Today, most NBA fans universally consider Nikola Jokic as one of the best big men, if not the best, in the league. He is one of the front-runners of the MVP award for the 2020-2021 season, and he could be the first true center to win the honor since Kevin Garnett in 2004. Here is his journey from a lowly second-round pick to superstardom.
Before the start of his NBA career, Jokic played for Mega Vizura, a Serbian basketball team in the Adriatic Basketball Association. The club also produced fellow NBA players such as Ivica Zubac and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot. In the 2013-2014 season, Jokic averaged 11.4 points, 6 rebounds, and 2.5 assists.
In the summer of 2014, the Denver Nuggets selected Jokic with the 41st pick of the NBA draft. Many scouts were skeptical if Jokic could translate his skills into a much more faster-paced and athletic league. In addition, the league was slowly transitioning into more versatile bigs, who can stretch the floor with their shooting. They saw Jokic, with his chunky frame and poor physical condition, as a liability on defense.
Jokic did not join the Nuggets until a year later. Instead, he continued to play in the Adriatic league and exploded for a 27-point, 15 rebound performance in the first game of the season. After the season, the league named Jokic as the regular season MVP and the Top Prospect.
Joining the NBA
During his rookie year, Jokic averaged 10 points and 2.4 assists per game. There, he shined with his uncanny court vision and his aptitude for incredibly precise passes and lobs. He impressed his coaches with his ball-handling abilities and his clear love for the game.
He earned his first career start on Nov. 20, 2015. In February, he posted 24 points and 14 rebounds in a win against the Toronto Raptors. As the years progressed, his numbers continued to climb. By the 2018-2019 season, Jokic was averaging 20 points, while dishing out 7.3 assists. That season, he cemented his status as the best passing big in the league.
The following season, Jokic and his other star teammate, Jamal Murray, led the Nuggets to the playoffs in Orlando. Denver overcame two 3-1 series deficits against the Utah Jazz and a stunning upset against the Los Angles Clippers. They ultimately fell to the Los Angeles Lakers, who ended up securing their championship.
With the current 2020-2021 season, Jokic is now regarded as the best center in the league, an MVP candidate, and a shoo-in to be an All-Star starter. He erupted for seven games with 30+ points, including a 50-point performance in a loss against the Sacramento Kings. He also has five triple-doubles and is averaging a blistering 27.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 8.6 assists.
Very rarely do second-rounders ascend to stardom, and even less make it as an unathletic center in a modern era where the traditional big man is no longer valued. Not only has Jokic exceeded expectations, but he will also join the legendary Dirk Nowitzki and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo as one of the greatest European players to ever play in the NBA.