DENVER (AP) Nikola Jokic considers himself a point guard who just so happens to be trapped in a center’s 250-pound frame.
”I’m telling that to everybody,” the Denver Nuggets standout said. ”But nobody believes in that except me.”
It’s as good a description as any for the hard-to-label and even harder-to-stop play of the 7-footer nicknamed Joker.
He doesn’t exactly have the most athletic look or leap out of the gym, but he’s elevated the Western Conference-leading Nuggets to new heights this season. Jokic is in line to become Denver’s first All-Star since Carmelo Anthony in 2010-11 and is being mentioned in the MVP conversation.
Jokic shrugs off all the attention. He’s just an unassuming big man doing uncommon things on the court so often it’s becoming common.
”A 7-2 Magic Johnson,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said as he over-inflated Jokic’s height in comparing him to the Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer. ”He’s as good of a passer as any guard in the league. He can shoot 3s. But his ball handling is something I admire.”
Jokic (pronounced yo-kitch) sees the floor with a point guard’s vision, knocks down long-range jumpers with a shooting guard’s poise and drives with a big man’s mentality. He’s earned the respect of San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who’s spent some time chatting with Jokic. Popovich appreciates the various levels to the game of the 23-year-old from Serbia – enough to even rib him.
”He’s kind of pudgy,” Popovich cracked. ”He doesn’t jump out of the gym. He doesn’t run that fast, but he might be one of the smartest players in the league. And he’s got skills and he knows how to use them and he enjoys the hell out of himself out there. He’s been very important for them, obviously.”
At 24-11, the Nuggets are tied for their best NBA start in franchise history through 35 games with the 1976-77 squad. He’s been a big reason why, averaging 18 points, 7.6 assists and 9.9 rebounds.
His recent play with three starters sidelined by injuries led TNT analyst Charles Barkley to anoint Jokic as a front-runner in the MVP race. His co-hosts didn’t exactly agree.
”Wait, he’s not impacting the game?” Barkley incredulously retorted.
No arguments from the Nuggets faithful. The fans serenaded Jokic with a chorus of ”M-V-P” after his third triple-double of the season – and 19th of his career – in a win over the Knicks on Tuesday. He took it in stride.
”Whatever they want to do,” said Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 who signed a max contract over the summer worth around $147 million for five seasons. ”But maybe when we’re finalists.”
Really, he’s just a low-key player who in the offseason can be found back home in Serbia hanging out with family, friends or his two race horses.
Ask him about Bella Marguerite, the newest horse in his stable, and his eyes light up.
”She’s scared but calm when the race comes,” he recently said. ”She’s a completely different animal. She’s fast.”
Once the ball goes up, he’s a different breed of center.
”In some ways an anomaly,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. ”He doesn’t show super athletic ability. He plays the game close to the floor. But it’s one of the great things about the NBA game, guys like him that have the size and skill and know how to use leverage and angles and their vision and senses can be All-Star-caliber players.”
Jokic grew up watching the likes of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Boris Diaw and Shaquille O’Neal. He’s also been studying Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon, to name a few.
”Mixed a little bit of old and new guys,” Jokic said.
It’s hard to pinpoint his best game this season, but this one ranks up there: On Oct. 20 against Phoenix, when he joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only NBA players to record a 30-point triple-double (35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) while being perfect (11 for 11) from the field.
He raised his game even higher with starters Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton out of the lineup (Harris and Millsap have recently returned).
”He’s always carried the same demeanor, the same swagger,” guard Monte Morris said. ”Nothing’s really changed.”
This is something the Nuggets hope will change: Jokic making the All-Star Game . Not since Anthony wore No. 15 in Denver – Jokic’s number now – has a Nuggets player suited up in the game.
”If he doesn’t make it, the great thing about Nikola is that it will sting, we all will be upset and hurt by it, but it doesn’t get in the way of our team goals,” coach Michael Malone said. ”He’s truly a team player. He cares about the team first. That’s why he’s a unique young man.”
As for Jokic’s assertion he’s really a point guard in a center’s frame, Malone didn’t quite buy it.
”He’s just a great player,” Malone said, ”trapped in a great player’s body.”
Associated Press freelancer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.
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