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Front & center: Nuggets big man Jokic steps up another level

By any measure, the 7-footer who views himself equal parts center and point guard has definitely put himself in the early MVP conversation.
Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, shoots over Houston Rockets forward Christian Wood in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, in Denver.

DENVER — Nikola Jokic faced a situation he couldn’t pass, shoot or dribble his way through.

The Denver Nuggets big man was befuddled by a simple yet complicated question: How does he define an NBA MVP?

“I don’t know,” Jokic answered after a long pause. “Probably the best player in the NBA? The top scorer? I don’t know.”

By any measure, the 7-footer who views himself equal parts center and point guard has definitely put himself in the early MVP conversation. After all, he is averaging a triple-double this season.

Not only that, but he’s displaying an array of dunks — he’s never been known for his dunks — and a newfound aggressive shooting mentality that his coach certainly appreciates — and playfully takes credit.

“I locked him in my office one day, and I beat him with a pillowcase filled with soda cans, and said, ‘You’ve got to score more,’“ coach Michael Malone cracked. “He’s a great player. He’s playing at an MVP level.”

Reserve point guard Monte Morris believes Jokic fully belongs in the same company as Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and James Harden and LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Morris’ assertion is buoyed by the stats: Jokic is first in field goals this season, total assists, player efficiency rating and triple-doubles. His 46 career triple-doubles are already the most in team history.

“He produces just as much, if not more, than anybody in the NBA,“ Morris said. “I’m amazed every night.”

And now Jokic is adding a rim-rattling element — dunks. The player from Serbia nicknamed “Joker” already has nine slams, which is a big step up considering he had 15 all last season, 11 in ‘18-19 and eight (along with a miss) in ’17-18. He even got called for a technical during a dunk this season, when he basically did a pull-up on the rim.

“I just like the excitement the guys have on the bench when I dunk,” said Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 who’s averaging 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10 assists in ‘20-21. “I dunk for them.“

And they appreciate it.

“Every game, he adds an inch or two on his vertical,” said forward Paul Millsap, whose Nuggets (7-7) begin a five-game trip Friday in Phoenix. “It’s unbelievable to watch. It’s great to watch a guy like that, a young guy, come to the gym every single day with his hard hat on, training and shooting. Even a guy that good comes in and works every single day.”

Jokic, who turns 26 next month, tries to deflect the attention. The two-time All-Star simply prefers not to be in the center of it.

“I know that they trust me. I know they’ve got my back,” said Jokic, who along with Jamal Murray was a big reason the Nuggets made the Western Conference Finals inside the NBA bubble last season. “It’s nice to hear something like that.”

Or something like this, from Suns coach Monty Williams: “He’s a unique player in that there’s really no weakness in his game.”

That’s partly due to the fact Jokic plays with a quarterback’s mentality. He sees the entire floor — evidenced by his full-court passes — and it’s why Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault put it in football terms in trying to defend him.

“You want to pressure the quarterback,” said Daigneault, whose team lost 119-101 to Denver on Tuesday as Jokic had 27 points, 12 rebounds and six assists in just three quarters. “If you just let him sit back and pick you apart, that’s what he’ll do.”

Before a recent game in Denver, Golden State coach Steve Kerr gave his rookie center James Wiseman a little encouragement in facing Jokic.

“That Jokic is one of the best centres in the league,” Kerr said. “(Wiseman) will learn some hard lessons.”

Wiseman did, too, with Jokic going for 23 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in a Nuggets victory.

“He’s got a lot of tricks,” Wiseman said. “I just had to make sure I paid attention every second I was guarding him.“

About the only small quibble with Jokic this season has been his turnovers. He’s among the league leaders in that category, too.

“The best players in the NBA have the ball in their hands a ton. Much is asked of them,“ Malone said. ”Nikola’s been phenomenal.”

Which is why Morris campaigns for his big man: “He definitely should be highly talked in the MVP race,” Morris said.

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