There is not a player in the NBA who better personifies the phrase “humble beginnings” in regards to their basketball career than Nikola Jokić. The league MVP was quite literally sleeping on himself when he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 41st overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
Jokić, aptly nicknamed “The Joker” due to his high basketball IQ and ability to toy with defenses, has slowly but surely risen to the top of the NBA and has now won his first MVP award this season. So how did this formerly obese Serbian horse racer who drank three liters of Coca-Cola per day end up the MVP of the best basketball league in the world? Possibly even more puzzling, why are the media and the NBA community having such a tough time coming to terms with it?
My guess is that no one likes being wrong, and the NBA community could not have been more wrong about this one. It has become routine for the Denver Nuggets to find diamonds in the rough in regards to drafting, and Nikola Jokić epitomizes that. He is just the second 2nd-round pick in NBA history to do so (Willis Reed).
The trajectory of the Joker’s career has been a beautiful thing. A steady linear incline that began overseas, and is taking place right before our lucky eyes.
The Joker’s Overseas Dominance
Nikola Jokić was born in Sombor, Serbia on February 19th, 1995. Jokić’s love for basketball started at a young age given that both of his older brothers played either professionally or collegiately. The Joker played his youth basketball in Vojvodina Srbijagas, a men’s professional basketball club based in Novi Sad, Serbia. In 2012, Jokić signed with Mega Vizura, and by the age of just 17, he played five games in the Serbian league where he averaged 1.8 PPG and 2.0 RPG in 10.2 MPG. By the very next season Jokić was averaging 11.4 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 2.5 APG in his 25 Adriatic league games. The progression was already extremely evident.
The Joker was drafted to the Denver Nuggets in 2014, but his dominance overseas did not end there. In the 2014-2015 season, he became one of his team leaders and began the season by logging an astounding 27 points and 15 rebounds in a win. He was later named the MVP of that round. He would follow that with another round MVP… and another round MVP until he was named MVP for the month of February. Over his 24 games with the Mega Leks, he averaged a stout 15.4 PPG, 9.3 RPG (league leading), and 3.5 APG. As a result, he was named the Adriatic league MVP and the ABA league’s top prospect.
Dominance in Denver
Jokić joined the Denver Nuggets one full season after they had drafted him. He signed a contract with the squad after averaging 8.0 PPG and 6.2 RPG in the summer league.
Even with all those prior accomplishments, the Joker’s real coming out party happened on November 18th, 2015 when he put up 23 points and 12 rebounds in a loss against the San Antonio Spurs.
By the end of the 2015-2016 season, Jokić earned himself a place on the All-Rookie First Team after placing 3rd in the race for Rookie of the Year. He averaged 10 / 7 / 2.4 that season.
Next season is when, in my opinion, the legend of the Joker begins. Those who know his game understand that there is a lot more to it than flashy passes and triple-doubles. For the casual fans, that misconception was probably birthed in the 2016-2017 season when he had a bevy of triple-doubles coupled with recurring assist highlights. He logged his first triple-double on February 3rd, 2017 in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks where he dropped 20-13-11.
Nikola ended the season with six triple-doubles which ranked fourth in the league after Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and LeBron James. Not bad company if you ask me. He also placed second in the running for Most Improved Player. He averaged 16.7 / 9.8 / 4.9 that season.
The gradual incline of Jokić’s game was apparent, but he did not appear on anyone’s radar outside of Denver until the 2017-2018 season where he put up 10 triple-doubles and seven 30-point games. Nikola really made his mark in the tail half of that season. His Nuggets fell just one win short of the playoffs due to an overtime loss in a play-in game against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Not only was the Joker’s game improving on a year-by-year basis, but the Denver Nuggets record was as well. He averaged 18.5 / 10.7 / 6.1 that season.
The 2018-2019 season was one for the ages for the Joker. Prior to the start of the season, he signed a 5-year $148 million max-contract extension. In just his second game of the season, Jokić became just the second player in NBA history to log a 30-point triple-double without missing a field goal. He won Western Conference Player of the Week in the first week of the season. Later on that season he was selected as a reserve in his first NBA All-Star game. By the end of the regular season, the Joker ranked 2nd in triple-doubles with 12 behind only Russell Westbrook. He averaged 20.1 / 10.8 / 7.3 that season.
This season was also the first season he would carry his Nuggets to a playoff appearance. Being the 2nd seed in the daunting Western conference, the Nuggets had earned their stripes, but some still held reservations for their star player. Nobody could have guessed the heights Jokić would elevate his game to in just his first playoff appearance. In his very first series he carried the Nuggets past the Spurs after going down 3-1. In the next series, they lost in seven to the conference finalist Portland Trail Blazers. In his 14 playoff games he averaged an astounding 25.1 / 13.0 / 8.4 on ridiculous shooting splits. Following the end of the season, he earned a spot on his first All-NBA team and ended 4th in MVP voting.
By the 2019-2020 season, the Joker had already established himself as a bonafide superstar, but the legend was just beginning. Nikola had started the season strong with his routine record-shattering stat lines and unbelievable game winners. Coincidentally, both of his game winners to begin the season came against Joel Embiid’s 76ers and Karl Anthony Towns’ Timberwolves. Those were the only two players at the center position who belonged in the same stratosphere as Jokić. It was becoming quite obvious to most in the NBA community that the Joker may actually be better than both of them. His stellar start to the season earned him another nod to the NBA All-Star team.
The season took a turn for the worst and shut down completely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To that point in the season, Jokić averaged 19.9 / 9.7 / 7.0. A slight regression from the previous season, but no one would argue the Joker was still not steadily refining his game.
After waiting a safe amount of time and figuring out the proper precautions, Adam Silver made the decision to continue the NBA season in a “bubble”. In the bubble, Jokić once again elevated his game to new heights, averaging 24.4 / 9.8 / 5.7. Coupled with his star point guard Jamal Murray exploding on the scene, the Nuggets were a force to be reckoned with. The Jokić/Murray two-man game had been improving exponentially on a year-by-year basis, but it hit all-time levels in these playoffs. Perhaps even more impressive was the Joker’s complete body transformation where he lost close to 25 pounds. This weight loss enabled him to play more minutes throughout the playoffs with minimal fatigue.
Although the Nuggets did not win it all, the biggest story of the bubble was undeniably their unprecedented resilience in elimination games. On the backs of Jokić and Murray, Denver fought back from down 3-1 in a series not once, but twice! This was the first time in NBA history this feat had been achieved. After falling down 3-1 to the Jazz, they came back. After falling down 3-1 to the championship favorite Clippers in the very next series, they came back once again.
Their historic playoff run came to an abrupt and unfortunate ending after falling in five games to the Las Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. The complexion of the series would have been completely different if it were not for one faulty defensive rotation. If Anthony Davis misses his game winner in game two, they would have been tied 1-1, and who knows how the series would have looked after that. All things considered, this young Nuggets roster exceeded expectations and had much to look forward to in the future. The Joker earned himself another spot on the All-NBA team and once again finished top-ten in MVP voting.
The MVP Season
Here we are, the 2020-2021 season. Every single year to this point Jokić has upped the ante. His numbers and all around skill have seen a noticeable and consistent uptick since stepping on the basketball court, and it came to a head this year. It would be asinine to suggest this is the pinnacle of Nikola’s game considering he is just 26 years old, but thus far he has reached unimaginable heights considering his starting point.
Jokić came out guns-a-blazin’ with four triple-doubles in his first six games. On December 30th, Jokić passed Fat Lever for most triple-doubles in Nuggets franchise history, and moved into the 9th spot for all-time triple-doubles. The Joker won back-to-back Western Conference Player of the Week awards in January which subsequently led to winning Western Conference Player of the month. Jokić was then selected to his third consecutive All-Star game. On March 17th, the Joker passed Dikembe Mutumbo for most double-doubles in Nuggets franchise history. He followed that by winning Western Conference Player of the Month for the month of March. Later in the season, Jokić surpassed Wilt Chamberlain for the most 10+ assist games by a center in NBA history. In the shortened 72-game season where the Nuggets lost their Robin Jamal Murray to an ACL tear, Jokić carried the Nuggets to the 3rd seed in the west while playing all 72 games.
The Joker averaged a phenomenal 26.4 / 10.8 / 8.3 on near 50/40/90 shooting splits, but that does not tell the full story. Nikola Jokić led the league in nearly every single advanced statistical category. Such categories include Player Efficiency Rating (31.3), Win Shares (15.6), Win Shares per 48 Minutes (.301) Offensive Win Shares (12.2), Box Plus-Minus (11.7), Offensive Box Plus-Minus (9.2) Value Over Replacement Player (8.6), and Total Points Added. He finished first in double-doubles with 60, second in triple-doubles with 16, and became just the third player in NBA history to finish top-5 in total points, rebounds, and assists.
At the time of writing this, the Nuggets look poised for another deep playoff run. Even with the loss of Jamal Murray, they have not skipped a beat thanks to their league MVP. His ability to score at will along with his ability to get the utmost out of his teammates is on a level we see very rarely in the NBA. Three years ago, they fell one win short of the playoffs. Two years ago, they got to the Western Conference Semifinals. Last year, they made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals. Only one place to go from there, you do the math.
The Most Disrespected MVP
You would think that after having one of the most efficient offensive seasons in the history of the NBA that Nikola Jokić would garner more respect from the NBA community. Well… you thought wrong. The painful truth is that no matter how great the Joker becomes, he will never get the respect he deserves for multiple reasons.
The community has a tough time getting over his non-NBA looking body type. They do not have the privilege of watching him play every night because he does not play for a big-market. His unorthodox playing style leaves a lot of people confused as to how he is so effective. There are no flashy dunks or superhuman athletic highlights. Basically, he is not built like Giannis, he is not as accessible as LeBron, he is not as traditional as Joel Embiid, and he is not as athletic as… well, anyone.
This leads pundits like Nick Wright, Kendrick Perkins, and practically everybody outside of Jalen and Jacoby and the Denver faithful to feel completely justified in disrespecting this man on a daily basis. None more embarrassing than Nick Wright’s insistence that Nikola Jokić would be “the worst MVP in decades.”
I have never seen so many players arbitrarily thrown into the MVP discussion for what seems purely to spite the clear front runner. Jokić’s MVP odds currently started at +2,500 and ended at -10,000 according to Vegas. For those of you who do not understand what that means, by the end of the season you needed to risk $10,000 on Nikola Jokić to make just $100 if he were to win MVP. At the start of the season you had to risk just $100 to win $2,500. Vegas understood by the end. The pundits, however, did not and will not.
Throughout the season I have seen the likes of Joel Embiid, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Julius Randle, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Luka Dončić, and Damian Lillard thrust into the conversation. Every week it seemed like we were throwing another name out there just to remove some of the favorability from Jokić.
I have bad news for the talking heads. Nikola Jokić has won the MVP, and it is his first of many. There are even some pro-Joker media people suggesting this should have been the first unanimous MVP selection since Stephen Curry back in 2016, and just the second in the history of the league. It is impossible to calculate the height of Jokić’s potential, but we know he still has a long way to go considering he is just 26 years old. This year’s MVP award will likely be his first of many, and by the end of his career those will probably not be his most prized pieces in his trophy case!
I have bad news for the talking heads. Nikola Jokić is going to win the MVP, and it is not going to be close. There are even some pro-Joker media people suggesting this may be the first unanimous MVP selection since Stephen Curry back in 2016, and just the second in the history of the league. Some may chalk it up to injuries or some other nonsense, but the reality is that this year Nikola Jokić has been the single most effective player in the NBA this year. The scariest part is that he likely has not even touched his true potential. This year’s MVP award will be the first of many for the Joker, and I am sure the accolades will not stop there!