Nikola Jokic MVP award completes cycle for evolution of modern NBA big men

In the olden days, big men ate glass and bumped in the paint.

They flushed the ball down when it was tossed up near the bucket and did all of their important work within pretty much a 15-foot radius of the basket.

The advent of the small-ball revolution which propelled the Golden State Warriors to five consecutive NBA Finals appearances and three championships fanned the flames of an evolution which was already taking place in the way the modern NBA big man operates and the toolkit they need to succeed.

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Exponential growth in the number of three points being taken and a move from defenses to schemes involving rapid, and often continuous switching meant the days of the old paint-clogging beasts reigning supreme was over.

There was now latitude for the league to entertain big men with a different set of tools.


By the end of that 2014-15 season, when the Warriors made the first of those NBA Finals appearances a young center from Serbia was preparing for his first season as an NBA player, a year after being drafted. Drafted 41st. In the middle of a Taco Bell commercial on American TV.

But this big man was different. This big man was Nikola Jokic. A guard who underwent a rapid growth spurt in his teens and whose game was all about flamboyant passing and elegant shooting, court vision and creativity, offensive craft and nous than two-way bulk and might.

And the evolution in his game has been a pleasure to watch. The aptly-nicknamed Joker often smiles when he tries audacious passes. But he’s always been imbued with the confidence to play his game, his way. And that’s why he’s the winner of the MVP award.

Also, by virtue of a historic season, Jokic very much earned it and is the lowest-drafted player to win the MVP and the first Denver Nugget to take home the honour.

Jokic cobbled together career-high averages in scoring (26.4 points per game) and assists (8.3), in addition to tying a career best in rebounds (10.8) while shooting 56.6 per cent from the field, 38.8 per cent from deep and 86.8 per cent from the free-throw line. Jokic continuously wowed with gaudy numbers, but perhaps more impressively, he managed to unflinchingly lead a Denver team that was riddled with injuries to the postseason.

The Nuggets lost second-leading scorer Jamal Murray for the season with a torn ACL, while Will Barton (hamstring) and PJ Dozier (adductor) still haven’t made their postseason debuts after lengthy absences.

None of that stopped or even slowed Jokic, as he becomes the first MVP since Kobe Bryant in 2008 to play in all of his team’s games. He’s also the first center to win the award since Shaquille O’Neal accomplished the feat in 1999-2000.

The last time a big man was crowned MVP, Dirk Nowitzki in 2007, the style of play league-wide for the NBA’s seven-foot brigade was mightily different. But the parallels with the Dallas Mavericks hero are very interesting.

Nowitzki also came from the continent where the NBA’s formerly well-honed ideals of the identikit big were less of a factor.

The big German was the first guy who didn’t just have the ability to shoot from distance as a big man, but whose game was predicated on that fact and the floor spacing it allowed him. That is how he hurt teams.

Jokic is the same, with a dazzling array of passing added in for good measure.

And the Denver Nuggets superstar being crowned as the MVP somewhat brings to completion that process of the evolution of big men in the NBA. Now, it’s not just that you’ll get a chance if your skillset flies in the face of the way the league looked just over a decade ago – now you can cement your status as the best player in basketball with that skillset.

What’s App Joker?

One interesting little subplot to Jokic’s MVP coronation is that the big man will now be the pride of the Serbian NBA players’ group chat.

The text group chat chimes incessantly with emojis, congratulatory notes, jokes and even some trash talk “every time someone has a good game” among the six active Serbian players currently playing in the NBA, according to Atlanta Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic.

So, you could imagine the thumb power at play after Jokic became the first Serbian player to receive the MVP award?

“I think he didn’t expect it,” Bogdanovic said. “You can ask him. I think even he didn’t expect it as far as [what] I know [of] him. But the way he was playing in Serbia back home, he was the kid who was joking with the basketball. He goes on the floor, and he jokes with you on the floor. He makes moves and it kind of sometimes looks sloppy.

“But now, I think he’s brought it all together: the skills, that talent that he can throw some no-look passes and crazy passes that you’ve never seen, then some moves under the rim in the post. He’s different.

“He’s brought it definitely to the next level, and I think no one expected it. He’s one of the for sure motivations for all the kids [in Serbia]. He’s one of the biggest examples that it doesn’t matter how high you are ranked, and it doesn’t matter when you start playing basketball. It all doesn’t matter. You just have to keep on working and doing it your way.”

Jokic certainly did that, despite expressing ambivalence about winning the award on multiple occasions.

“I can just say that I think this season is probably the best season I’ve had in my life,” Jokic said back in May. “The team, we’re playing good the whole season. We had ups and downs, but mainly we are going in the right direction. If it happens, [it] happens.”

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This also marks just the second time that an international player was named MVP for three years in a row, after Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo won the honour for two consecutive seasons. Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki were the last pair of international players to win MVP for three straight years (2004/05 through to 2006/07).

Dallas Mavericks center Boban Marjanovic playfully disagreed with Bogdanovic’s assessment that nobody saw Jokic’s ascension coming.

Marjanovic and Jokic first met when the Nuggets’ star was a teenager, and they spent time as team-mates in the Adriatic League with Mega Leks.

“Nikola is [a] great guy. I know him, he show[ed] up and we basically played together on the same team,” Marjanovic said. “I played the five, he played the four. Back over there [in Serbia], that skill level that he has right now, he had that back over there. He was really good. All the potential, all the nice touches, all the movement, all the brain, all the passes was like what he’s doing right now in Denver.

“He’s amazing and I know everybody says, ‘I know he will be somebody someday.’ But I really knew it because you really know how Nikola is thinking, how he plays, how he makes great decisions in great moments. And he is my friend [laughs]. I am so proud of him. It would mean a lot for sure for Serbia. It mean[s] a lot for my country, but a lot for me. Nikola is my friend, one of my closest friends. We don’t talk every single day, but we are online very often. It mean[s] a lot for me and of course for him and of course for our country that we have the MVP of [the] NBA league, the best league in the world. For him to win MVP it’s amazing, it’s great.”

Bogdanovic agreed and anticipated the group chat – which also includes Nemanja Bjelica, Aleksej Pokusevski and Alen Smailagic – will be “on fire” with Tuesday’s announcement. The players started the group chat amidst the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to stay in touch as they shuffled through the rigors of the season, which were intensified by all the coronavirus health and safety protocols.

The Serbian players also compete in plenty of online gaming, according to Bogdanovic, making a solid group chat a must.

“So, yeah, we are all rooting for him,” Bogdanovic said. “He knows [we’ve] got [his] back for that [MVP]. He did his job. For us [our job] is to make sure they hear [our] opinion about the MVP, us as players. It would mean a lot for our country for sure, the first time ever, [with us] never doing it. That’s something special, for real. He did a lot of work this year and a lot of years of work behind him. He proved that he had an MVP year this season.”

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