Nuggets star Nikola Jokic has already overcome long odds. His next challenge? The weight of expectation

“I played good last season,” Jokic said. “Whatever. It’s not going to change me just because I had a good season.”
6 min. read
Nikola Jokic goes up for a shot. (Richard Mackson/USA Today Sports)

Darrell Arthur got his first look at the lumpy rookie in August 2015. At the time, Arthur and his teammates were in Philadelphia for a mini-camp hosted by point guard Jameer Nelson. They'd made the cross-country trip there in an effort to develop chemistry before the new season got going.

Emmanuel Mudiay, who the Nuggets selected seventh overall months earlier, was in attendance. So was a less-heralded first-year player: Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets picked Jokic, a big man from Serbia, in the second round of the 2014 draft. Jokic played overseas in the Adriatic League for a year after the draft. He made the jump to the NBA in 2015 only after Nuggets general manager Arturas Karnisovas, a basketball legend in Eastern Europe, coaxed him into it.

Not many of Jokic's teammates thought he'd make an impact in the NBA after watching him in the gym for the first time in Philadelphia. He seemed to move in slow motion. He wasn't built like an NBA player either. But underneath the soft edges, Arthur saw remarkable skill.

"His passing, his court awareness, his basketball IQ," Arthur said. "I told (Nuggets president of basketball operations) Tim Connelly he was going to be good. He said, 'Uhhhhhh we’ll see.' He didn’t believe it."

Arthur's prediction came true. Jokic emerged as a star in his second NBA season. The 6-foot-10 Serb broke out as one of the league's most effective scorers from the mid-range in as well as one of its best passers. Jokic finished his sophomore season with six triple-doubles. He quarterbacked the NBA's most efficient offense for a four-month stretch.

The Nuggets nearly made the playoffs after getting off to a horrendous 9-16 start to the season. They went 31-26 from Dec. 15 on — the day Jokic and Gary Harris were inserted into the starting lineup — but wound up finishing one game behind the rival Portland Trail Blazers for the West's last playoff spot.

Now, Jokic enters year three faced with a force he's unfamiliar with: expectation.

Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone wasted little time in identifying the area in which his team needed to improve the most at media day last month.

"The challenge is one word," Malone said in his opening remarks. "Defense."

The inability to create meaningful resistance on the defensive end was what kept Malone's club from sneaking into the playoffs last season. Denver finished second-to-last in the NBA in defensive efficiency. Malone emphasized that needed to change, adding that his team's first practice of the year would only include defensive drills. Jokic seemed less than enthused when relayed that message later in the day.

"Yes, I like that,” Jokic said as he vigorously shook his head no. "But we need that. We need to be better on defense."

Malone challenged Jokic to become a better defensive player after Denver's season ended in May. Malone asked him to work on his strength and mobility, necessary improvements for him to help slow waterbug guards in pick-and-roll situations.

"There is a lot of pressure on him," Malone said. "We expect him, and I’m going to demand from him, to be a much more committed defensive player this year."

This summer, Malone further cemented his bond with his star center by traveling to Sombor, Serbia, to spend a week with the Jokic family. Malone ate fish stew while he was there. He also took a trip out to the race track to watch Jokic's horse, Dreamcatcher, run.

Jokic grew up with horses. As a boy, he'd strap on a helmet and ride behind them in a buggy. Jokic was overjoyed when he finally was able to buy one of his own last winter.

"He's kind of my friend to be honest," Jokic said. "I can be with him a long time and just have a really good day."

Jokic entered Dreamcatcher in a handful of races throughout the summer. He finished second twice and in first place once, which happened to be the race Malone attended.

"His horse only won one race all summer," Malone said. "The one I was at. I must have been his good luck charm."

This is an enormous year for Jokic and his teammates.

The Nuggets haven't been to the playoffs since 2013. Fail to qualify for the fifth-straight season, and who knows how much different Denver looks this time next year?

Teams have had a summer to dissect Jokic's strengths and weaknesses. Bringing Paul Millsap into the fold figures to ease some of the burden. But Denver still needs Jokic to produce.

When he returned from Serbia in August, Jokic was a little bit heavier than Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger would have liked.

With three weeks to go before the start of training camp, Eichenberger advised Jokic to go on a diet. He ate oatmeal and eggs for breakfast. Shakes and recovery bars between meals. Lean meats like baked chicken and fish for lunch and dinner.

"It’s not tasty, but I just eat it" said Jokic, who as a teenager guzzled up to 3 liters of Coca-Cola a day.

The diet and exercise worked. Jokic dropped 10 pounds before the start of camp.

Eichenberger knows Jokic will likely never resemble an Adonis on the outside. Eichenberger is more worried that Jokic is healthy on the inside.

"Is his lung capacity at a good level where he can run all day?" Eichenberger asked. "Is his strength a good level to bang with the bigger guys? As long as he internally feels that way, we can start working slowly outside."

The word is out on Jokic now. Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins wrote 3,000 words about him in February. On Tuesday, another prominent national basketball writer was circling the Nuggets' locker room asking questions about the player who once was so obscure, ESPN showed a Taco Bell commercial when it was announced Denver picked him 41st overall.

Those days are over. The spotlight is fixated on him, and it will only burn brighter the better he gets. Is Jokic, a 22-year-old whose idea of fun is spending the day with his horse, ready for it?

"For me, I’m not going to get famous because I don’t want to get famous," Jokic said. "I’m just playing the game because I like the game of basketball. I’ve played all my life. I played good last season. Whatever. It’s not going to change me just because I had a good season."

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

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