The Denver Nuggets had no business even being in the game against the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth quarter Thursday night.
The Nuggets were without two starters — Danilo Gallinari (ankle) and Gary Harris (ankle) — and two key bench guys — Wilson Chandler (personal reasons) and Darrell Arthur (left knee). They were facing a Spurs team with the second-best record in basketball. And yet there Denver was only down eight points with 6:02 remaining in the game.
By that time, Nuggets center Nikola Jokic had just finished up rattling off 14 points in a stretch of 15 minutes. He almost singlehandedly helped whittle the Spurs’ lead down from as many as 18 to single digits. And although the Nuggets wouldn’t come out on top, losing 118-104, the game was the latest example of how Denver’s young Serbian big man is making the leap from good to great right before our eyes.
Jokic scored a career-high 35 points to go along with 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. He made 14 of the 22 shots he attempted. Denver needed scoring with so much of its offensive firepower out, and Jokic delivered.
But what’s been surprising in the new year is that Jokic is demonstrating he can be a high-volume scorer as well. Jokic is pouring in 24.9 points on 61.1 percent shooting in seven games in January. He’s scored 30, 29 and 35 points in Denver’s last three games and is averaging 31.3 points, 12.7 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1 steal across that stretch.
“He makes the right play,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said after Thursday’s game. “Lately he’s been scoring the ball. For him to get 35 and 12 tonight and four assists, it just speaks to his overall ability. Whether it’s playmaking, scoring, rebounding, he’s a terrific young talent who’s only getting better right in front of our eyes.”
Stars are the most valuable currency in the NBA. It’s nearly impossible to win championships or make noise in the playoffs without them. Teams purposely pour entire seasons down the drain to get the best chance at selecting one. The Nuggets appear to have found one with the 41st pick in the 2014 draft.
It’s hard to believe Jokic is only 21 years old. He’s already transformed Denver into an offensive juggernaut since becoming the starting center Dec. 15.
Now the question is how much better can he get?
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said after Thursday’s game. “He’s 21 years old. He’s got every tool in the toolbox, and you’re starting to see it now.”
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