The NBA has been a bit too quick to crown its incoming stars in recent years. Andrew Wiggins, for example, was heralded as “the next LeBron” coming out of high school, and has fallen short of such lofty expectations in his first few years in the league. That’s not to say Wiggins has been bad since being taken with the first pick of the 2014 NBA Draft. He’s still an athletic forward with loads of potential. But getting caught up in the big names at the top of the draft is a good way to lose focus on other potential stars.
40 picks after Wiggins, in the second round of that 2014 draft, the Denver Nuggets picked a virtually unknown Serbian center. Nikola Jokić entered the league without fanfare, ESPN’s coverage of the draft showing a Taco Bell ad as the pick was made. Why not? Just another European big man to serve out a lackluster career in the Rocky Mountains. At best, the next Timofey Mozgov.
Even the Nuggets themselves seemed not to know what they had found. Jokić spent his first year with the Nuggets as a draft-and-stash, staying with his Serbian team to develop. He did not disappoint, winning Adriatic League MVP, again with little fanfare. Jokić made his debut at the onset of the 2015-16 season, continuing to fly under the radar. The Nuggets, after all, had seemingly already found their center of the future. Fellow 2014 draftee Jusuf Nurkić was coming off a solid rookie campaign, and Jokić was an afterthought at best. Denver was also in full rebuild mode, with a new head coach in Michael Malone, an untested point guard in Emmanuel Mudiay, and a disinterested fan base. The Pepsi Center would end the season as the emptiest arena in the entire league.
With all this working against him, Nikola Jokić thrived. The minutes came slowly, as with any rookie-unknown, but the Serbian made an impact nonetheless. The Denver media started to take notice as Jokić put up impressive stats in limited time. The big man set a season highs of 27 points, 15 rebounds, and 9 assists, each milestone coming in a game after the new year. With Nurkić experiencing a sophomore slump, and the Nuggets nowhere near contention, Coach Malone was put in the perfect situation to play Nikola. It paid off, with Jokić finishing third in Rookie Of The Year voting, behind only Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis.
Despite a fantastic rookie campaign, those outside the Mile High City were left largely unaware of the man now known as the Joker. In fact, it was Nurkić who drew headlines, played well in the 2016-17 preseason and usurped Jokić as the starter when the regular season came around. The team, however, struggled with the Balkan buddies on the court together. Both players thrive at the 5, and forcing Jokić to play power forward killed Denver’s spacing. Combine the two bigs with Mudiay, a notoriously poor shooter, and the Nuggets’ offense stalled.
On December 15th, 2016, Jokić was reinstated as the starter for a game against the Portland Trail Blazers. Since that decision, the Nuggets have thrived on offense, surging to the 6th highest offensive rating in the league as of the All Star break (via basketball-reference.com). Jokić recorded his first career triple-double on February 3rd in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks. Just nine days later, Denver dealt an unsatisfied Jusuf Nurkić to Portland, committing wholeheartedly to Jokić for the future. The Joker responded the very next day with his second triple-double, leading the Nuggets to a decisive victory over the league-best Golden State Warriors. Jokić has always had star potential. He’s finally being utilized in a way that lets him succeed.
So much time is spent in the modern NBA talking about “unicorns” – centers and long power forwards with guard-type skills. Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, who shared their rookie year with Jokić are lauded as the next big thing. Joel Embiid’s unique skillset puts him in the conversation. Giannis Antetokounmpo is a near-seven-footer with athleticism and skills that put him a conversation all his own. Even the more established Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins have drawn attention for their ability to stretch the floor and distribute. So where is the love for the Joker? Why is the Serbian the odd one out? Nikola Jokić’s recognition is coming. Fans are just going to have to learn to focus a bit lower on the draft board.