Nikola Jokic Imports Serbian Spirit to Denver

In a rookie class that may go down in history as one of the NBA’s finest, the hidden gem is a jovial center from a small village in Serbia that fell to the Nuggets in the second round of the 2014 Draft.

Nikola Jokic was passed over by the rest of the league thanks to his lack of bulk and even lesser notoriety. The Nuggets stashed the late-blooming Jokic in the Adriatic League last season, where he promptly won MVP in only his second season playing significant minutes in high-level Euro basketball. Prior to being drafted, Jokic had just one year of real playing time with his Mega Vizura senior team, keeping him off the radar of most GMs. Luckily for Denver, Tim Connelly is more plugged in to European basketball talent than the majority of his peers. Connelly’s overseas gambles are being praised now thanks in large part to the ascendant Jokic. As Jokic's profile grew last season, Nuggets brass smiled knowingly since they identified him early and already owned his rights. The Nuggets brought him over for his NBA rookie year this season, where a crowded front court represented his first obstacle in Denver. He would quickly distinguish himself as he set upon the path of becoming the league’s next Serbian star.


Serbia is many things, depending on the topic of conversation and who is having it. Located west of the Adriatic Sea and north of Greece, the Serbian Kingdom was recognized by Rome in the 1200s, then annexed by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. The Serbian Revolution established it as an independent nation-state in the 19th century. Following World War I, Serbia co-founded Yugoslavia (with Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina). The 20th century brought Serbia more than its share of bloody conflict in wars both internal and external. Its capital, Belgrade, still bears scars from the NATO bombing in 1999, which capped a decade of immense change via war. Yugoslavia collapsed in the 1990s, while Serbia formed a union with Montenegro in 1992 before again becoming an independent country in 2006. Stability has been fleeting.

One constant, however, is basketball. The Serbs hit the genetic lottery in the height department, as did their neighbors in the tall-man incubator that is the Dinaric Alps region. I’m 6’5” and finally felt at home (if not, for once, short) when I visited Belgrade in 2007. We played surreal pickup games where everyone but my dad was 6'4" or taller; even more amazing were the cigarette breaks that followed each exhausting game in a sweltering gym. Tall Serbian athletes gravitate toward basketball rather than soccer, a curious choice in Europe but one that’s yielded glory for the region and impacted the modern NBA profoundly.

Yugoslavian basketball was thriving while the country fell apart politically. As a united group of republics consisting of massively tall dudes, Yugoslavia won gold in the 1970 and 1978 FIBA World Cups. On the Olympic stage the country took home silver in 1968 and 1976 before winning gold in 1980. It won another silver in 1988, losing to the Russians in the final, with a squad that could have become one of the greatest national teams in Olympic history. That team featured four players that would have distinguished NBA careers in Drazen Petrovic (Croatia), Toni Kukoc (Croatia), Dino Rada (Croatia) and Vlade Divac (Serbia). They won gold at the 1990 FIBA World Cup, yet instead of signaling future greatness this victory marked the end of an era.

An economic crisis in the 1980s combined with Slobodan Milosevic’s proclamations of Serbian supremacy in 1987 triggered severe unrest, especially between Serbs and Croats. During the on-court celebration after winning FIBA gold in 1990, Divac ripped a Croatian flag from an oncoming spectator’s hands and threw it to the ground. According to the fantastic ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Once Brothers,” Divac simply felt that fans should be displaying Yugoslavian flags and that even if it were a Serbian flag carried by the man he would’ve tossed it aside. The damage was done, however, and Divac became a symbol of the Serbian mentality of superiority over the other republics. Croatia declared independence and the ensuing Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s carried high death tolls, war crimes and a splintered region filled with hate. The once tight-knit national team splintered along ethnic and regional lines. Yugoslavia was banned from Olympic competition in 1992 after Serbia’s brutal attacks in Croatia, while the Croatian team lost to the USA Dream Team in the gold medal game.

It was into this war-ravaged environment that Nikola Jokic was born in Sombor, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), in 1995.  Amidst all the strife, political intrigue and global sanctions, Serbian kids like Jokic still had basketball.


Boli Popovic, a native Serbian and Senior Software Engineer at IBM, came to America with his family in 1999 after NATO bombed Belgrade. He talked to me about the love of roundball in his country and the newest Serbian NBA phenom.

“When you walk around Belgrade, you see kids playing basketball in the street,” he said, fresh off a trip back home. “Young kids play for a club team and the really good ones get picked up by pro teams when they’re 15, 16 years old. Jokic is interesting because he started really late.”

Though Jokic signed on with Mega Vizura (now Mega Leks) in Belgrade when he was 17 in 2012, he didn’t play with the senior team until he was 18. The Nuggets drafted him after he posted 11 points and six rebounds per game that season, with long shot hopes he’d develop enough to earn a spot in the NBA. It was a prescient move. In the 2014-15 season, Jokic set the Adriatic League on fire. The 6’10” forward-center racked up big scoring numbers while leading the league in rebounding, but even more attractive was his knack for playmaking. In true Serbian fashion, Jokic plays with a basketball IQ and passing ability you don’t normally see in American-born centers.

“Big guys from Yugoslavia and now Serbia are all great passers - Vlade was the greatest,” Popovic said. “That’s one of the elements they teach in Serbia really early. If you're going to play in Serbia you’re going to pass.”

Divac and his ilk opened the floodgates for European talent to enter into the NBA. Before there was Dirk Nowitzki there was Drazen Petrovic, who dazzled NBA fans with the New Jersey Nets before a tragic car accident took his life in 1993. The following Serbs, Croats and Montenegrins followed Divac's and Petrovic’s lead in the NBA: Peja Stojakovic(S), Vladimir Radmanovic(S), Marko Jaric(S), Darko Milicic(S), Nemanja Bjelica(S), Boban Marjanovic(S), Bojan Bogdanovic(C), Mario Hezonja(C), Nikola Mirotic(M), Nikola Vucevic(M), Nikola Pekovic(M) and Dario Saric(C) if he ever joins Philly. Players from the former Yugoslavia represent a critical portion of America’s most international game.

But in the 1980s and 1990s the internationalization of the NBA was just beginning, with some hesitation. The stigma that was initially attached to Euro players - especially big men - is that they were too soft for NBA basketball. While it’s true most Euro bigs like Jokic need to adjust to the physicality of the NBA, what’s fascinating is the way they’ve helped shape the league’s small-ball revolution. Traditional post play is a dying art. As basketball analytics have revealed the inefficient nature of back-to-the-basket post moves, a premium has been placed on ball movement and outside shooting. It turns out those “soft” Euros may have been onto something. In his rookie season, Jokic is already one of the Nuggets’ best passers and has shown the shooting range that all NBA GMs want out of their bigs. Jokic came into the league at the perfect time with the right skill set to exploit an NBA landscape that his countrymen Divac, Stojakovic, and other Euros, helped create.

Thanks to the new appreciation of holistic basketball analysis, beyond just raw scoring numbers, Jokic is getting some belated mention in Rookie of the Year discussions. Karl Anthony-Towns will deservedly win the award, but Jokic forced his way into the picture by consistently producing on both ends of the court. Advanced stats show the Nuggets are better offensively and defensively when Jokic is on the floor. He averages 10 points, seven rebounds and two assists per game, with a 118 offensive rating. Jokic boasts the team's best On-Off numbers, as opponents' offensive rating skyrockets when he sits. Most remarkably, he ranks 6th all-time in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) by a 20-year old rookie, per BasketballReference.com, his 21.4 PER in the same breath as Towns, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Paul, Chris Webber and Magic Johnson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Totals

Totals

Totals

Shooting

Shooting

Shooting

Shooting

Shooting

Shooting

 

Rk

Player

Season

Age

Tm

G

GS

MP

FG%

2P%

3P%

eFG%

FT%

TS%

PER

1

Shaquille O'Neal*

1992-93

20

ORL

81

81

3071

0.562

0.563

0

0.562

0.592

0.584

22.9

2

Karl-Anthony Towns

2015-16

20

MIN

81

81

2594

0.54

0.556

0.337

0.552

0.81

0.588

22.4

3

Chris Paul

2005-06

20

NOK

78

78

2808

0.43

0.464

0.282

0.456

0.847

0.546

22.1

4

Chris Webber

1993-94

20

GSW

76

76

2438

0.552

0.559

0

0.552

0.532

0.559

21.7

5

John Drew

1974-75

20

ATL

78

 

2289

0.428

0.428

 

0.428

0.713

0.491

21.4

6

Nikola Jokic

2015-16

20

DEN

79

54

1698

0.508

0.537

0.329

0.531

0.807

0.579

21.4

7

Elton Brand

1999-00

20

CHI

81

80

2999

0.482

0.483

0

0.482

0.685

0.528

20.6

8

Magic Johnson*

1979-80

20

LAL

77

 

2795

0.53

0.54

0.226

0.534

0.81

0.602

20.6

 Source: BasketballReference.com

He’s fifth among rookies in total assists, behind four guards, and sixth among all centers league-wide. His ability to pass out of the post, at the elbow or out on the wing opens up the floor for Denver and keeps defenses guessing. Plus dude’s got some style!

 

His shooting ability is a game-changer. Post defenders must respect Jokic’s jumper and be able to close out on him behind the three-point line. He’s shooting 51% from the floor and 33% from three, so the respect his shot commands opens up the paint for Denver. When defenders press up to take away his shot, his vision at 6’10” allows him to find cutters in the lane and open shooters on the wing. Jokic is particularly adept at shooting top of the key threes, which is a spot on floor that gives him multiple attack and passing options.

 

Source: NBASavant.com

Jokic's all-around game has lessened the burden on fellow rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, who is learning the intricacies of the NBA point guard position. The rookies have great chemistry in the pick and roll as teams have to account for two scoring and passing threats in those actions. Nuggets fans can swoon when looking into the future as the two most important positions on the court, point guard and center, are manned by dynamic rookies who will continue to improve. Judging by their public comments, the pair also respect the hell out of each other.


 

 

Jokic does need to get stronger in order to consistently rebound and finish at the rim at a high level in the NBA. He tends to try to finish with finesse rather than power and he has trouble driving to the basket when a lane opens up. The Nuggets' staff will have him in the weight room and working on his ball handling in traffic this offseason. Most rookie big men struggle on defense and Jokic is no exception. His footwork on the perimeter needs work to make up for his lack of foot speed, and that slightish frame gets exploited in post defense.

The other concern is outside of his direct control: finding the right front court mate to pair with him long term. Lineups with Jokic and Bosnian-born Jusuf Nurkic have predictably struggled in the few minutes they’ve played together. Neither is quick enough to deal with quick fours on the perimeter for extended minutes. Offensively, playing both bigs hurts Denver’s spacing and takes away from Jokic’s playmaking ability. Kenneth Faried has not played well with Jokic and his nagging injuries have hampered efforts to find a rhythm together. The best option may be going small with Danilo Gallinari at the four next to Jokic, but Gallo always has trouble staying on the court (this season included) and it remains to be seen if that pairing can defend well enough for coach Mike Malone’s liking. The good news is this Nuggets team is a work in progress, with two or three (depending on Houston) first round draft picks and cap space to burn. Finding a fixture at the power forward position remains a top priority, but they’re set at center with the young disciple of Divac.


Before he was an NBA star or a punchline as GM of the Sacramento Kings, Vlade Divac was an experiment. Nowadays no one bats an eye when a tall guy with a Slavic name is drafted in the NBA. But in the late-1980s it was anyone’s guess how Divac, despite his international success, would fare in the world’s top league. His first stop was Los Angeles, as far from Belgrade culturally as one can get. He had size, passing chops and a mid-range jumper but didn’t speak much English. What made his transition to the NBA smooth - according to Magic Johnson in that 30 for 30 - was his lighthearted nature. He was goofy and liked to joke around, endearing him to teammates.

Jokic shares this trait. A recent Sports Illustrated article on Jokic describes a goofball personality that teammates and coaches love, with Mudiay remarking that Jokic “loosens up everybody.” It’s not in Jokic’s nature to play the background. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he vaulted to a prominent role against all odds in his first season. In what was expected to be a long developmental year to get him acclimated to the NBA game and American culture, Jokic vaulted up the depth chart when injuries hit the Nuggets early on. His efficiency, smarts and team play have kept him on the court. The Nuggets now plan on him being there for years to come.

And those kids playing ball in the Belgrade streets have yet another idol to aspire to.

As Popovic says, “Basketball is tradition in Serbia.”


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