How Nikola Jokic gave a bottoming-out Nuggets organization championship aspirations

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) before the game against the Sacramento Kings at the Pepsi Center.
Oct 21, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) before the game against the Sacramento Kings at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Back in the 2014-15 NBA season, the Denver Nuggets were seemingly off the rails with almost no chance to be in their current position of batting for playoff contention in a ferocious Western Conference. Yet, here they are — slowly breaking down the seemingly impenetrable barrier that has inhibited legitimate playoff contention in the Mile High City for five long years.

What has allowed the Nuggets to finally rise out the abyss that they placed themselves in? The rapid ascension of their prized Serbian star, Nikola Jokic, who not only rose up the ranks of the NBA’s elite, but also carried the Nuggets with him in his three short years in the Association. Now, in a league driven by star power, the Nuggets have a top-25 player of their own and he is rumored to sign a five-year max contract worth $145.6 million once free agency begins on July 1st.

The five-year rebirth of the Nuggets franchise was a grueling and arduous process; a process that was an absolute necessity for Denver to flip their trajectory from bottoming-out entirely suddenly into a young and talented team on the rise. There are many other reasons for the Nuggets climb back into contention, but there was no catalyst as powerful as Jokic.

From Serbia to Denver

Back during some point in 2012, Jokic was playing for a junior team in the Serbian providence of Vojvodina. Nobody, and I mean nobody, had any idea who Jokic was and what he could do with a basketball in his hands. He was astonishingly out of shape, but managed to put up such profound numbers on a consistent basis that a gentleman by the name of Misko Raznatovic happened to take notice because of the gaudy numbers he would see every time he read the paper on Sunday morning.

Raznatovic was not just another man who enjoys reading the paper in the morning; Raznatovic was a sports agent, and when he asked his lead scout, Branimir Tadic, about Jokic, he had absolutely no idea who he was.

“I called our main scout, Branimir Tadić — who is the one most responsible for Boban Marjanovic and Nikola Pekovic getting picked up by our agency — and asked him about this Jokic guy,” Raznatovic told Blic Sports by way of Denver Stiffs. “To my great surprise, he didn‘t even know that this player existed. I insisted that he‘d check ASAP whether this center player — I figured that he was a tall guy since he would have around 20 rebounds — based his play and rebounding on strength, since he was biologically more aged and taller than his contemporaries — which is often the case in this age — or rather that was resulting from talent.”

“Soon, I received the info that his build and physique was meek and lousy and that this was a player who is overweight, but that he‘s got great talent,” Raznatovic continued. “I said to Tarija — a sports agent — that he should travel to Novi Sad — city in Serbia where team Vojvodina‘ is located — on the very next day and that he shouldn‘t return until the kid signs with the agency, which happened during that week. The kid didn‘t even have a contract with Vojvodina — the small club he was playing for — since he never practiced with their first team so they never recognized his skill. He was about to reach 18 years of age in just a couple of months and therefore was free under very proper conditions so that there were no difficulties for him to change the club and get to the center of attention which provides a chance for such kids, namely the basketball club Mega Vizura.”

Jokic was suddenly signed with Mega Vizura of the Adriatic league and started out on their first team, but not before he was separated from the team for 15 days as he proceeded to only work on his body. The rumor is that when he arrived to play for Mega, Jokic could not do one single pushup. Yet, after just 39 games in 2012-13 with Mega, Jokic was averaging 11.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in just 24.7 minutes per game. Jokic’s play caught the eye of Barcelona, who nearly acquired Jokic before the 2014 NBA Draft.

The day before Jokic was supposed to sign with Barcelona, he had one of the worst performances of his career and it led to Barcelona taking time to rethink bringing Jokic to the ACB league. That could have been where Jokic’s story ended. Instead, it was Arturas Karnisovas’ eye for talent kept that from happening. Karnisovas is arguably the most respected european player and executive there is and once he saw Jokic play, he made a point to do what he could to get him to Denver. That is when Karnisovas gave Jokic a small nudge towards the NBA and somehow convinced Jokic to join the Nuggets, even if it wasn’t right away.

So, after eventually being drafted 41st overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, Jokic proceeded to return to the Adriatic league play for Mega in 2014-15 with a new-found motivation. Jokic went on to win MVP of the Adriatic league the year after the Nuggets drafted him. That same year, he averaged 16.5 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 steals, and one block in 29.5 minutes per game over 38 total games. That was all that the Nuggets needed to see. They picked up the phone and called Jokic’s agent and told him that they wanted Jokic to come play with their summer league team.

Fast forward to July of 2015 and Jokic was officially in a Nuggets uniform for Las Vegas Summer League where he proceeded to force his way onto the Nuggets roster before even leaving Sin City. That was where Jokic’s rise to stardom began.

Rapid rise to stardom

Once Jokic became a member of the Denver Nuggets as a rookie in 2015-16, he was still an afterthought to begin the year. He was perceived as nothing more than a backup center to incumbent starter Jusuf Nurkic, but by the end of the 2016-17 season, Jokic’s sophomore season, it was clear that the Nuggets finally had their first star player since Carmelo Anthony.

Nurkic was drafted in 2014, like Jokic, but he instead came straight over to the Nuggets instead of playing an additional year overseas. He quickly established himself as a potential pillar of the future for the Nuggets in his rookie year, but Jokic was still playing for Mega in Serbia and had not yet been given his chance to showcase his full repertoire of skills. Then, once Nurkic’s rookie year came to an end, it came to light that he needed surgery to repair a slight tear of the left patella tendon. That injury was the beginning of the end for Nurkic’s time in Denver as a member of the Nuggets.

Nurkic’s injury forced him to miss the start of the 2015-16 season, but it also forced Jokic into Michael Malone’s rotation much earlier than anticipated. Even though Jokic logged 15 minutes or more in 10 of the first 15 games of his rookie season, his minutes were inconsistent and somewhat random. Jokic still needed to earn the trust of his head coach and show that he could continue to produce at a high level with more and more responsibility. He would have never been given that opportunity so early if it wasn’t for the injury to Nurkic.

Even with the arbitrary nature of the minutes that Jokic was given, he always seemed to produce as an incredible rate when on the court. During his rookie year, in games that Jokic played more than 30 minutes, he averaged 16.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game as a 21-year-old. The issue was not about Jokic’s ability to produce statistically, but more so that he did not have the conditioning to play more than 30 minutes a night on a consistent basis. In Jokic’s 80 games as a rookie, he recorded 10-19 minutes in 27 games, 20-29 minutes in 38 games, and 30-39 minutes just 10 games. Due to his athletic and physical limitations his rookie year, he was not able to show off his entire bag of tricks for a sustained amount of time.

That is not to say that Jokic didn’t show flashes. He managed to show off every skill that makes him unique from day one. Whether it was his court-bending passing ability, silky-smooth three-point stroke, savant-like basketball IQ, or the incredulous efficiency at which he stuffs the stat sheet, he continued to show that he has the potential to be one of the elite offensive players in the entire NBA. By the end of Jokic’s rookie season, he was operating as the fulcrum of the Nuggets offense more often than not and doing so with ease and pizazz.

Malone allowing Jokic to eventually have control of the offense in his rookie season was quite the show of faith, but it took time for Malone to build up that level of confidence in his young pass-happy center. Jokic was not exactly the typical primary option for an NBA offense. He was still out of shape by NBA standards, played a reckless brand of basketball, and he couldn’t defend seemingly anyone one on one. Add in Jokic’s extreme athletic limitations and it is easy to see why any NBA head coach would think twice, or even three times, before handing the keys over to a player like Jokic.

By the end of Jokic’s rookie season, Malone relented control, allowed Jokic to work through his mistakes, and empowered him to be himself — not try to fit any traditional mold of what a 6-foot-11 center should be. Because of that decision by Malone, Jokic began to evolve into a star-caliber player that he is now, and the metamorphosis was almost instantaneous.

Jump ahead to the end of the 2017-18 season, Jokic’s third year in the NBA, and Jokic has put up numbers that only resemble some of the greatest players to ever step on a basketball court. No stat is more telling than the one that Andy Bailey of SLC Dunk pointed out on twitter which is that Jokic has accumulated 3,402 points, 2,081 rebounds, 1,006 assists, 230 steals, and 166 blocks in his first three seasons. Larry Bird is the only other player in NBA history who hit all five marks within his first three seasons in the NBA. The catch? Bird played nearly 3,000 more minutes than Jokic did through is first three seasons.

In just three years, Jokic went from a player who surprised many by making the Nuggets roster after summer league to becoming the embodiment of the life raft that saved the Nuggets organization from drowning. His rapid rise to stardom was astonishing, but the real challenge now lies ahead.

Time for the real challenge

Now, there are no excuses for this Nuggets team. They have missed the playoffs by just a singular game in each of the last two seasons, and the table is now set for the Nuggets to finally break back into the Western Conference playoff picture .

Jokic, with his reported five-year max contract worth $145.6 million being prepared for him, now has more pressure on him than ever before to carry the Nuggets back into contention. He has never has the weight of an entire NBA franchise on his shoulders before, but the carefree and phantasmagorical Jokic has never been one to take a situation too seriously. Instead, he just continues doing exactly what he has always done; have as much fun on a basketball court as possible.

Because of Jokic’s immense talent, the Nuggets’ goals have taken on new life. No longer are the goals of ending their five-year playoff drought acceptable. Instead, it is championship aspirations that remain, and without the rapid ascension to stardom by Nikola Jokic, those aspirations would seem ludicrous.

Jokic has done many things for the Nuggets, but nothing he has done is as important as his ability to inspire hope for both the Nuggets organization and fans alike. Because of Jokic, the Nuggets finally have championship hopes once again. Whether or not Jokic is able to carry the Nuggets to a NBA Finals victory is yet to be seen, but for the first time in five years, the hope of bringing a championship to Denver is no longer an insane proposition.