DENVER (AFP) – Nikola Jokic can cap an improbable journey to the pinnacle of his sport by leading the Denver Nuggets to a first ever championship when the NBA Finals get under way on Thursday.
Nine years ago, the softly spoken Serbian center barely caused a murmur of attention when the Nuggets chose him with the 41st overall pick in the draft.
That selection was so low-key that it was not even broadcast live; instead, viewers watching the NBA draft were shown a commercial for a popular fast-food chain.
The consensus was that while Jokic had size coupled with respectable passing and shooting ability, the doughy youngster lacked the athleticism and speed to thrive in the world’s toughest basketball league.
But over the course of the 28-year-old’s rise to the very highest echelon of the NBA, those early scouting assessments have been steadily shredded.
He won back-to-back NBA Most Valuable Player awards in 2021 and 2022, and this year only narrowly missed out on averaging a triple double over the course of the regular season, finishing with 11.8 rebounds, 9.8 assists and 24.5 assists per game.
“He’s going to go down as one of the all-time great centers to ever touch a basketball,” was Kevin Durant’s verdict on Jokic after the Nuggets eliminated the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the playoffs.
LeBron James was similarly complimentary after the Nuggets swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference finals.
“There are certain guys in this league that play the game a certain way, a certain way that I like to play the game as well — and he’s one of them,” James said.
“You are always off-balance when you are guarding a player like that because of his ability to score, rebound, shoot. He sees plays before they happen.
“There’s not many guys in our league like that.”
– Lacking ‘It’ factor? –
Yet while the likes of James and Durant embrace Jokic as a member of the league’s elite, the 6ft 11in (2.11m), 284-pound (129-kilo) Serb continues to be the subject of sniping.
Some critics say his triple-double prowess is the result of “stat-padding,” while others accuse him of lacking true star power.
“Jokic can win this championship and no one’s going to care,” former Washington Wizards player Gilbert Arenas said recently.
“Let’s just be honest. I’m sorry. He’s not going to go from where he is right now to this super megastar because he’s not doing anything kids want to see,” Arenas said.
“It’s the players, their personality. You know Jokic is great, but he doesn’t have IT.”
Those kinds of criticisms leave Nuggets coach Michael Malone bemused.
Malone notes that Jokic’s remarkable postseason ˗ he has averaged 29.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 10.3 assists in 15 games ˗ ought to quash any debate about his skills.
“Have you seen any stat-padding out there?” Malone said. “I’m serious, enough of the silliness. The guy is a great player.
“Give him his damn respect. Stop chopping him down at the knees. He’s a great player, and give him the respect he deserves.”
Malone nevertheless admits that Jokic was a long way from being the finished article when he arrived in the NBA in 2014, recalling performances in the Las Vegas Summer League where he was “300 pounds, out of shape.”
“No one — and if anybody tells you different, they’re full of shit — no one ever could have seen that he’d be a two-time MVP,” Malone said.
“That speaks to his dedication to his craft, getting in great shape and understanding that for him to fulfill his potential, he had to work harder, and he’s done that.”