The Rise of Nikola Jokic

22-year old Serbian is revolutionizing the game, legitimizing the Nuggets, and changing the face of basketball in Denver.

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Image Credit: Ryan Greene. 5280 Sports Network

DENVER — A crowd was gathering near the X-Ray room deep in the bowels of Pepsi Center. A proverbial who’s who of Denver Nuggets players and personnel waited outside, eagerly anticipating news.

General Manager Tim Connelly leaned against the wall, dressed in a grey sport-coat and pleated pants. His fingers scurried across his phone while he waited—doing the best he could to get news before there was news to be had.

Players filled the hall trying to find out how this might impact them. Center Jusuf Nurkic grabbed Connelly by the shoulder and chatted with him for more than five minutes. He almost certainly would need to be ready to play.

Somehow, at not even 22-years old, Nikola Jokic had stolen the breath out of the building. No, this wasn’t one of his signature lob passes or a 7-10 foot floater to win a critical game. Instead, it was an injury.

It was January 26 and Jokic had taken a hard and awkward fall late in a home game against the Phoenix Suns. His piercing scream could be heard all the way in the far press box. He clutched at his leg and grimaced in pain as teammates surrounded him—helplessly looking on. Trainers carried him off the floor to a nearby cart that wheeled the 6’11” 260-pound behemoth to the X-Ray for diagnosis and treatment.

A little more than a month earlier, Jokic had been inserted into the Nuggets’ starting lineup as a last-ditch effort by head coach Michael Malone to save a flailing season. Denver was 9-16 and had struggled to find any measure of consistency either from their starting lineup or their bench.

Then, on December 15, Malone inserted Jokic, along with Danillo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler into the starting lineup to play with Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris in the back-court. In the intervening month, the Nuggets had gone 11-9 and were inching their way back to respectability in the Western Conference. More importantly, Jokic had emerged as a key figure in Denver’s lineup.

Finally, after minutes that seemed like hours, Jokic emerged from the X-Ray room. His brothers, two equally large and boisterous Serbs, guided Nikola from the X-Ray room to the locker room. Relief spread across Connelly’s face. “All clear.”

Jokic had strained his hip, but nothing more.

“Do me a favor,” Malone teased Jokic’s notoriously feisty brothers. “No wrestling tonight!”

That was two months ago.

In those two months, Jokic has become much more than just a key piece of Denver’s rotation. He has become a rising superstar in the NBA—a transcendent figure in the history of Nuggets basketball whose dazzling passes, humble attitude, and smooth shot have captivated die-hard fans and converted casual observers into real-life basketball believers.

“Nikola Jokic will not only be an All-Star, he’ll be an All-NBA player on day,” Malone said back in January. “I believe that in my heart.”

This season, Jokic is averaging 16.7-points, 9.5-rebounds, and 4.7-assists. However, his excellence can’t be described by numbers alone. The Serbian Snake’s greatness is better enjoyed in moments than in numbers.

No moment better encapsulates the hope Nuggets fans see in Jokic than a simple hook shot from last Thursday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Hosting LeBron and company is never an easy task for any team. It’s pressure packed as fans from around the area fill your arena to get a glimpse of a player some believe to be the greatest to ever wear the uniform. That pressure is only racketed up when you’re chasing a playoff berth, as the Nuggets are.

Denver hosted Cleveland in their building following back-to-back soul-crushing losses to James Harden and the Rockets. With the eighth and final playoff spot in the balance, beating the defending champion Cavs was not merely a luxury, it was a necessity.

Not only did Denver beat Cleveland, they whooped them like Muhammad Ali whopped Ernie Terrell when the challenger refused to call the champion by his chosen name in 1967—a 126-113 win that at one point devolved into a nearly 30-point beat-down.

No moment in that game invigorated the sold-out crowd or encapsulated Jokic’s excellence more than the moment where, with 2:55 seconds left in the third quarter, Jokic posted up LeBron, drove to the hoop—the crowd holding its breath in anticipation of what they felt was to come—and finished over the top of the greatest player in the game.

It was a signature moment for Jokic. It showed, as several other plays this season have, that this young rising-star is totally and completely unafraid.

“Have you seen Nikola’s brothers?” Malone joked that night. “He’s a tough kid from Serbia. He’s not scared. That’s no disrespect to LeBron. I know LeBron is a great player and a great competitor, but Nikola is not going to back down from anybody.”

The fearlessness he showed posting up James has spread throughout the roster. When he’s on the floor, the Nuggets offense improves dramatically.

Dec. 15 is the moment Malone believes the Nuggets’ reset their season. Since that date, Denver has posted an absurd 114.2 offensive rating. That isn’t just the best in the NBA, it’s among the best the sport has ever seen.

Jokic is the centerpiece of that success. His ability as a passer opens up everything for the Nuggets on offense. He posses a rare blend of touch, accuracy, and timing that create easy assists and highlight-reel buckets.

For all his success, Jokic seems at-most indifferent to personal achievements. He simply refuses to talk about himself. His focus is always on the team. Even when describing that signature moment against James, Jokic refused to give himself any credit.

“I just tried to cut,” he said. “I just tried to score. I didn’t think that was him or whatever. I just tried to score.”

Jokic is humble to an almost captivating extreme.

“I don’t have like my ‘signature move,'” he said through his thick accent, further describing the hook shot over James. “I just take what game give me. I just get to the paint and just hook him. It’s easy shot.”

Jokic has been the surprise star a developing team like Denver prays to find. Connelly took a flyer on the former point guard in the second round of the 2014 draft hoping to stash him in Europe and perhaps bring him to Denver to fill a rotational role behind Nurkic, who the Nuggets had taken a round earlier in that draft.

The script flipped. Jokic found himself making regular appearances on the SportsCenter Top 10 and Nurkic found himself on the bench. Eventually, he found his way to Portland.

Now, Nurkic and Jokic are competing for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. Denver leads by a game and a half with a 35-37 record. That’s already two more wins than last season and it puts the Nuggets on track to smash the win total of 34.5 Vegas projected ahead of the season.

None of that success would have been possible without the rise of Nikola Jokic. He’s emerged as not just the Nuggets’ next great player, but potentially someone fans will look back on years from now as the organization’s greatest player. Several individuals closely associated with the team already openly refer to him as the best Nugget who has ever played.

That moniker, of course, is years away from being awarded. However, Jokic’s impact on the organization is already evident—and not just on the court. Since he emerged as a top talent in the NBA and the Nuggets have continued to win games, both fans and media have begun to return to the team in droves.

The Nuggets finished dead-last in the NBA in attendance last season. As the year has gone along, Pepsi Center has grown more full by the game. Fans who once thought of the Denver’s basketball as a nothing organization in an NBA flyover city now recognize a simple reality: as of now, the Nuggets are the best team in this town.

Fans aren’t the only ones recognizing it. Media who just a year ago neglected to give the Nuggets the time of day now feature them as the lead story in their 10 o’clock sportscasts. A Denver sports talk station who spent the end of the Nuggets’ last season advertising that “There’s never an offseason for talking Broncos” spent the day after Denver’s win over Cleveland opening every one of their day-parts talking about the Nuggets.

None of that would have been possible without Nikola Jokic. His electrifying passes and rare scoring ability have put the Nuggets in position to be the only Denver team to make the playoffs this year. That’s no small feat. However, what’s more exciting is a much simpler thought.

For the Serb with the two rowdy brothers, the best might still be yet to come.