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Nikola Jokić Week: Unraveling Our Reluctant MVP

Nikola Jokić Week: First Impressions of an MVP

An around-the-world roundup of what basketball insiders really thought about Nikola Jokić when they first laid eyes on the future NBA MVP.

Nikola Jokić Week: To celebrate Nikola Jokić’s MVP award and the start of the Denver Nuggets’ regular season, 5280 is devoting the entire week (October 18 to October 22) to stories that explore the identity of the Mile High City’s most beautiful enigma. In short: Who is The Joker?  

Every love story begins with a meet-cute—but, if we’re being honest, Nikola Jokić doesn’t exactly catch your eye from across a crowded room. Rather, he’s the nerdy best friend whose appeal only becomes apparent with time. Less Matthew McConaughey in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days; more Mary Stuart Masterson in Some Kind of Wonderful. That secret magnetism makes our relationship with Jokić even more special. He’s the shot through the heart we never saw coming. 

To tip-off Nikola Jokić Week, we gathered first impressions of the Serbian big man from basketball insiders from around the world. And while it’s clear from these experiences that we weren’t alone in underestimating the future MVP, it’s also obvious that there were clues to his greatness that we could have picked up on—if only we hadn’t been so hung up on Jusuf Nurkić.

Miško Ražnatović, the sports agent who discovered Jokić in a Serbian junior league, via the Wall Street Journal“I remember thinking that he was a nice guy who did not look good physically.”

Nemanja Jokić, Nikola’s older brother, via Sports Illustrated: “The first time I saw him play, he was throwing these behind-the-back passes that no one else would even try. And everybody let him. They didn’t tell him he couldn’t do it. They knew he had this really unique skill.” 

Dejan Milojević, former coach of Mega Basket, the Serbian professional team that Jokić joined as a 17-year-old in 2012. Jokić played three seasons under Milojević“Without exaggeration, [he was so out of shape] he could not do a professional practice. So what we decided is for, like, one month just to put him on the side with a the trainer to become capable of practicing with senior level guys.”

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic celebrates a double overtime win against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Denver. Photo by AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

Nikola Jokić, during the 2014 Nike Hoops Summit, a showcase of top prospects, on why he didn’t want to play college basketball in the United States, via DraftExpress: “It’s so fast. Everybody jumps so high. … I don’t jump high. I don’t run fast.” 

NBA analyst Nate Duncan, after the Nike Hoops Summit in 2014, via Basketball Insiders: “Perhaps this sounds harsh, but Jokić is being talked up as an NBA prospect, and it is hard to see how he gets there unless he can really improve his athleticism. Given how his body looks, that does not seem to be in the offing, even if he does hit the weights.” 

ESPN’s coverage of the Nuggets’ selection of Jokić with the 41st pick in the 2014 NBA Draft“Two things you only dreamed would come together: a delicious cheesy quesadilla wrapped around a beefy burrito.” Nuggets fans didn’t get a look at the new pick because ESPN was running a Taco Bell commercial instead. 

Former Nuggets strength coach Steve Hess, via the Wall Street Journal: “If I saw that dude drinking Coke, I’d stab him in the eye with a pencil.” Before being drafted by the Nuggets, Jokić would guzzle three liters of the sugary soda per day. Jokić has said he drank his last one ever on the flight to Denver to join the Nuggets

Nuggets coach Michael Malone before Jokić’s rookie season in 2015, via the Denver Post“Nikola Jokić, he’s a young kid, and I’m not saying he’s ready, but he does things every practice that make you say, ‘Wow, this kid has a chance to be a [heck of a] player.’ For him to be that young and that skilled is really exciting to see. The fact that he’s gotten so much better even from summer league.” 

Michael Porter Jr., Denver Nuggets forward, via the Old Man and the Three podcast: “I didn’t really know too much about him because I didn’t even watch the Nuggets, and he wasn’t as good as he is now. … And then we went to training camp, and I’m watching him play, and he’s doing alright, but Mason Plumlee was doing just as good as The Joker. And I was like ‘Wait, why does Joker start over Mason Plumlee?’ And then I remember my teammates saying ‘No, when he wants to, he can score 40 a night. Wait until the season starts.” 

(Read more: 10 Plays That Show Why Nikola Jokić Deserved to Win MVP

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