Nikola Jokić: How the Denver Nuggets center achieved basketball immortality

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As Bruce Brown Jr.’s free throw bounced off the rim and through the hoop, the Denver Nuggets took a five-point lead in Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

The Nuggets were just 14.3 seconds from lifting a first NBA Championship and sporting legacies were being created in that very moment – none more so than Nikola Jokić’s.

The Serbian has taken the franchise by storm in recent seasons, breaking records, making history, and winning over viewers of the league while doing so.

After picking up an NBA title, as well as the Finals MVP, Jokić has put himself amongst the very best to have ever stepped on the hardwood floor – not bad for someone drafted during a Taco Bell commercial.

‘It’s a really good moment to be a Serbian’

After being picked 41st in the 2014 NBA Draft, the 6-foot-11-inch center opted to stay in his home country, Serbia for another year.

After completing a season in the Adriatic League for Mega Basket, Jokić then ventured to Denver ahead of the 2015 NBA season.

Despite the change of scenery, the center has always maintained his love for Serbia, a country that has not only produced the hottest property in the NBA but also tennis’ best male player in Novak Djokovic, who won the French Open, a record-breaking 23rd grand slam, on Sunday. It is a great time for Serbian sport.

Jokić told reporters that participation in sport was always encouraged in Serbia when he was growing up, and went on to describe his compatriot Djokovic as “probably the best ever” tennis player.

“For us he’s the best ever of course, and now we have our NBA championship,” he said. “I think it’s a really good moment to be a Serbian.”

Djokovic shared his support for Jokić during his run to French Open glory, describing him as an “amazing guy” and the “pride of Serbia,” while Jokić also spoke in admiration of his fellow countryman during the NBA postseason.

“He is a guy who represents Serbia in a much bigger scene,” Jokić said in a postgame conference. “He’s a Serbian ambassador, and he’s really [an] idol to the kids in Serbia and not just on the court, with the things that his foundation is doing. He is the guy who you can look up [to].

“I want to be like him. He’s doing something great for kids, for Serbia, for everything. We cannot be compared.”

‘It’s a great journey’

As the quesarito advert played and Jokić was selected by the Nuggets, nobody could have expected the future that would be in store for the Denver big.

The Nuggets superstar has improved year on year in the NBA, eventually becoming the MVP of the league in 2021 and 2022 and if it wasn’t for Embiid’s impressive 2023 MVP campaign, Jokić would have recorded an incredible threepeat of MVP seasons.

Now with a ring and a Finals MVP, it is undisputed that Jokić will retire as an all-time great.

“I think it’s a great journey. Like you said, 41st pick, but that doesn’t matter. When you’re here, you’re a player,” the second-round draft pick humbly said postgame, in typical fashion not speaking for longer than necessary on his own accomplishments.

The five-time NBA All-Star now joins an elite list of just 11 players with two regular season MVPs and one Finals MVP.

“It’s been amazing, because you can look at it one of two ways. You can look at it from the basketball perspective, two MVPs, Finals MVP, world championship and everything he’s done on the court, and then more important for me you can look at off the court,” said Denver head coach Michael Malone on Jokić’s journey.

“The relationship, the love that I have for Nikola, his mother and father back in Sombor, Serbia, his brothers Nemanja and Strahinja, his wife Natalija and their daughter Ognjena.

“He’s never changed with all the success, and he never will. It’s just not in his nature. I love Nikola … it’s great to be a part of such a historically great player who’s an even better person, and I mean that sincerely. This is not coach-talk. Nikola is just a great, great man.”

The lack of self-aggrandizement when Jokić speaks about himself compared to the way friends and colleagues speak in awe about the center demonstrates one of the reasons as to why he has become such a likeable figure across the NBA.

However, Jokić may not be able to feel the love from Denver during Thursday’s championship parade if his wish to get home sooner rather than later comes true. “No. I need to go home,” he joked when told the parade would be on Thursday.

The 1-2 punch

Throughout all but one year of Jokić’s time in Denver, there has been one man alongside him and it’s hard to imagine the three-time All-NBA first teamer without Jamal Murray.

Murray has been through several trials and tribulations in recent years and missed the entirety of the 2021-22 season with an ACL injury but, after a long journey to fitness, it is clear the guard is back to his best.

While Jokić seems to have the same temperament, whether winning the NBA or losing a regular season game, the emotion took over Murray after picking up the chip.

“I couldn’t even hold it in. I don’t know. I couldn’t really hold it in. It was just a surreal moment,” Murray said after being brought to tears by his achievement. “Everything was hitting. Everything was hitting at once, from the journey, to the celebration with the guys, to enjoying the moment, to looking back on the rehab, to looking back at myself as a kid.

“I just wanted to be another guy, to be an inspiration for those little kids that even at those young ages have gone through some adversity, knowing that when you put your mind to it, that will take care of itself. It’s just the mindset you have to have.”

After winning the first ring, the Nuggets now have an opportunity to build a dynasty and with Jokić and Murray as one of, if not the best, two-man game in the NBA, Denver will be tough to shift.

“There’s more to come from me. I know if I can do this fresh off an ACL, still having sore days and everything like that, we can do this again,” a defiant Murray added.

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