Nuggets must give Nikola Jokic the keys to the franchise

Apr 5, 2018; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) reacts after a play in the first quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The television cameras captured the growth during a timeout huddle. The moment came near the end of the Denver Nuggets’ 112-106 overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, an all-or-nothing game that finished their season without a playoff appearance for the fifth straight year. There was Nikola Jokic, engaged in an intense conversation with his teammates.

He was not goofy or stoic. He was zoned in. It was the moment that should erase all doubt. Jokic is ready to be a star.

It’s been coming for weeks. There were reports that Paul Millsap talked to Jokic about needing to lead the team. It was clear that the coaching staff wanted this from Jokic. Everyone watching the Nuggets knew the potential was there. We were all just waiting on Jokic.

And he arrived.

It started with his play during the six-game winning streak that kept the Nuggets’ season alive. Jokic was no longer having off nights. He was taking over quarters and heavily involved in key situations.

Then, there was the Jokic of the final minutes of the Minnesota game. Every time he appeared on camera, he looked focused and driven. Was this Michael Jordan or LeBron James? No, it was the guy who has his own segment on the scoreboard at the Pepsi Center reading bad jokes like Jerry Seinfeld. This was the guy that plays cool under pressure as if he doesn’t know what pressure is carrying the weight of the team on his shoulders.

And as the reality of the loss set in, Jokic was as dejected as any Nugget.

If that’s the guy that’s going to show up every night, Jokic has turned an important corner in his growth towards NBA stardom. He’s worth betting on—the next card that’s going to be overturned is the Joker.

A tweet by the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Paul Klee after the game summed up what Jokic can be: “…Nikola Jokic is even more than anyone has written or said. He’s going to be an all-timer.” Klee’s correct. Give Jokic the keys to the franchise now.

The Nuggets are actually in a position to do just that this summer. Mile High Sports’ TJ McBride broke down the Nuggets’ offseason last night and the big question mark is Jokic’s contract. Do they offer him a maximum contract this year? That should be the hope in Denver, because Jokic cannot leave the state.

The talent has always been there. It started with his passing. Then he became a better rebounder. Now, his shot selection is getting better. Even Jokic’s defense is marginally improved. The only missing ingredient was this idea of having the fire within him to want to win.

He’s caught it. Whether from a teammate or a coach, he seems fully engaged in leading this Nuggets team to new heights.

So this summer, the Nuggets need to start really building around Jokic. No more personnel decisions spun to help Jokic that end up hindering him. No more spending money on veterans who can’t get Jokic closer to the finals. No more pretending like this is anyone else’s team.

The Nuggets have three really good players. Gary Harris and Jamal Murray can get this team far. But at the end of the day, Jokic is ready to lead the charge.

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