Nikola Jokić: From Bomb Sirens to Cheering Arenas

Nikola Jokić has defied all expectations in his spectacular rise to the top of the NBA.

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By Afra Mahmud

Raised in Yugoslavia during a period of turmoil and unathletic as a child, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić’s rise to the NBA has been an unlikely one. Nicknamed the Joker both for his amicable and funky personality as well as the word’s similarity to his name, Jokić is now one of the best big men in the NBA and has revolutionized his position with his playmaking. However, this Eastern European giant did not always seem destined for such greatness.

Born in the small city of Sombor, Serbia (then Yugoslavia) in 1995, Jokić grew up as the youngest of three brothers and lived with them, as well as his parents and grandmother, in a two-bedroom apartment. When Jokić was four years old, NATO bombed Serbia between late March and early June as a result of the Kosovo War. Jokić has spoken about living through these bombings, saying, “I remember things like sirens, bomb shelters, [and] always turning off the lights. We practically lived in the dark. Even at like 9:00 a.m., everything was turned off.”

Jokić made the most of difficult circumstances by spending lots of his time playing basketball with his much taller brothers, which forced him to develop and rely on his technical skills. In fact, he played point guard in his younger years because of his technical abilities. However, Jokić was far from becoming the dominant player he is today since he was overweight due to his slightly unhealthy lifestyle, joking more recently that he was “a fat point guard” as a child. In an interview with ESPN, he claimed that he used to drink around three liters of Coca-Cola a day. He also loved eating burek, an Eastern European meat-filled pastry, which further prohibited him from having a lean, athletic frame. His obsession with unhealthy foods did not cease after childhood. His former agent would motivate him prior to important games with the lure of chocolate cookies even when he became a professional basketball player in Serbia. Moreover, Jokić did not seem set to become a future NBA star in his younger years because he was teetering between horse racing and basketball, preventing him from fully focusing on the sport he would come to thrive in.

Despite having a questionable work ethic and dedication as a child, by the age of 17, Jokić had a professional contract with Mega Basket due to his undeniable talent and extremely tall frame. He would only appear five times in his first season, but during his second year, he played 13 games in the Serbian League and 25 in the Adriatic League, averaging over 10 points per game in both. Though his stats were not incredible, Jokić was playing against grown men, whereas most 18-year-old prospects in the US are finishing their senior years of high school or starting their freshman years in college, a leg up which the Denver Nuggets picked up on. Close to withdrawing from the 2014 NBA draft due to a lack of interest from teams, he was guaranteed by the Nuggets that they would select him in the second round if he was still available. By the time Denver had their second round pick (#41 overall), Jokić had not been selected, and Denver stayed true to their word by taking him. (Funnily enough, he slept through the draft back in Serbia, and his brother had to call him to give him the news.) Even though he recognized this selection as an amazing opportunity, Jokić chose to remain with Mega Basket for one more year, during which he averaged 15.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game across 24 games, swooping up the Adriatic League regular season MVP award.

Jokić took his skills to the States in 2015 when he finally joined up with the Nuggets. His rookie season, he finished third in the NBA Rookie of the Year Award voting and was nominated to the NBA All-Rookie First Team. That summer, he represented Serbia in the Rio Olympics, picking up a silver medal as they lost in the final to the United States. During the following two seasons, Jokić continued to improve, averaging 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game during his second year before putting up 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists in his third.

Jokić reached even higher heights during the 2018-2019 season as he continued to progress individually and made the playoffs for the first time in his career. Averaging 20.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists per game, he picked up his first All-Star appearance and made the All-NBA First Team. The Nuggets were eliminated in Game 7 of the Second Round of the playoffs, but Jokić averaged career highs in every department across his 14 playoff games by scoring 25.1 points, grabbing 13.0 rebounds, and tossing 8.4 assists on average per game. The next season he put up very similar numbers and made the All-Star game again as well as the All-NBA Second Team. He took the Nuggets one round further in the playoffs, losing in the Western Conference Finals to the Los Angeles Lakers, who went on to win the championship.

Heading into this season, Jokić was already considered one of the best centers in the league. Now, he is having by far the best season of his career. Averaging 26.2 points (10th), 10.9 rebounds (eighth), and 8.8 assists (fourth) per game, Jokić is the favorite to be crowned MVP. He also leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating, which takes into account a player’s productivity per minute. By far the most impressive aspect of his game has been his playmaking. Being fourth in the league for assists per game and second in total assists as a center is almost unheard of. Jokić has changed the way that the center position can be played, and many fans have already started referring to him as the best passing big man of all time.

If he does go on to become MVP this season—or even possibly in the coming years as he is still just 26 years old—he will smash the record for lowest drafted player to win the award (Steve Nash and Giannis Antetokounmpo share that achievement as the 15th picks). Along with Nash, Antetokounmpo, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Dirk Nowitzki, Jokić would be only the fifth foreign player to win the award.

Is he the best second-round pick ever? Only time will tell. But for now, it is clear that he could very well be in the discussion. Not bad for a chubby kid from Serbia.