Vlatko Čančar has mastered the art of trash talk just three months into his first NBA season.
His most frequent target? One of his own teammates and the Nuggets’ best player.
At halftime of the Nuggets’ November matchup against the Magic — Denver’s sixth game of the season — Nikola Jokić had just four points on 1 of 5 shooting. He was getting outplayed by Nikola Vučević who had tallied 17 first-half points and helped the Magic build a 45-40 lead. So, in the visitor’s locker room at the Amway Center, Čančar turned up the heat on Denver’s franchise cornerstone.
“Damn! I didn’t know Nikola Vučević was that good!” Čančar said with Jokić in ear shot.
Jokić was the only person in the room (other than Nuggets director of player development and Serbian native Ognjen Stojaković) who understood what Čančar said because Čančar trash talk is only transmitted in one language: Serbian. The rookie was born in Slovenia but his parents hail from Bosnia, and Bosnian and Serbian are similar dialects.
“(Vučević) was kicking his ass,” Čančar told DNVR. “Nikola first thought I was being serious, but I was being sarcastic — I’m always sarcastic when I’m talking trash to him — because for me, Nikola Jokić is better than the other Nikola.”
Jokić woke up in the second half. He scored 16 points on 6 of 9 shooting to go with five rebounds and three assists over the third and fourth quarters, and led the Nuggets to a 91-87 win. He held Vučević to just seven second-half points.
“I don’t know if that was all me,” Čančar said, not wanting to take too much credit for Jokić’s second-half effort. “Everyone was saying that it was me but I don’t think so. Maybe it was me a little bit. I try to be a positive. I try to hype players up. Maybe it gave him an extra edge or something like that.”
The Balkan bond between Jokić and Čančar is a strong one. Their relationship was forged throughout training camp and the preseason once Jokić returned from his national team duties because Čančar, like Jokić was when he arrived in Denver prior to the 2015 season, is a rookie living half a world away from Europe with his family and friends still back home.
With Čančar bouncing between the G League and Denver earlier this season it was difficult for his parents to schedule a trip to see him. He was flying solo and in an entirely new culture. It was a situation Jokić could empathize with.
“He understands how I feel being here,” Čančar said. “We speak the same language and when people from the Balkans meet each other overseas — here, in Spain (where Čančar played professionally last season), and all over Europe — they build a connection really quickly. Unfortunately, there are still some people from Eastern Europe who won’t be friendly with one another because of the past conflict between Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia. But not for me and Nikola.
“It’s really funny how it’s a difference when Balkan people meet each other somewhere else outside of the Balkans and how they really connect with each other. We have the same mentality with everything. We share so many things in common like the language, food, and culture. That’s why we’ve got so close with each other.”
Čančar and Jokić have adjacent lockers at Pepsi Center. They sit next to each other on the Nuggets’ team plane. Čančar will drop by Jokić’s apartment for a game of FIFA too (he doesn’t fashion himself much of a NBA 2K or League of Legends player, which are also predominantly featured in Jokić’s video game rotation) but always waits for the All-NBA big man to extend the invite.
“He plays so many minutes that I don’t want to bother him,” Čančar said. “He needs his rest so I try to leave him be because he goes through a lot of minutes, stress, and stuff like that. If we have a day off he’ll invite me to his place, but I let him call me because I’m a rookie. I don’t play a lot and he’s busy. He has family and his girlfriend here. Whenever he calls me to hang out I’m down.”
Čančar is not your typical end-of-the-bench rookie. The 22-year-old is trying to help change the culture in Denver by calling on his Spanish ACB League roots, where his former club San Pablo Burgos competes.
In Europe, teams play fewer games than they do in the NBA (last season ACB teams played just 34 games during the regular season.) Other competitions like the Euro Cup can tack on games to a team’s schedule but overall, European teams play significantly fewer games then the 82 that NBA teams log during a regular season.
Because of the shorter season in Europe, every matchup is important. It’s a mindset Čančar is trying to instill in Denver.
“We can be part of a championship story and I think everybody’s starting to realize that,” Čančar said. “Every game matters. For Europeans, every game matters, and I would like to put that habit here. A game like Christmas Day against New Orleans, that’s a must-win. We can’t have any excuses. We can’t be tired. Championship teams don’t look for excuses.”
To bring a championship to Denver the Nuggets will need Jokić at his absolute best, which he’s been as of late. In his last 13 games, Jokić is averaging 21.8 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 7.6 assists. It’s a far cry from the single digit scoring numbers he registered in four out of five games from late-November into December.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Jokić’s early-season swoon came a couple of weeks after the Nuggets assigned Čančar to the G League. In 10 games for the Erie BayHawks, Cancar put up middling numbers: 14.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 2.7 assists in 28.7 minutes per game. Then, the Nuggets recalled him on Nov. 7 around the time when Jokić’s surge began.
Čančar has been with the team ever since. He stayed with the Nuggets during the G League showcase last month while the team sent both PJ Dozier and Jarred Vanderbilt to Las Vegas for the week-long event. Since then, Jokić’s heater has continued and the Nuggets keep piling up wins. Denver has won 11 of its last 13 games after going 1-4 on an early December east coast road trip.
Perhaps Jokić just needed that familiar voice in his ear again.
“It’s good to have someone that speaks your language,” Jokić said. “He’s a funny guy. He’s always positive. He says some dumb shit on the bench but I like having him on the team.”
“It’s just a natural connection.”
Čančar’s positive spirit and team-first mindset is highly valued within the Nuggets’ locker room. He’s not afraid to let his voice be heard on Denver’s sideline either and has been vocal during timeouts this season.
More importantly, he’s Jokić’s Balkan brother, confidant, ally, and personal hype man. The Jokić whisperer knows how to push the All-Star’s buttons but also inspires him to raise his game to new levels.
“Everybody cares for each other here and everybody wants the best for each other,” Čančar said. “During timeouts, me and (Stojaković) will be talking to each other but we will mention him a lot, and we know he can hear us because we’re speaking Serbian. He listens and then he’s like, ‘OK you mother fuckers. I’m going to show you.’”