• The Star Staff

Denver’s Jokic wins NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award


By Scott Cacciola


Nikola Jokic was an afterthought in 2014. A pudgy center from Serbia, he was a role player for a club in the Adriatic League when the Denver Nuggets took a low-risk gamble in the second round of the NBA draft and selected him with the 41st pick — then promptly stashed him in Europe for another season. There was no guarantee that he would ever appear in an NBA uniform.


On Tuesday, Jokic reached the pinnacle of individual achievement by winning the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award.


Basketball is a global game, and Jokic, 26, who had an exceptional season for the Nuggets, became the second straight foreign-born player to win the award after Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is from Greece, won the past two.


Jokic, whose Nuggets trailed the Phoenix Suns 1-0 heading into Wednesday night’s second game of their Western Conference semifinals series, set career-bests in the regular season by averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game.


In an interview with TNT, Jokic said he “didn’t even think I would be in the NBA” after he had begun to play the sport in his native Serbia. He credited his rise to “a lot of luck” and the trust he received from various coaches and the Nuggets as he developed. “And I put some work, too,” Jokic said.


“I think this was my best season of my life and the cherry on the top is probably the trophy that I got,” Jokic said.


Despite his industrial-size bulk at 6 feet 11 inches tall and 284 pounds, Jokic is a nimble, multidimensional player who can shoot from the outside, bang in the paint and pass with flair.

His ability to operate at the high post and sling one-handed passes to cutting teammates opens the floor and causes mayhem for defenders. During the regular season, he shot 56.6% from the field and 38.8% from 3-point range.


“He’s what basketball players should look like in the future,” Ognjen Stojakovic, the Nuggets’ director of player development, said recently. “‘If I need to shoot it, shoot it. If I need to dribble, dribble. If I need to post up, I will post up because I am capable of doing everything.’ That is modern basketball.”


Jokic received 91 of the 101 first-place votes and had 971 total points, with 10 points awarded for each first-place vote. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, who is from Cameroon, finished second in the voting with 586 points after averaging 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per game for the East-leading 76ers.


Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who won back-to-back MVP awards in 2015 and 2016, finished third in the voting. Curry, who led the league in scoring and dragged a depleted team to the brink of a playoff berth, had the second-most first-place votes with five. Antetokounmpo finished fourth. Members of the news media vote for the award, but The New York Times does not participate.


The race was, in some ways, a battle of attrition in a disjointed season that was marred by a host of injuries and coronavirus-related absences. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers was a front-runner to win the award for a fifth time — and for the first time since 2013 — before he sprained his ankle in March and missed 26 games. Embiid was also sidelined for about three weeks with a bone bruise in his left knee.


Jokic, on the other hand, was an ironman, appearing in all 72 of his team’s games, and he kept the Nuggets afloat after Jamal Murray, their starting point guard and second-leading scorer, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in April. Without Murray, the Nuggets closed the season as the No. 3 seed in the West by winning 13 of 18 games as Jokic shouldered even more responsibility.


When Jokic joined the Nuggets as a rookie before the 2015-16 season, he was fresh off his first MVP campaign — in the Adriatic League. It did not take long for his coaches in Denver to recognize his versatility. They encouraged him to do what he does best, which is a bit of everything.


“If you have a chef and you put him in McDonald’s flipping burgers, he will feel terrible,” Stojakovic said. “But if you give him a chance to be a chef and create, he can do his magic.”


Calvin Booth, the team’s general manager, recalled joining the Nuggets’ front office before the start of the 2017-18 season. Jokic was beginning to establish himself as a young player full of promise, and Booth had seen clips and highlights of his handiwork. But Booth found that being around Jokic every day was a different experience altogether.


“I knew he was good,” Booth said, “but I didn’t know he was that good.”


Among his peers this season, Jokic was deemed the very best.



TODAY’S PLAYOFF GAMES

(All Times EST)

Eastern Conference Semifinals

Brooklyn Nets at Milwaukee Bucks, 7:30 p.m., ESPN (Brooklyn leads series 2-0)

Western Conference Semifinals

Los Angeles Clippers at Utah Jazz, 10 p.m., ESPN (Utah leads series 1-0)