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Darrell Arthur knew Nikola Jokic was special from the first time he saw the big man run, or better yet, lumber down the court.
It was August 2015, and Jameer Nelson had flown his teammates out to Philadelphia on his own dime for “Dig Deep Week,” an informal minicamp where Nuggets players could bond with one another before the season. In typical Jokic fashion, he didn’t shoot the ball much that week. He didn’t look for his own offense. But Jokic was making the same pinpoint passes that graced Sports Center’s highlight reels over the past three seasons and helped cement him as the best passing big man in the game.
“I knew it right away,” Arthur said.
When you poll Nuggets executives and players about what they first thought of Jokic when they watched him at Summer League or during open gyms prior to his rookie year, the results are mixed. Some believed that Jokic’s unique skill-set gave him a chance of developing into an above-average role player. Some thought he could someday be a starter. Few, besides Arthur, saw his ascension into elite status on the horizon.
Three years later, the Nugget enter one of the more pivotal seasons in their franchise history fully calibrated and centered around Jokic. He’s the same humble and proud kid from Serbia who arrived in Denver in 2015. The only difference is that this season he’ll face a mountain of expectations, unlike any he’s seen.
But this is Jokic’s year.
If last season’s stretch-run where Jokic averaged 24.0 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field, 47.6 percent from three, 11.5 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game was Jokic’s career sonata, this year will be his symphony. Fresh off the best stretch of his career, Jokic is not only set up for another historical offensive season — he’s also positioned to lead the Nuggets to 50 wins and their first playoff appearance since 2012-13.
Jokic has never been surrounded by as much offensive firepower in Denver’s starting lineup as he is this year. All three guards starting next to Jokic — Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Will Barton — can all play make, operate out of the pick-and-roll, engage in dribble-hand-offs and are threats to shoot 40 percent from three-point range. That trio surrounding Jokic gives Denver’s star center more off-ball movers to hit and more spacing to operate around the hoop.
Jokic comes into this season knowing that he’s the focal point of the Nuggets’ attack too. Its been seven months since Paul Millsap’s heart-to-heart with the 7-footer. During their 1-on-1 chat, the four-time All-Star underlined to Jokic that he needed to stop deferring and that Denver’s offense wasn’t going to change just because he arrived via free agency that summer. Denver’s attack was and always will be built around Jokic. Millsap was fine taking a backseat.
Centered on Jokic, Denver’s starting lineup will be one of the best offensive units in basketball this year. Defensively, the Nuggets still have question marks. That’s where Denver’s fifth and final member of its starting five comes in.
Millsap missed 44 games last season due to a left wrist injury that required surgery. When he returned late in the year he was essentially playing with one hand. Millsap could rely on his left hand to finish around the rim and he had to protect it on the defensive end of the floor. Somehow the Nuggets pieced together the 23rd-best defense in the league without their best and most impactful defender.
With Millsap and internal growth from Murray and Harris, Denver’s defense should be better this season. If the Nuggets hold their opponent to one fewer basket per game, they’re instantly a league-average defense, which should be more than enough to vault their win total from 46 last season to 50.
Remember those home losses to the Suns, Hawks and on the road to the Kings, Knicks, Grizzlies and Mavs? Millsap’s veteran savvy will help with those too. Fifty-win teams don’t drop that many games to that many lottery-bound teams. Millsap’s leadership can rally the troops in those situations.
The Nuggets know how good they are when they’re in the zone. Denver’s equal-opportunity offense is too difficult even for the league’s best defenses to gameplan for in the regular season.
With Jokic careening the basketball like a water polo player at the top of the three-point arc and four high-IQ players around him, defenses are helpless.
“When we’re clicking we’re one of the best teams in the NBA,” Barton told BSN Denver. “Now it’s just about going out there and being consistent and proving it every night.”
Denver’s bench is also deeper this season. The Nuggets begin the year with Monte Morris at backup point guard, a more capable option than Emmanuel Mudiay who began last season in a 20-plus minute per game role. Trey Lyles is a better player than he was a year ago and will be the focal point of Denver’s second unit.
The Nuggets’ depth, Millsap’s veteran leadership, an improved defense and Michael Malone’s contract extension, which allows Denver’s head coach to breath a brief sigh of relief heading into the season, will all help the Nuggets reach the playoffs this season.
But for Denver, this year is all about Jokic, who’s offensive mastery and innovation will be front and center on the national stage.
He’ll not only garner his first All-Star appearance this season, but also lead the Nuggets to 50 wins, the fourth seed in the West and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Not bad for a former second-round pick.