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Nikola Jokic is ready for the biggest challenge of his career

Harrison Wind Avatar
September 24, 2018

Nikola Jokic is not your typical NBA superstar, but you probably know that by now.

In the offseason, he prefers the stables to the clubs. Jokic acquired a second horse this summer to go with his pride and joy, Dreamcatcher, who the 7-footer says can eat a carrot out of his pocket. Her name is Bella Marguerite.

“She doesn’t like people,” Jokic said responding to a question about a rocky introduction between her and his dribble-hand-off partner in crime Gary Harris while the latter was in Serbia for Basketball Without Borders this summer. Jokic speculates that Bella Marguerite didn’t have the kindest owners before he found her.

Jokic upgraded from an Escalade to a Range Rover after inking his max contract as soon as the calendar flipped to July. He’s been taking his teammates on rides throughout the city, blasting Serbian tunes, but Harris isn’t convinced that his big man won’t hit him up for rides back from the airport like he did last season even after acquiring his new whip.

Other than those two additions, Jokic, is still very much the same wide-eyed 19-year-old and former second-round pick who arrived in Denver to little fanfare three years ago. He still keeps his entourage to three people, his two older brothers and girlfriend. He’d still rather stay in on a Saturday night than venture out into the city. He still anoints Paul Millsap or free agent acquisition Isaiah Thomas as the Nuggets’ “leader” rather than himself. At media day Monday morning, Jokic playfully depicted a scene straight out of Hollywood where on a recent summer trip to Sombor, Serbia, his coach rode Dreamcatcher too fast and pushed him too hard around the track. Jokic made sure to note that it wasn’t Michael Malone’s fault, but rather Dreamcatcher’s, who picked up the pace because he thought another colt was hot on his tail.

But Jokic is maturing…fast. He’s growing up, both on the court and off it, and he’s ready to embrace the lofty expectations that the rest of the league has for the Nuggets.

There’s a different feeling in the air in Denver. Fresh off a second consecutive season where the Nuggets missed the playoffs by one game, Denver is embracing its heightened expectations in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. The Nuggets dolled out around $200 million to keep their core together. They’re ready to reap the reward.

“Yeah. I think that’s the goal that we’ve given ourselves since last April 11, when we lost to Minnesota,” Malone said in response to a question about if he expects to make the playoffs. “… We’re going into this year embracing the talk of being a playoff team.”

If the Nuggets achieve their objective, it will be on the back of Jokic, who cemented himself as one of the league’s elite players last season. His high rank across various top-100 lists over the summer proves that Jokic isn’t just making waves locally, but he’s at the forefront of the national basketball conversation too, whether he likes it or not.

“I didn’t expect it, but I’m going to take it of course,” Jokic said. “I think I showed myself (the) last 15, 10 games that I can play at a really high level. And I think I need to do that (for) the whole season. Maybe All-Star needs to be my goal. But I’m not going to think (of) that as a goal. I’m going to take the playoffs first.”

Those last 15 or 10 games Jokic referenced shouldn’t be glossed over. Jokic played the best basketball of his career to close last season, averaging 24.0 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field and 47.6 percent from three, 11.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game over the Nuggets’ stretch run. Helping his late-season surge were heart-to-hearts with both his coach, who told him to stop being unselfish and passive and start acting like the team’s best player, and his front court partner, a four-time All-Star who stressed to Jokic that this was his team.

“It felt good for me when someone like Paul tells you something like that,” Jokic said. “He was an All-Star, he was our guy who can win the game for us. To have him kind of give me everything, (tell me to) do whatever. He kind of relaxed me so I can be confident in myself.”

Denver missed the playoffs a year ago, but Jokic enters this season more confident and comfortable in his own skin because of how last season ended. Jokic has his own superstar aura and larger than life charm that follows him wherever he goes. He can lighten the mood of a room with his presence and lift the spirit of his club with a few choice words.

He has his own unique type of swagger even if he’s not sure of the word’s exact meaning.

“I don’t know what it means to be honest,” he said. “It sounds like something creepy?

Denver had Jokic prioritize defense, foot speed, and conditioning this summer in the hopes of making him a better defender and giving him a chance to hang with smaller guards on the perimeter that he may get switched onto. Nuggets’ strength and player development coaches took trips across the Atlantic this summer to ensure Jokic was staying on schedule. He’s also added muscle to his frame so he doesn’t get pushed around on the interior as he did at times late last season.

He may not show it on the surface, but Jokic is determined to take Denver to the postseason this year. He sat on the couch and felt sick to his stomach watching the playoffs last season knowing deep down that the Nuggets were better than one or two teams who qualified for the playoffs ahead of them.

“I’m bigger, I’m better, I’m stronger,” said Jokic. “You’re going to see it on the court.”

Jokic truly feels at home when he’s in two places: back in Sombor with his horses, family and friends, and on the basketball court, where his Magic Johnson-like feel for the game and selfless brand of basketball have established an identity and culture in Denver that will live and breath for however long he wears a Nuggets’ uniform.

This year, Denver is banking on its star center finding that comfort in a third locale: the postseason.

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