Denver’s Nikola Jokic Wins N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award

Denver’s Nikola Jokic Wins N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award

- in Basketball

Nikola Jokic was an afterthought in 2014. A pudgy center from Serbia, he was a role player for a club in the Adriatic League when the Denver Nuggets took a low-risk gamble in the second round of the N.B.A. draft and selected him with the 41st pick — then promptly stashed him in Europe for another season. There was no guarantee that he would ever appear in an N.B.A. uniform.

On Tuesday, Jokic reached the pinnacle of individual achievement by winning the N.B.A.’s Most Valuable Player Award, according to two people with the award results but not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Basketball is a global game, and Jokic, 26, who had an exceptional season for the Nuggets, became the second straight foreign-born player to win the award after Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is from Greece, won the last two.

Jokic, whose Nuggets trail the Phoenix Suns 1-0 in a Western Conference semifinals series, set career-bests in the regular season by averaging 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game.

Despite his industrial-size bulk at 6 feet 11 inches tall and 284 pounds, Jokic is a nimble, multidimensional player who can shoot from the outside, bang in the paint and pass with flair. His ability to operate at the high post and one-handedly sling passes to cutting teammates opens the floor and causes mayhem for defenders. During the regular season, he shot 56.6 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from 3-point range.

“He’s what basketball players should look like in the future,” Ognjen Stojakovic, the Nuggets’ director of player development, said in a recent interview. “‘If I need to shoot it, shoot it. If I need to dribble, dribble. If I need to post up, I will post up because I am capable of doing everything.’ That is modern basketball.”

The race was, in some ways, a battle of attrition in a disjointed season that was marred by a host of injuries and coronavirus-related absences. LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers was a front-runner to win the award for a fifth time — and for the first time since 2013 — before he sprained his ankle in March and missed 26 games. Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid was also sidelined for about three weeks with a bone bruise in his left knee.

Jokic, on the other hand, was an ironman, appearing in all 72 of his team’s games, and he kept the Nuggets afloat after Jamal Murray, their starting point guard and second-leading scorer, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in April. Without Murray, the Nuggets closed the season as the No. 3 seed in the West by winning 13 of 18 games as Jokic shouldered even more responsibility.

When Jokic joined the Nuggets as a rookie ahead of the 2015-16 season, he was fresh off his first M.V.P. campaign — in the Adriatic League. It did not take long for his coaches in Denver to recognize his versatility. They encouraged him to do what he does best, which is a bit of everything.

“If you have a chef and you put him in McDonald’s flipping burgers, he will feel terrible,” Stojakovic said. “But if you give him a chance to be a chef and create, he can do his magic.”

Calvin Booth, the team’s general manager, recalled joining the Nuggets’ front office before the start of the 2017-18 season. Jokic was beginning to establish himself as a young player full of promise, and Booth had seen clips and highlights of his handiwork. But Booth found that being around Jokic every day was a different experience altogether.

“I knew he was good,” Booth said, “but I didn’t know he was that good.”

Among his peers this season, Jokic was deemed the very best.

Marc Stein contributed reporting.

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