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The Magnificent Relatability of Nikola Jokic

The Nuggets superstar continues to rack up the accolades and write his story, but it is done in an unprecedented way, befitting of such a unique basketball player and human being



The Denver Nuggets are currently in a second round series against the Minnesota Timberwolves. They lost the first two games due to a never-ending rotation of big men thrown at Nikola Jokic and stellar perimeter defense by Jaden McDaniels and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, and that’s before accounting for the greatness of Anthony Edwards. But there is hope as Denver blew out Minnesota in Game 3 to stay alive in the series. It is a turbulent time for the defending champs to say the least. Amid this chaos, however, their star Nikola Jokic won his third MVP award.


It is the third time in four seasons that the Nuggets center has been crowned as basketball’s best player. It is the most dominant string over the award since LeBron James won four of five MVP awards from 2008-2013. It was a remarkable season by Jokic who finished in the top ten in the following categories this season:


-          Points per game: 10th

-          Rebounds per game: 4th

-          Assists per game: 3rd

-          Field goal percentage: 10th

-          Two-point field goal percentage: 10th

-          True shooting percentage: 10th

-          Player Efficiency Rating (PER): 1st

-          Win Shares: 1st

-          Value Over Replacement Player (VORP): 1st


In short, he has been spectacular yet again. Many in the national media have openly stated that they felt that Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was more deserving since he had impressive stats on a young team that was the top seed in the Western Conference. While that is valid, it is worth taking a second to realize what we are witnessing with Nikola Jokic. He is a master of his craft, arguably the best offensive center we have seen in decades, and one of the greatest players of this era.


Elite Company



With his third MVP award, Nikola Jokic is now a part of an elite group of players in NBA history. Only eight other players have won three or more MVP awards. Seven of them are already in the Hall of Fame, and the eighth will be inducted after he is done playing (LeBron James). All eight players were also named to the NBA 75th anniversary team. Winning this many MVPs simply means that you were one of the best to ever play the game of basketball.


For context, Jokic has now been crowned as the best player in the NBA more times than Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Hakeem Olajuwon to name a few. Beyond these names is the realization of what makes Jokic such a special talent. At first glance he is a contradiction. We have all seen the clips and posts speaking to his seemingly lazy style without much athleticism. There have also been countless jokes made about his physique, as it is not the prototypical chiseled Adonis that we may be used to seeing in our favorite NBA players.


Jokic is, in many ways, the ultimate master of every skill that we as American basketball fans have associated with European players since they began coming into the NBA in the 1990s. First, he is a tremendous shooter for a player his size. He is a 35% three-point shooter for his career and attempts over 200 threes per season. He is also efficient in the midrange shooting 44% this past season, while also shooting 66% on floaters. Thanks to his size, he is also dominant near the basket as well, making him a true three level scoring threat.


But he is not simply a scorer, he is also an elite passer. So elite, in fact, that the Nuggets will often alternate between roles in pick and roll actions between Jokic and his teammate Jamal Murray. This allows the team to run their offense through him in a modern twist on the post driven offenses of the 1980s and 1990s. It is through these actions that we see some truly breathtaking passing angles and maneuvers that fill up highlight reels on a nightly basis. Quite simply, we have never seen a player like Nikola Jokic before and that might be why he is a bit misunderstood by some NBA fans and media members even after all the success that he has enjoyed.


The Deviation of the Norm



One of the longest running jokes in NBA fan circles is that Nikola Jokic doesn’t care about basketball, that he would rather just tend to his horses back home in Serbia. Jokic has openly rejected the fame that comes from being an NBA superstar. Appearing on his teammate Michael Porter Jr’s podcast, Jokic said, “Being famous, I think some people like it. I don’t, really. When I finish my career, I really wish nobody knows me, and I really wish my kid, or kids in the future, who knows, really remember me as a dad, not as a basketball player.


That quote tells you everything you need to know about Nikola Jokic the man. Much like many of us, Jokic looks at his profession as a job, it does not consume him the way that it consumes other athletes. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care or strive for greatness, his success and his tenacity on the court prove that assertion wrong. We often talk about work-life balance and focusing on things that make us happy. Nikola Jokic cares about his family, he loves his homeland, and of course he is passionate about his horse racing hobby. 

 

Many American sports fans don’t understand this mentality from our athletes despite practicing it in our own lives. We have grown up watching athletes like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady, and Serena Williams. All athletes that were at the top of their games possessed an almost maniacal obsession with their sports, it consumed them and became their life. It is what made them great, but it is not the formula for every great athlete.


Nikola Jokic is different in that regard; he is a player that might be the most relatable superstar we have ever seen. He cares about things that most people should be able to relate to. He also has a story that feels plucked out of a movie. A little known prospect by many in the 2014 NBA Draft, Jokic was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the second round where he was famously selected while a Taco Bell ad was playing. From that moment he jumped onto the NBA scene and is the face of his franchise and a superstar in the league. If nothing else, that is a story to root for.


Historical Merit



The center position is one of the most talent rich positions in the history of basketball. One of the reasons for this is that it was the most important position in the game for many years until Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James showed that there could be a different way to build a team. The one thing that basketball coaches and scouts have always cherished is size, which is why it is normal for teams to take chances on big men in the hopes that they can be dominant anchors for a team for over a decade.


Being an elite player at the center position as a result means that comparisons become inevitable. I started watching the NBA in the 1990s and in that time I have seen the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Rudy Gobert. That is a long list of players and that is without considering the legends before my time like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, and Willis Reed. This is the fraternity that a player like Nikola Jokic is among.


As a three-time MVP winner and NBA champion, Jokic has already surpassed most of these players in terms of how we measure greatness. Along with Joel Embiid it can be argued that he is already in the upper echelon of scoring versatility among centers as well. But he does not yet have the same hardware as Kareem or Russell, or all the records of Wilt. As he has secured yet another MVP award and is fighting to get back to the NBA Finals, I wonder where we will look at him when his career is over.


In 2022, The Athletic ranked the top 75 players in NBA history. Fourteen of those players were centers (this number does not account for players that played some center despite being listed as power forwards). Looking at it today, the accolades of Nikola Jokic surpass most of these players. The five that might place above him at this moment are Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal, and Hakeem Olajuwon. Truthfully, the only thing that separates Jokic from these greats are more titles and accumulated stats. In his nine seasons in the NBA, Jokic has never played in less than 69 games, meaning that he has been very durable. And given his play style which has a playmaking finesse to it at times, it seems reasonable that he will age gracefully as a basketball player to be able to challenge for those accolades.


The ultimate question becomes if he will want to continue to push his career once he hits 35 years of age. We have all heard the stories of big men like Dirk Nowitzki who played a little too long and now have to deal with the health ramifications that a long career in basketball does to the body of someone seven feet tall. With that in mind there is a very strong possibility that Jokic may retire early, which is even more reason to appreciate him while we are watching him play today. Nikola Jokic is one of the most fascinating talents to ever play the center position, but he is also one of the more interesting personalities that we have seen enter the NBA. We should therefore do our best to enjoy him while we have him, before he takes a well deserved backseat to the spotlight that he desires.



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