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Nikola Jokic is introduced during 2020 NBA All-Star - Practice & Media Day. Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Nikola Jokić Week: Unraveling Our Reluctant MVP

Nikola Jokić Week: Why He Isn’t a Superstar

Nikola Jokić’s visionary game deserves outsized fame. Why doesn’t he get the attention he deserves?

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 15 to October 22) to stories that explore the identity of the Mile High City’s most beautiful enigma. In short: Who is The Joker?

As late as March 2021, Nikola Jokić was ranked third by DraftKings in the NBA’s MVP race. This, despite the fact that he’d posted better numbers than the two men ahead of him on the odds sheet: the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid and Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James. “So if Jokić leads the way in stats, and the Nuggets are on par with the Lakers in the West, why would he not be favored to win MVP over LeBron?” the DraftKings writer asked. It took late, weekslong injuries to both Embiid and James for Jokić to sew up the MVP.

If Denver Nuggets fans thought Jokić would enter 2021-’22 with more respect, they were disabused of the notion on NBA opening night, when TNT tweeted a photo of Milwaukee Bucks’ star Giannis Antekounmpo alongside the caption, “The reigning MVP is in the building.”

The error poured flames on an already smoldering Nuggetsverse. A sampling from Twitter: “Day 1 of the NBA season and the Jokić disrespect is already at mid season levels;” “Jokić disrespect makes me sick;” “We are now in the season as Denver sports fans of being depressed over the Broncos and annoyed at Jokić disrespect all at once.”

Maybe these reactions are just a reflection of Denver sports fans’ inferiority complex. Then again, Jokić has only the seventh-best odds to win this season’s MVP, according to DraftKings. And the NBA’s current marketing, a celebration of the league’s 75th anniversary, features cameos from James, Russell Westbrook, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, Zion Williamson, and other current players we couldn’t place. The actual reigning MVP, however, doesn’t appear in the commercial. (Not in the flesh, anyway; Jokić is depicted in a mural for about 1.5 seconds.)

As we’ve outlined throughout the week, Jokić is funny, beloved beyond borders, and captivating to watch. That’s not just our opinion. ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently called Jokić, “the league’s most entertaining player. … He leaves you cackling like an idiot at least three times per game.”

So why isn’t Jokić one of the league’s marquee stars? It’s likely because he doesn’t want to be.

When asked before the start of this season whether he hoped the MVP award would raise his profile, Jokić said, “I don’t want to raise my celebrity status. … It’s not really fun being a celebrity, I think, because I have my needs and things that I like to do. Just imagine something you like to do the most and someone is recording or watching. You just want to be alone. I would rather nobody knows me than everybody knows me. It’s much better [if] nobody knows me.”

The best somebody of Jokić’s stature could do to become anonymous is to avoid social media, which he does. By not having a single account, Jokić likely costs himself significant endorsement money, seeing as Twitter, Instagram, and the like are the most effective ways of managing—and massaging—an athlete’s brand in the 2020s.

Although we searched, 5280 couldn’t find a single U.S. commercial that Jokić has appeared in. “You don’t just go after someone because they are the best at their sport,” says Chase Garrett, the founder and CEO of Denver-based sports marketing company Icon Source. “You go after someone who creates an image for the brand and will sell a lot of product. Jokić hasn’t created a brand these companies around the world want to align with.”

That appears to be true everywhere except in Jokić’s native Serbia, where firms have used his “brands” (as an equine enthusiast) to sell beer and (as an, um, imperfect specimen) to sell snacks.

Denver isn’t doing Jokić’s Q Score any favors, either. The Mile High City ranks as the 16th-largest media market in the United States and the 14th-largest in the NBA. And while it feels like the entire country has moved to Colorado over the past decade, the majority of the population continues to reside on the East Coast, where Nuggets home games often don’t tip until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. Despite finishing with the league’s fifth-best record in 2020-’21, Denver is scheduled to have only the 12th-most nationally televised broadcasts this season.

But to think about Jokić in dollars and cents is to miss the point. Denver has been blessed with a one of the most unique talents the league has ever seen. Perhaps even more important: “He’s an amazing person,” says Vasilije Micic, his former teammate in Serbia. “That’s something I like to mention always. To stay normal, to be normal like he is, on that level of everything, it’s biggest respect on my side.”

In other words, the greatest respect we could pay the Joker is admitting that we might never know who he is—beyond what he’s willing to show us on the court. And for that, we are very much in his debt.

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