that,” he laments. Strahinja moved to New Belgrade, mainly to monitor his little brother’s diet and conditioning. Strahinja would get him in the weight room, even if he needed sharp objects to do it.
Concerns about the Joker’s doughy physique led to questions about his dedication. He once missed a week at Mega with tendonitis in his wrist, sustained while signing too many autographs. Here, scouts feared, was another big soft Serb playing only because he could. Here was another Darko. “It’s true,” says Nuggets GM Tim Connelly, “he didn’t have a sexy body.” But Connelly and his staff looked beneath the pudge and saw the panoramic vision, the downy touch, the nimble feet—and the basketball family driven to correct the past. Maybe Jokic wasn’t another Darko. Maybe he was another Sabonis, another Divac, another Gasol. The Nuggets were sold at the Nike Hoop Summit, as Jokic threw his elaborate fakes at Clint Capela and his impossible dimes to Karl-Anthony Towns.
Connelly persuaded Raznatovic to leave Jokic in the ’14 draft and picked him 41st. Jokic was asleep at the time of the selection. He had no intention of going to Denver, at least not anytime soon. Jokic and Raznatovic had already formulated a plan, to sign a lucrative contract with a major European club and then think about the NBA in two or three years. In the winter of ’14-15, officials from FC Barcelona traveled to New Belgrade to finalize a deal with Jokic. “We had practically agreed,” Raznatovic says. “We were just working out small details. But on that trip, they watched him play one more game, and he was horrible. I mean, really horrible. You can’t imagine how bad he was. They asked for more time.”
“I had four points, three rebounds and I didn’t play defense,” Jokic says. “I think it was a sign. Without that game, I’d be in Barcelona right now.” Instead, he opened the door for Denver. Back at headquarters, Nuggets executives were watching Jokic highlights daily, regaling each other with descriptions of kick-out passes he threaded to the corner between his legs. The Nuggets were busy preparing for the ’15 draft, deconstructing Kristaps Porzingis, and they started to wonder if Jokic was in the same class.
Denver officials visited Jokic eight times at Mega and explained that they were building another Balkan nation in the Rocky Mountains. They had hired acclaimed Serbian coach Ognjen Stojakovic; they had acquired Bosnian big man Jusuf Nurkic; Lithuanian legend Arturas Karnisovas was Connelly’s assistant GM. Jokic turned down a contract to join the Nuggets mid-season, but he found himself daydreaming of Denver. He’d miss camping in his beloved forest outside Sombor, but his brothers loved America and his girlfriend was playing volleyball at a junior college in Oklahoma.
“In the end, Arturas is the guy who convinced us to change our strategy,” Raznatovic remembers. “Arturas said, ‘His skills are not in doubt. It’s his body. Where will he have a better chance to improve his body, in the NBA or in the Euroleague?’”
On the flight to Pepsi Center, the Joker downed his last Coke.
This time, there is no mansion, no fleet, no yacht. The three brothers live together, with Nikola’s girlfriend, in a three-bedroom apartment in LoDo. They recently hung another mini hoop in the hall. “It’s a little small for us now,” Nikola says, “but we’re still playing one-on-one, taking charges, swearing at each other.” Nemanja and Strahinja attend every Nuggets home game, Strahinja shouting in Serbian, “Bring more energy! Get lower in your stance! Pick up your hands!” Other spectators keep their distance. “People think we look scary, sound scary,” Nemanja says. “But we aren’t that bad. We’re not cursing him out anymore.” Last season, the brothers hit the road several times, but they didn’t want to fly. So they drove their rented Cadillac Escalade from Denver to Los Angeles, Dallas and New York.
“Nikola doesn’t have a choice in whether he wants us around or not,” says Nemanja, whose wife lives in New York while he stays in Denver. “He’s an intelligent guy and I’m confident he wouldn’t get off track here. But this is such an important time and I want him to have the kind of support I didn’t. I always tell him, ‘You’re living my dream. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t make the mistakes we made.’”
Darko arrived in the United States at the height of the Euro craze, when every organization was desperate to find its Dirk, and his trials gave them pause. Interest in overseas prospects waned. Jokic landed in Denver without expectation—one benefit of being drafted 41st rather than second—and when he saw power forward Kenneth Faried dunk in his first practice, he told himself, “This is not for me.” He was unimpressive at summer league and marginally better in the pre-season. “A very average player,” head coach Mike Malone recalls. But Jokic leaned on his brothers and stuck with the regimen developed by Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Steve Hess, who made him eat seven low-fat meals a day. Jokic melted from 290 pounds to 250, and suddenly, he was snapping pictures of himself flexing next to Faried.
“Will he ever look like DeAndre Jordan? No,” Hess says. “Will he ever have a 40-inch vertical? No.” Can he still be the best playmaking center in the NBA? Of course. “I believe the only muscles you need in basketball,” Jokic says, “are the ones in your brain.” While the modern big man glides across the court—think Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Porzingis—the 21-year-old Jokic intentionally plods. “I like to slow those guys down,” he explains, “and get them at my pace.” Whether he’s leading the fast break or trailing it, setting up in the high or low post, time stops when he holds the ball. He takes a mental snapshot of the floor. Then he imagines how the picture will change. “I know my teammates better than opponents know them,” Jokic says. “If I can see my teammate in one moment, I know where he’ll be in the next moment. I don’t need to see him again.”
Last season, Nuggets guard Gary Harris made a valuable discovery. If he simply cut to the basket, the Joker would find him for a layup, even if they weren’t looking at each other. “Everybody else was like, ‘Whoa, I want some of those easy baskets,’” Malone says. “So now they all cut.” Guard Will Barton tries to initiate eye contact early in the possession. “I’ll come back for a dribble handoff and he might do this,” Barton demonstrates, shaking his head imperceptibly. “That means, ‘Cut now, and I’ll get it to you.’” Jokic’s passes come from over his shoulder and behind his back. They bounce and they float. They’re ropes and they’re rainbows. To Jokic, the assist is utilitarian, but it’s also artistic. If he were a quarterback, he’d love the fade route, lofted to a distant location where only his receiver can run underneath it. Malone’s father, Pistons assistant coach Brendan Malone, used to tell him that Pete Maravich was one of the few players he’d pay to see. “I think about that with Nikola,” Malone says. “He’s a guy I’d pay to see, not because he’s dunking on anybody or blowing by anybody. It’s because of his skill, his flair, his joy.”
The Joker delivers his punch lines in a deadpan baritone. On the 11-year age gap that separates him from his older brothers: “I was a mistake, probably.” On his preferred off-court pastime: “Definitely fishing, even though I don’t know how to fish.” On his quest to buy a horse for Serbia’s upcoming harness racing season: “I’m looking for one that’s healthy, calm and nice, with a good name. I’m not trying to win every race. I just want to compete. That’s how I feel about the Nuggets, too. Let’s go compete.”
On Nov. 10, Denver was blown out by Golden State at home and Jokic staggered into Malone’s office afterward “This isn’t working,” Jokic muttered. “I want to come off the bench.” Malone had decided over the summer to use a supersized starting lineup, with Jokic at power forward and Nurkic at center, but the team was 3–5 and space was clogged. Malone granted the request, and for the next month the Nuggets continued to sputter, culminating in a 20-point loss at Dallas on Dec. 12. “That was the crossroads,” Malone says. “I decided then, ‘I’m making a commitment to Nikola Jokic. I owe it to this kid. He’s shown us what he’s capable of doing, and if we’re going to go down, let’s go down with the best lineup we’ve got.” Jokic replaced Nurkic, and today, Denver ranks third in points per game.
“It’s all attributed to Nikola,” says Nuggets sniper Mike Miller. “He does things I don’t think you’ll ever see a big guy do.” His post moves are almost as nifty as his passing angles, coaxing spring-loaded centers into the air, then ducking under them for layups or dump-offs. Because Jokic is so accurate from 5-9 feet—he posts the NBA’s highest field goal percentage from that range—he commands constant double-teams, which play right into his giving hands. “There must be one guy open,” Jokic says, “and I want to find him.”
Jokic averaged 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 4.8 assists in January, but traditional stats don’t always do him justice. His efficiency rating of 26.3 is the best of any center and ranks 10th among all players, just ahead of LeBron James. His downfall is defense, and he’s not alone, as the Nuggets cough up the second-highest opposing field goal percentage in the league. For Malone, who built his reputation on D, those numbers induce insomnia. “But then I call my father,” Malone says, “and he tells me: ‘With your lineup, and how efficient you are, your offense might be your best defense.’” Malone will never be comfortable winning games 120-115, but he has juggled his philosophy in addition to his lineup.
“When I got fired in Sacramento, there was a contingent of people responsible for my firing who said, ‘He just wants to play in the 80s,’” Malone remembers. “I told them, ‘I’m not against offense. I’m for winning.’ You play to the strength of your roster.”
In this case, the 41st pick in the draft, an unlikely headliner who delights and amuses. After Denver beat Milwaukee on Friday and Jokic completed the franchise’s first triple-double in four years Malone presented him with the game ball in the locker room. “I hugged him,” Jokic reported. “I was naked and I hugged him.” No one is mistaking the Nuggets for contenders. But after missing the playoffs the past four years, they’re competing again, and laughing again.
Nemanja does not talk to Darko as much as he once did, but they still see each other back in Serbia and they were together for Darko’s 31st birthday last June. Nemanja shares with Nikola his memories of Rochester Hills, missteps both public and private, in hopes they can be avoided. In a roundabout way the legacy of Darko lives on, ingrained in the minds of gun-shy GMs but also burned in the psyche of another Balkan big man, starting down a different path.