Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone is no stranger to opposing teams trying to lobby for their players to be selected to the All-Star game. In years past, opposing teams would send bottles of wine or other gifts to opposing coaches in their conference as an attempt to bribe their way to getting their star player selected to the All-Star game.
“It doesn’t happen much anymore,” Malone explained. “I remember when I was an assistant coach one year, Minnesota had a great one. They put out a record. It was a Kevin Love and (Nikola) Pekovic ‘Blues Brothers’ record and they sent it to every coach in the conference.”
Instead of going through that amount of effort and trying to get Nikola Jokic to sing the blues for all opposing Western Conference coaches to hear, all Jokic needed to do to make the All-Star game was just be himself.
“I think with Nikola, I think the players respect his greatness and they understand that he is an All-Star and an All-NBA player,” Malone stated. “It was a well-deserved honor. I am happy for him.”
For Jokic — who is averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game in 2019-20 — his play has spoken for itself. That is why, when Malone was asked to share his reaction to the news, he was entirely unsurprised.
“There was no doubt in my mind that he is an All-Star and that he would be selected for his second-consecutive appearance,” Malone explained. “I think it just symbolizes the recognition of him being a great player and the fact that we have earned a reputation as a team that has a chance to compete at the top of the West. And when you have the record that we have, you deserve to have an All-Star and Nikola is a terrific player.”
Not only is Jokic’s production incredible, which is absolutely is, but he has consistently and constantly improved his game year after year which is just another reason that Malone is proud of Denver’s Serbian Sensation.
“Being around Nikola for five years and seeing his development up close and personal as a leader and as a player in every single category has been truly remarkable,” Malone said. “He is deserving of all of the success he getting.”
Still, Jokic’s numbers are not what has impressed Malone the most. Instead, when asked about Jokic’s stellar defense against the Utah Jazz, Malone decided to answer in his own way and spoke extensively about Jokic’s vocal leadership.
“As great as he played — points, rebounds, and the defense that you talked about — every huddle he was talking to his guys. That is invaluable,” Malone explained after the Nuggets 106-100 win over division rival Utah Jazz.
“I think he understands that this is the next step in his development and maturation. He is our best player. He is our franchise player. With that, we expect a lot from him. On the court, points, rebounds and assists, but also to be a vocal presence. Lead by example — which he always does — but now he is adding the voice. That is probably the greatest challenge for him and he is getting really comfortable doing it.”
When Nuggets small forward Torrey Craig was asked about Jokic’s recent talkative attitude, he joked that Jokic has been talking so much that he might be talking too much which seemed unfathomable just a year ago.
“He is definitely more talkative — sometimes he talks too much now — but he is talking out defensive schemes, telling you how to guard guys, telling players where to be on offense so he is being very assertive in the huddles and on the bench,” Torrey Craig told reporters after the game.
When Jokic was questioned about his growing leadership qualities and if they were difficult to acquire, Jokic gave the most Jokic answer imaginable.
“No. I just didn’t want to do it,” Jokic joked when asked if it was difficult to become more of a vocal leader.
Jokic was then asked what made him not want to be a vocal leader as a follow-up question and stayed entirely on-brand by saying, “because then you need to do it every game.”
“No, I am kidding (laughs),” Jokic stated after joking about his unwillingness to vocally lead his team each night. “I don’t know. If I see something, I am going to say something, but I do not want to give the wrong information or something. If I say something, I want to truly make sure it is good information.”
While that back-and-forth between Jokic and reporters was enjoyable and funny, it is hard not to wonder if there is a little bit of truth in that joke.
Maybe Jokic was not confident enough in his first four years in the NBA to share his own thoughts and observations with his teammates. That is why the last sentence of his quote above is so interesting. Jokic did not want to be the reason bad information was spread, but now that he is more comfortable in his own shoes, he is more willing to share what he sees on the court.
“To me, that is his greatest growth,” Malone explained. “He is a hell of a player, but that is the area that he has had to improve upon the most and he has made great strides there.
“It is a process. This year has been by far Nikola’s best in terms of being vocal and being positive.”
Against the Jazz on Thursday night, Jokic was constantly talking with his teammates on the court, in the huddles, and from the sidelines even when he wasn’t playing. Without Jokic’s assertiveness as a leader, Denver would be in a much worse spot.
Jokic’s leadership carried the Nuggets to their six-point win over the Jazz despite the fact that Denver was without three starters — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap — in addition to being without their only backup center — Mason Plumlee.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Jokic finished with 28 points on 11-19 shooting to go with 10 assists. Despite the Nuggets being in a tightly contested fourth quarter, Jokic put his team on his back as he proceeded to score 11-striaght points to close out the game and carry Denver to what Malone called “one of the best wins of the year”.
After the win, the Nuggets are sporting an unblemished record against their division. After beating the Jazz, the Nuggets are tied for the best record against teams in their division in the Western Conference with a 7-0 record which would not have happened without Jokic stepping in and delivering in the clutch, as he has done all season long.
“That is what we expect from Nikola,” Malone stated. “End of games, close it out and make the right play. He did that once again.”