Nikola Jokic: The unconventional genius leading Denver Nuggets to their first NBA finals

The Serbian centre may be almost seven feet tall but he passes the ball as well as the niftiest point guard

“He can’t run, he can’t jump, but you can’t stop him.”

The words of ESPN pundit Stephen A Smith about Nikola Jokic, who has led the unfashionable Denver Nuggets into their first ever NBA finals. After 4-0 series wipeout of LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers in the Western conference finals, Lakers legend Magic Johnson said the Serbian is “changing the game of basketball right before our very eyes”.

Standing at 6ft 11in and seemingly sluggish at first glance, Jokic has a razor-sharp mind and some quick and skilful hands that have helped his team blow away the opposition in the NBA Playoffs this year.

Throughout the NBA Playoffs, he has shattered records previously held by the legendary Wilt Chamberlain, showcasing his unparalleled abilities. Jokic achieved the remarkable feat of averaging a triple-double (more than 10 points, rebounds, and assists) in back-to-back playoff series, surpassing Chamberlain. He is also the only player to have four consecutive 20-point triple-doubles in the playoffs.


An unassuming figure who has shunned the media attention and hype, the affable Jokic embodies the European style of basketball, which places a premium on teamwork rather than individualism. His game is devoid of selfishness, maybe a surprising trait given the records he continues to break. Drafted only 41st pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Jokic was never had any pretension for superstardom, he even said he had only dreamed of playing in the EuroLeagues, not the NBA.

Where ‘The Joker’ stands out is he is the biggest man on the team but is also their playmaker. It makes him a unique talent in the history of the NBA. Assists of that magnitude are usually reserved for the quicker, smaller point guards in the league. Think 6ft Chris Paul or 6ft 1in Trae Young. Big Jokic leads them all in the playoffs in assists with more than 10 per game. The next centre on the list? Domantas Sabonis in 26th with 5 assists per game. There are only six centres in the top 50 in assists. His ability to distribute the ball is a testament to his exceptional basketball IQ. Good touch for a big man.

For the Denver Nuggets, Jokic averages almost 40 per cent of his team’s assists. Credit must also go to the head coach Michael Malone’s system and his team’s supporting cast, led by partner in crime Jamal Murray. Murray, a guard with agility and athleticism, complements Jokic perfectly, forming a formidable duo that excels in the pick-and-roll game. The Nuggets’ starting line-up, consisting of players who contribute at least 10 points per game, benefits greatly from Jokic’s exceptional service. And even when his team-mates struggle to score off his passes, Jokic himself is one of the league’s most efficient shooters.

In the playoffs, the Phoenix Suns fell before the Nuggets. They brought in Kevin Durant in the winter to join with guards Devin Booker and Chris Paul for one of the most formidable offences in the NBA. Albeit with Paul out injured, the Nuggets blew them away with 81 points in the first half in Game 6 of their series to clinch it. The Suns simply had no answer to the threat offered from all directions.

That is the challenge facing the Miami Heat when the NBA finals begin tonight. The Heat just got over the line against the Boston Celtics, almost blowing a 3-0 lead to win 4-3. Unlike the Nuggets, who were number one seeds in the regular season, the Heat scraped in as eighth seeds in the East and became only the second team in history to make the NBA Finals from that seeding.

Miami will go into the game underdogs but have already taken big scalps in the Celtics and the Milwaukee Bucks. In Jimmy Butler, they have an all-round player who lives for the big occasion. But handling the heat of Jokic and his offensive brilliance will be their greatest achievement of all.

Denver Nuggets v Miami Heat. The NBA Finals start tonight at 8.30pm ET (1.30am Irish time)

David Gorman

David Gorman

David Gorman is a sports journalist with The Irish Times