Nikola Jokic – redefining NBA superstardom with Denver Nuggets

The NBA has a tacit template for how its superstars should be. First, give the audience the oomph factor. Who wants boring basketball? Your moves should be jaw-dropping. Hit poster dunks. Shoot ridiculous three-pointers. Take fadeaway shots.

Second, just making these moves is not enough. Do it with style. You have to be pleasing to watch.

Finally, be the centre of attention.

Never shy away from a camera. Become the face of the league and sign endorsements.

Do these right, and fame and money shall pave your career as you’re eventually inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame.

Pick any player to have hit super-stardom in the league and they’ll check these boxes. Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant did so. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird before them. LeBron James and Stephen Curry from the current crop are headed in the same direction.

There are exceptions such as Tim Duncan.

And then, in 2014, along came Serbian Nikola Jokic who seems to be cut from a similar cloth.

Over the years, he has tossed away the superstar template. He’s been brave enough to do things in his own logic-defying ways and propelled his team to the cusp of glory. Jokic and his team, Denver Nuggets, are a game away from lifting the NBA title. Denver leads Miami Heat 3-1 in the NBA Finals and if it wins Game 5 at home on Tuesday, it will be the first-ever title for the team founded in 1967.  

Low-key entrance

There’s great fervour for the NBA Draft every year. After all, there’s fresh talent inducted into the league.

It is a widely viewed event but only till around the first 10 picks. Maybe a few aficionados would stretch it till the end of the first round (15 picks). Not many hang around to know who the 41st pick in the second round is.

This sentiment was reflected when the official broadcaster decided to air a Taco Bell commercial as Jokic was being drafted by Denver Nuggets. It deemed a news flash at the bottom of the screen to suffice for the 19-year-old.

The Nuggets offered Jokic $4.1 million for a three-year deal in 2015. That’s about as much as you get when you’re in the last score of the draft.

The Serb outdid expectations in the first year. He stood third in the Rookie of the Year award and made the All-NBA Rookie Team of the Year. By 2018, Jokic was the face of the Nuggets. He made it to the All-Stars. He established himself as a maverick — a centre, who wanted to control the ball. He was exceptional at clearing the board with an uncanny ability to churn out points.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, center, gets a pat on the head from teammates after receiving the series MVP trophy after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, center, gets a pat on the head from teammates after receiving the series MVP trophy after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series.
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When Jokic was up for his first extension in 2018, the franchise offered him a maximum contract – $148 million for five years. That was a statement. Jokic was going to be the player that Denver builds its team around.

The triple-double count ticked upwards season after season. The 2021 and 2022 seasons got Jokic the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award. And if not for voter fatigue, Jokic was in contention in 2023 as well.

In 2023, after eight years with the Nuggets and having made the All-NBA team, Jokic was eligible for a super-maximum contract. The team used it to guarantee him $264 million for his services till 2028.

Not your usual superstar

LeBron has ‘The Silencer’. Curry pulls out the ‘Night-Night’ when he makes an out worldly three-pointer.

These are the whimsical names given to these superstars’ iconic celebrations by their fans.

Jokic has none. He will not grunt and flex after scoring a shot, nor will he give you a staredown. His approach is simple – make a shot, go back to your position and repeat the drill. No theatrics.

He’s a deep-rooted family man, too. Before a game, Jokic ensures he loops his wedding ring into the laces of his shoes. After a game, he’ll probably wave to his daughter if she’s in attendance, or he’ll greet his two brothers in the stands.

Every multi-year MVP winner in the modern game has been showered with endorsement deals. Jokic perplexes by his restraint from the cash-rich deals. Nike and Western Union are the only major brands he has signed with.

Jokic is seven-foot tall, but does not sport a lean and chiselled body like Giannis Antetokounmpo’s nor does he cover ground at a lightning pace like Bryant used to. Shoulders sagging, he, however, dismantles rivals with unerring efficiency.

With Jokic, each step appears to be digging into the last reserve of energy. You’ll barely see Jokic jump. His vertical is not even vertical. At the most, you’ll see him go on his toes.

To be fair he does not need it. That’s the logic-defying bit. There’s no explosion in his movement. He’ll simply wiggle and twist and turn with the ball. If he can find a pass, well and good else he’ll casually dink the ball over his marker’s head with his feet firmly on the floor.

His 20.2 career scoring average indicates he makes those shots on most occasions.

Scoring makes one happy, passing makes two

Tex Winter, an assistant coach with Chicago Bulls, once had a hard time convincing Jordan to pass the ball to a teammate rather than shoot it himself.

It was crucial for a ‘triangle technique’ that the team was trying to run in the offence.

In an attempt to get him on board, Winter told Jordan that there’s no ‘I’ in team. Jordan replied, “There’s no ‘I’ in team but there’s ‘I’ in win.”

That’s the superstar template. You need to take the shots. Be the focal point and get the cameras on you.

Jokic is the opposite. He enjoys dishing out dimes to his teammates. Team comes first for Jokic and he ensures it in the most obscure ways possible.

He’ll scoop the ball up as if setting up a volleyball spike. He’ll sling the ball across the length of the court akin to a water polo pass. He’ll nutmeg an opponent, or lob it back over his head.

“Scoring makes one person happy, passing makes two,” Jokic once said in an interview.

He provides the jaw-dropping moments as effectively as any other superstar, but in his own unorthodox ways. That’s what makes him appointment viewing.

Rallying Denver

At the turn of the millennium, the Nuggets languished in the lower rungs of the NBA. It had won just one playoff series in the last decade.

The Broncos winning the Super Bowl in 1998 and 1999 ensured that basketball was relegated to a secondary status in the Mile High City.

Jokic scores a three-pointer against Heat in the NBA finals.

Jokic scores a three-pointer against Heat in the NBA finals.
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Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony changed that. He was the third pick in the 2003 Draft and made an instant impact on the city’s basketball.

The Nuggets made it back to the playoffs. In 2009, the team made it to the Western Conference finals, where it lost to Bryant and Pau Gasol’s Los Angeles Lakers.

But that was all. In 2011, Anthony was traded to the Knicks and fans had to temper title expectations.

Jokic has rekindled those expectations. He’s taken his time. The front office has chopped-and-changed figures around him but the centre-piece has stayed constant.

This year, Jokic has shattered record after record in the post-season in scoring, assisting and rebounding. He has notched 572, 253 and 186 assists in the 19 games so far.

Jokic delivering the Larry O’Brien trophy to Denver would parallel Jordan winning the first one for Chicago in 1991. Jordan, the textbook superstar, got five more for the city. Time will tell if the out-of-the-box Jokic can sustain his splendor and emulate the feat.

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