Among the many interests and hobbies of a young man, 22-year old Nikola Jokić is particularly fond of horse racing. So much so, in fact, that he owns a horse of his own his hometown of Sombor, Serbia. The horse’s name: Dreamcatcher.
In Denver, he can be found, among other things, flying drones in his downtime. Better to see things from a birds-eye view, he figures. And what does the Mile High City look like from there?
“I don’t know,” Jokić said. “But I look tiny.”
In the NBA, however, he’s larger than life.
Jokić burst onto the scene last season with trick passes and triple-doubles and flashy games like ringing up 40 points against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden. He grew into the engine of a Nuggets’ offense that put multitudes of points on the board. Even when the league wised up to him, tried to crowd his space and lessen his production, Jokić found a way to flourish. And he did all of it while deflecting praise with the precision of one of his no-look dimes.
And now? The encore.
On Wednesday, the curtain goes up on his third NBA season when the Nuggets open at Utah. And you’re asking: What more could a player who last season averaged 16.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.9 assists, shot nearly 58 percent, had six triple-doubles, and nearly won the NBA’s Most Improved Award do?
As it turns out, plenty.
“Obviously, I think he can be an All-Star,” teammate Wilson Chandler said. “I think he can be a superstar. I think he’s going to be. I believe it.”
Nuggets coach Michael Malone took it even a step further.
“Nikola is, we feel,” he said, “the best young big man in the NBA.”
Jokić’s offensive gifts are no longer of any surprise to the players and coaches who witness it every day, and have seen it for two years running. Those haven’t changed.
“He’s very good,” center Mason Plumlee said with a grin.
“Nikola is picking up where he left off last year,” guard Gary Harris said. “You know what he can do – he can score from all points on the floor. He can pass it; rebounds. He does it all, as you can see, and he’s definitely one of the main guys on this team.”
Immediately after last season, however, Malone sat down with Jokić to give him a summer checklist of areas he wanted to see the big man improve. The list wasn’t long. But it was important.
“The two areas that I touched on with Nikola at the end of the season, one was his body, (getting stronger),” Malone said. “And the second challenge is going to be from a mental standpoint; even though he is a young player, this is only his third year in the NBA, there is a lot of pressure on him. We expect him, and I’m going to demand from him, to be a much more committed defensive player this year, and I’m going to demand from him that he be more in control of his emotions at times.”
In short, Malone wants to see his young star grow into a leader. The young star, Jokić, does, too.
“I’m trying,” Jokić said. “I think it’s going to help me and my teammates.”
And while Jokić would rather blend into to a team concept, he’s starting to embrace the spotlight and all of the attention he’s getting locally and nationally.
“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “You know that people are watching you. Not just for me, but for the team, too.”
GETTING IN CONDITION. Jokic wasn’t out of shape last season. But he needed to be able to play harder for longer stretches in games, and the Nuggets training staff honed-in on that type of foundation training and nutrition to get him there.
Nuggets head strength and conditioning coach, Felipe Eichenberger, traveled to Sombor for a couple of weeks to help Jokić workout while he was back home. They continued the weight and conditioning sessions back in Denver as well. Nutrition was also a big part of the plan. Jokić was put on a clean-eating, six-meals-per-day plan. He had food delivered to his house to keep things simple and focused.
The net effect of it all? Jokić lost around 12 pounds in the summer, Malone said, and he dropped body fat as well. Eichenberger said he could see the benefits of Jokić’s work during the preseason games.
“Being able to run back-and-forth longer, that’s one thing that we were trying to achieve,” Eichenberger said. “That’s the main thing I saw in him. He wants to work and wants to be successful. He ate really well. So, he was ready to go for training camp, and he’s ready for the season.”
GETTING DEFENSIVE. Defense is never far from Malone’s mind. He believes in it. He wants Jokic to believe in it, too.
Malone didn’t always see that out of Jokić last season. But in the Nuggets’ new, more aggressive defensive scheme this season, particularly on pick-and-rolls, Jokić is thriving. Jokić’s improvement on that end has drawn raves out of the head coach.
“I see a really different player on that end of the floor,” Malone said. “Part of that would be that we changed our game plan, our coverages. But most importantly, I think he has made a conscious effort to commit to being a better defensive player. The effort that he’s giving – whether it’s pick-and-roll, whether it’s protecting the paint, weakside awareness – he is a much-more engaged defender than he was last season, and that needs to continue.”
Malone isn’t the only one seeing it.
“I think he’s pushed himself on the defensive end,” said Plumlee of Jokić. “Nobody likes that criticism collectively. And I don’t think he likes it individually that he’s not a good defender. So, he’s made more of an effort on the defensive end and it shows.”
Ask Jokić about what he’s done to improve on defense, and he smiles, rolls his eyes and says, “Nothing.”
But it is more than that.
“He’s been a lot more aggressive as well, especially in the pick-and-roll, jumping out on the screens so guards can’t get downhill,” Harris said. “And it’s been great. He’s been forcing a lot of steals in practice, or just getting his hands tipping the ball.”
And it’s all part of what is expected to be a more complete Jokić this season.
“The sky’s the limit, if he can continue to keep improving,” Harris said. “He’s so young, and he’s getting better each and every day. Now he’s trying to solidify himself at the top of the league.”
Christopher Dempsey: email@example.com and @chrisadempsey on Twitter.