Nikola Jokic is headed to his first NBA Finals, and all the momentum is with Denver. It’s the culmination of an incredible 10-year career that still feels like it’s just getting started, and came about in the most incredible way.
Joker being on the verge of winning his first NBA championship is an opportunity to appreciate just how much he’s evolved since being the No. 41 overall pick in 2014 NBA Draft. This was a guy who was pegged to be a 9th or 10th option, likely lasting a handful of years in the NBA before heading to Europe. Instead he’s become arguably the best player in the NBA right now, and headed towards one of the best careers in the history of the NBA.
Jokic is the Tom Brady of the NBA — the throwaway pick who became legend. It’s impossible to quantify how unlikely it was that Joker became this player — so how the hell did this happen?
The draft reports on Nikola Jokic
The only way to see brilliance in Jokic’s pre-draft tape is with a biased eye, and with the gift of hindsight. The biggest positive to his game as a prospective rookie was his basketball IQ and passing ability, as well as a knack for shooting. That’s really it.
Nothing remarkable jumped off the tape other than those traits, and the liabilities were considerable. Jokic had below-average athleticism, he wasn’t particularly quick, he wasn’t a great jumper — on top of all this he struggled to stay in front of forwards in the Adriatic League, suggesting he would get eaten alive on the defense end by athletic NBA front court players.
All this protected to a smart player with NBA size, but without NBA athletic ability. The most favorable player comparison was a poor man’s Nikola Vucevic, who was coming off a middling double-double season with the Magic. Could Jokic contribute? Sure, because he was an efficient scorer — but the defensive liabilities were so profound that there seemed no way he could contribute 30 minutes a game, let alone being a starter — and the idea of him becoming one of the greatest big men in NBA history was hilarious.
How were the scouting reports so wrong?
They weren’t, not really. However, one aspect that got lost in the draft shuffle was the potential for Jokic to grow. It’s widely accepted that players simply can’t get better athletically. It’s a talent you’re either born with or not, but playing in Serbia meant Jokic didn’t have access to something most draftees take for granted: Proper strength and conditioning.
Even a mid-level major college has superior access to strength and conditioning to what Jokic had in Serbia.
Nobody is going to mistake Jokic for an elite athlete, even now — but a lot like Tom Brady his IQ and feel for the sport is at such a profound level that incremental increases in athleticism turned him into an absolute monster. Jokic weighed in at 255 pounds prior to the draft, but it was a doughy 255. There wasn’t much muscle definition, he carried weight in his upper body, and looked sluggish because of it.
It took several years of work to improve this element of his body, but now Jokic is much leaner and well-defined as a 260 pound, 28-year-old than he was as a teenager.
It’s easy to forget that this didn’t happen overnight
This was not a case of the Nuggets taking Jokic and immediately stunning the NBA. The growth was a product of immense training and belief that he could become Denver’s focal point.
Early in his career it seemed Jokic was on track to hit his highest-level draft comparisons. He played a ton like Nikola Vucevic, albeit with a better passing game. Both players had similar rebounding rates, equal field goal percentages, defensively they were near identical — Jokic was the best player on a bad team, so was Vuvecic.
That’s a major win when you pick a player like that at No. 41 — but what came next is where this became historic.
In 2018-19 Jokic exploded. It was his first season as a full-time starter, and the first time in his career he was given over 30 minutes a game. Comparisons to Vucevic vanished instantly, and it quickly became clear we were dealing with something else entirely.
What Jokic is doing now is unprecedented
The NBA had never seen someone with Jokic’s passing ability from the five spot. Great passing big men have existed before, hell, Vlade Divac and Pau Gasol made careers out of it. Jokic though, he was on an entirely different level. For the Nuggets it was like having a second point guard in the front court. A guy with offensive scoring ability that had to be accounted for, but also an unnatural ability to find the open man when he commanded a double team.
Jokic is the entire package. A ruthless, efficient, basketball assassin. Nothing this man does is really pretty when it came to scoring, but sexy basketball is overrated — just ask Tim Duncan. However, as a passer, Joker is an artist. Every outlet to a teammate a brush stroke of greatness. When you put this all together you had an MVP player with a complete game the likes of which only comes along once in a very great while.
Magic Johnson had it, Michael Jordan had it, LeBron James has it, now Jokic does. It might be premature to compare him to the greatest legends the game has ever seen, but he’s absolutely on that path. An NBA Championship will elevate him past other great players, and at 28 years old it’s entirely possible he can run this back another few times.
What differentiates Jokic from the field when we talk about the best current NBA players is that he really doesn’t have a bonafide star next to him. Modern roster conventions tell us you have to have at least two star players to compete, but Jokic’s influence is taking guys like Jamal Murray, Aaron Gordon and Michael Porter Jr. — all of whom would be 4th or 5th options on most traditionally constructed teams, and turning them into monsters because of the attention Jokic commands.
Basketball-altering centers typically do their job passively. Shaq was a monster because he had to be doubled. You’d either get him the ball and he’d go to work, or the defensive adjustments opened the floor up for other guys to create. Joel Embiid is cut from the same cloth. Meanwhile, Jokic is a complete game-changer from the five spot, who doesn’t simply shift between passive and active gears. He can score, command defensive shifts, and legitimately create offense for others with his passing ability.
This trait is what causes him to make everyone better around him, elevating good players and making them great.
Nobody was wrong about Jokic’s projection entering the league. This isn’t a “gotcha” worthy of condemnation. Some are born with greatness, other have to earn it — and Jokic is the ultimate example of putting in every ounce of work to become the best version of yourself. Nobody could have ever seen than coming.
The sky is still the limit for Nikola Jokic, and whether he’s able to convert and win his first NBA title or not, he remains one of the most incredible players and stories in the NBA. If anyone knew what Tom Brady would become he would have been the No. 1 overall pick in 2000. The same can be said for Nikola Jokic. Hell, he wasn’t even the first European big man the Nuggets took on draft night of 2014, that honor goes to Jusuf Nurkić. What happened since that point is the stuff of legend, and why Jokic is a truly legendary talent.