‘Jokmas,’ brother beefs and early signs of stardom: Nikola Jokic’s rise to NBA champion

  • ESPN.com

Jun 12, 2023, 11:24 PM ET

DENVER — Long before Nikola Jokic won his first NBA championship, his first Finals MVP and his back-to-back league MVPs, there was “Jokmas.”

It was 10 days before Christmas in 2016, and Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone was “racking” his brain for solutions to jump-start his team, which was sputtering to a 9-16 start to the 2016-17 season.

The Nuggets had been starting Jokic and fellow big man Jusuf Nurkic as the foundation of a gigantic lineup that wasn’t working, spurring Jokic to ask Malone to bring him off the bench. But after the Nuggets lost by 20 points against the Dallas Mavericks, Malone returned home late that night deliberating his next move.

Malone had a revelation that changed the course of the franchise.

“I’m talking to myself,” Malone told ESPN. “This kid was All-Rookie as a center and here I am bringing him off the bench and playing him as a 4 and a 5. And I said, ‘Screw everything.’ Nikola’s a center. He’s our center. And the next game, I started him at center. From that point in time, our offense, our team, our winning, everything just went straight up.

“I made a decision that he would become the focal point of everything we do, every decision we make, every player we bring in has to be somebody that can play with and complement Nikola.”

The next game, Jokic started and played just 19 minutes because of foul trouble, finishing with 13 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds against the Portland Trail Blazers. But the Nuggets won by 12, the first victory in a three-game win streak.

Malone’s decision set the Nuggets on their path to hoisting their first Larry O’Brien Trophy on Monday night. That night on Dec. 15, 2016, Jokmas was born and the big man from Sombor, Serbia, was on his way to becoming a playoff record-breaking triple-double generator, an all-time passer and one of the greatest centers since Wilt Chamberlain.

“Now knowing what this means,” Malone said, “it was just a really truly defining moment in this franchise’s history because I think everything at that point in time changed and changed for the better.

“… It was the best decision I ever made.”

When the Nuggets selected the 6-foot-11 Jokic with the No. 41 pick in 2014, then-general manager Tim Connelly never would have imagined he had discovered one of the all-time draft gems.

Jokic had displayed the passing vision, the soft touch and the team-first selfless attitude, but there was plenty of work to be done on molding his body and adding strength.

Nine years since that draft, Jokic has become a transcendent center who can handle and pass like a point guard, score from seemingly anywhere on the court with Dirk Nowitzki-like one-legged daggers and muscle his way inside to dominate the glass. Masterminds such as Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra have had trouble uncovering a weakness to exploit.

And he’s only getting better. Merry Jokmas, Denver fans.

Here are the stories that give a glimpse of the big man’s journey to his first NBA championship.

— Ohm Youngmisuk


‘You never quite know what kind of trick he will try to pull off’

“Basketball is about teammates,” Jokic told me the first time I met and interviewed him in Portland, Oregon, at the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit. “When I’m open, I score. When I’m not, I pass.

“I play basketball as simple as I can. I don’t jump high. I don’t run fast.”

Jokic wasn’t a well-known or highly regarded NBA prospect at that point, which helps explain why he was the No. 41 pick two months later. But signs of what would make him so special were on display, as written in my scouting report:

“Jokic, an exceptionally unique player, has an advanced feel for the game. … He’s such an unconventional and creative finisher that you never quite know what kind of trick he will try to pull off, which has left many rotating defenders baffled, while old-school NBA lifers just shake their heads and smile.”

Unfortunately for Jokic, he was forced to take a back seat to prospects such as Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles as the future Duke national champion trio of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow took down the World Select team, with Jokic putting up 5 points, 7 rebounds, 0 assists and 2 turnovers in 16 minutes of action, struggling to cover ground and being scored on repeatedly.

There were hints of Jokic’s supernatural feel for the game in the form of well-timed blocks, steals, rebounds and simple passes, but he barely touched the ball offensively and his severe athletic limitations made it difficult to envision him holding his own physically in the NBA. Few expected him to enter the draft less than a month later, especially since he had only begun to play basketball seriously 1½ years earlier when he moved to Belgrade to play for Mega Vizura.

Even fewer — including Jokic himself — anticipated his rise into the best basketball player in the world.

“I’m going step-by-step,” Jokic said in April 2014 when asked about his career aspirations. “I don’t think so much about the NBA, but everyone loves to play in the NBA. Maybe some big EuroLeague club: Barcelona, Real [Madrid].

“[But] the NBA is the NBA.”

— Jonathan Givony


‘Don’t let Coke be stronger than you’

Before Jokic’s name would routinely be mentioned for reaching a statistical feat for the first time since Chamberlain, the Serbian center arrived in the U.S. unable to hold a plank exercise position for 20 seconds.

“I died! I died,” Jokic told ESPN in 2019. “I was shaking. I said, ‘I can’t.’ I said, ‘Fuuuuuuuu …'”

The Nuggets discovered that the center with the sweet passes had a sweet tooth. Spoelstra might not have been able to find a flaw in Jokic’s game in the NBA Finals, but before Jokic came to the NBA, he had a weakness for Coca-Cola, downing three liters per day in Serbia.

“I think it’s just mental,” said Jokic, who drank his last can on his first flight to Denver in 2015. “Like, don’t let Coke be stronger than you.”

With the help of Nuggets director of performance and head strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger, Jokic began transforming his body, first into an All-Star fit enough to put up 33 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists in 65 minutes during a quadruple-overtime loss in the playoffs to Portland in 2019 and then into a leaner two-time MVP who can punish opponents with a combination of finesse and strength.

Replacing soda with protein drinks, Jokic’s vices these days are a lot healthier. When he’s not spending time with his wife, Natalija; daughter, Ognjena; and his brothers, Jokic is indulging in his passion for horses and horse racing. Jokic has said during this postseason run that he spent some of the off-time he and the Nuggets had between each series watching his horses compete overseas.

“I enjoy animals,” Jokic said. “Their nature. They’re really good animals. Every different horse has a different personality, like a human.”

Jokic used to love playing video games and binge-watching shows such as “Friends” and “Game of Thrones.” This postseason, he has said he tries to spend time in the pool with his daughter if the Denver weather cooperates on off-days.

Once a chubby kid in Sombor, Jokic has an MVP body fit for lounging by the water after toppling his very first sugary and carbonated opponent.

— Youngmisuk


How Game 82 fueled championship No. 1

Ninety minutes before Game 4 of the 2023 Finals, Malone took a walk down memory lane.

When describing the moment he knew Jokic and Jamal Murray would be the stars that the Nuggets could build around, one game popped into Malone’s mind.

“The play-in tournament before the play-in tournament,” Malone said.

It was the regular-season finale on April 11, 2018, when Malone and his team found themselves in the battle that served as the de facto precursor for the modern play-in: game No. 82 against Jimmy Butler and the Minnesota Timberwolves, the winner securing the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

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Nuggets miss critical shot in OT

In the final 25 seconds of overtime, Will Barton misses a crucial basket and Karl-Anthony Towns grabs it to secure the Timberwolves’ first playoff berth since 2004.

“We lost that game in overtime, but Nikola and Jamal, a third-year player, a second-year player, they were out there playing at a high level,” Malone said. “I can remember Josh Kroenke coming up to me after that game and being excited about what the future held because of how well those guys played with the stakes that were obviously going on during that game.”

Jokic, who scored 35 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the loss, hasn’t stopped improving since. It was a seminal moment for the player who would go on to become a two-time MVP and the leader of an NBA champion, and it was the first major taste of playoff atmosphere for Jokic & Co.

It was also preparation for future battles with Butler, the star Denver would defeat as a member of the Heat years later en route to the organization’s first championship.

— Nick Friedell


The series loss that jump-started Jokic’s MVP rise

Denver ended up falling to the Trail Blazers in seven games in the 2019 West finals, and while Jokic led the team in every major category — averaging 27.1 points and 13.9 rebounds in 42 minutes a game — he wore down as the series went on.

By the end of Game 7, he had nothing left. He missed seven of 10 shots in the fourth quarter, unable to carry his team across the finish line.

It was a devastating defeat. The Nuggets had been up by 11 points at home midway through the third quarter. All they had to do was finish and they’d be in the West finals against a Golden State Warriors team dealing with injuries and chemistry issues.

Afterward, as Malone huddled the Nuggets coaches in the locker room, they heard a knock at the door.

It was Jokic. He had come to tell them he’d never let that happen again.

Nuggets assistant coach David Adelman remembers the sentiment in Jokic’s voice as much as what he said.

“He was emotional when he came in,” Adelman said. “I think he felt like he wore down in the second half, and we all looked at him like, ‘Joker. You carried us through this whole process.’

“The responsibility he has for us is different than maybe any player in the NBA. He can be our center. He can be our point guard. He can play the wing. He can be a catch-and-shoot guy. He’s playing every part of the floor.”

But Jokic was not interested in any consolations. He had finally felt what he and Eichenberger had been talking about: Everything he had was not enough to win. There was another level he needed to get to.

“I mean, he gave everything he had possible,” Adelman said. “But then I think he, in his mind, thought, ‘Maybe I can give more. Maybe if I get in even better shape. Maybe if I do this.'”

And so he did.

— Ramona Shelburne | Read the full story


The night the Jokic Bros. joined Twitter

Within seconds of creating the account, Jokic’s older brothers became social media phenomenons.

The circumstances had something to do with it.

It was Nov. 9, 2021, the day after their 6-11 little brother posted a 25-point, 15-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in a home rout of the Heat. That game is remembered for a nasty exchange with 2:39 remaining, when Jokic responded to a cheap shot to his ribs by Markieff Morris by ramming his shoulder into the Miami forward’s back as Morris walked away.

Morris received a flagrant foul 2, a $50,000 fine and a case of whiplash that sidelined him for the next four months. Jokic was also ejected and suspended for a game.

Several Heat players — including Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Kyle Lowry — waited steps outside the Nuggets’ locker room after the game, although a postgame confrontation didn’t happen.

But the beef blew up on Twitter, and brothers on both sides got involved.

Markieff’s twin, Marcus, then a forward for the LA Clippers, tweeted that Jokic “waited till bro turned his back smh. NOTED”

That prompted the creation of the short-lived @JokicBrothers account, which immediately replied to Marcus Morris: “You should leave this the way it is instead of publicly threatening our brother!Your brother made a dirty play first . If you want to make a step further be sure we will be waiting for you !! Jokic Brothers”

Strahinja, the eldest, played pro ball in Europe for several years and stands about 6-8 and 300-plus pounds. Nemanja is a leaner 6-6 but has an undefeated record in three professional MMA fights.

Fortunately for all, the beef didn’t escalate beyond social media. The Jokic brothers, who have been regulars at Denver games throughout Nikola’s career, made the Nuggets’ next Miami trip without incident.

— Tim MacMahon


Jokic and the NBA’s biggest big man battle

As anyone who has watched the NBA over the past decade or so knows, the league has consistently moved away from the low post game that defined so much of its history, instead churning out one perimeter star after another as the sport has migrated to the 3-point line and beyond.

That’s what has made the battles between Jokic and Joel Embiid over the past three seasons for the league’s MVP award so fascinating, as annually the title for the sport’s best player across 82 games has come down to a pair of 7-foot centers going toe-to-toe.

But while that has been a back-and-forth affair over the past three years — with Jokic claiming back-to-back MVPs before Embiid took the honor this season — Jokic has ended it with his play over the past two months.

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Nikola Jokic wins Finals MVP

Nuggets fans shower Nikola Jokic with MVP chants as he receives his Finals MVP trophy.

He has emphatically settled another debate: Can a team built around a center win in today’s NBA?

Before Denver’s run, the last champion led by a center was the 2002 Los Angeles Lakers, whose three-peat was powered by Shaquille O’Neal’s dominance in the paint and Kobe Bryant’s brilliant scoring. From 1983 to 2020, only three centers — Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994, David Robinson in 1995 and O’Neal in 2000 — had won MVP.

Now, Jokic and Embiid have ripped off three in a row. (And Jokic will open as the clear favorite to win his third in 2023-24.)

It’s all proof that in the modern “pace and space” version of the sport, there is still more than enough room for a dominant center to have a seat at the table among the best players — both today, and all-time.

Of course, it helps when that player is a triple-double machine and the maestro of the unstoppable offense that ripped through Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, LeBron James and Anthony Davis and finally Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo.

That kind of playoff dominance has normally been reserved for guards and wings. But after Jokic’s brilliance over the past two months, the center position is back at the center of the NBA universe.

— Tim Bontemps


Defense — Jokic’s, in particular — wins a championship

Even as Jokic established himself as the NBA’s best player during the regular season, winning back-to-back MVPs and finishing second in the voting this season, a question lingered: Was his defense good enough for him to have the same impact deep in the playoffs?

Jokic has the misfortune of having his defensive weaknesses (shot blocking and defending in space) be much more readily apparent than his subtle strengths (defensive rebounding, forcing turnovers and avoiding defensive fouls).

In the crucible of the playoffs, those weaknesses become magnified. Such was the case during the Nuggets’ previous playoff exits. Despite an improbable run to the 2020 conference finals with a pair of 3-1 comebacks in the bubble, Denver ranked 12th in defensive rating and last among teams that advanced more than a round. In 2021, the Nuggets ranked 13th (again last among teams that won a series) and last year they were dead last.

Of course, that wasn’t just about Jokic, and Denver’s roster around him looks very different than it did the past two seasons. The return of Murray made it more difficult for opponents to put offense-heavy lineups like Golden State’s “Poole party” three-guard group on the court without paying at the other end.

Meanwhile, the Nuggets wisely added wing defenders Bruce Brown Jr., Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Christian Braun, who excel at chasing opposing ball handlers over screens and affecting pull-up attempts with what NBA coaches call a “rear-view” contest.

Nonetheless, let’s reserve some of the credit for Denver ranking among the top half of playoff defenses for Jokic’s development. Always most comfortable coming up to the level of the screen, Jokic has primarily played drop coverage in the postseason. And although he won’t be confused for four-time Defensive Player of the Year Ben Wallace, Jokic has done an improved job of contesting shots in the paint.

During the regular season, opponents made 68.5% of rim attempts with Jokic as a primary defender, which ranked him 57th among the 66 players who defended at least 250 such shots, according to NBA Advanced Stats. In the playoffs, that has dropped to 59%, a difference of more than a point per game based on how many rim attempts Jokic has defended.

Now that Jokic has proved his defense is good enough to lead the Nuggets to the championship, there’s only one question left to ask: How many times can he do it?

— Kevin Pelton