Paul Klee: Nikola Jokic will impact Nuggets like Carmelo Anthony did

By: Paul Klee
January 28, 2017 Updated: January 28, 2017 at 8:58 pm
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Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic, front, of Serbia, picks up a loose ball as Phoenix Suns center Tyson Chandler, back left, and forward Marquese Chriss pursue in the first half of an NBA basketball game Thursday, Jan. 26, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER — This is called getting ahead of yourself.

But Nikola Jokic is this good: When the Nuggets' 21-year-old, goofy, totally likable, Serbian center jumps the tip in his 10th or 11th All-Star game, it will be worth remembering how his career in Colorado was closer than your next eye blink from never happening. The toughest piece in the NBA to land is the centerpiece. How the Nuggets found theirs stands prominently as a testament to smart scouting, risk taking and good ol' fashioned dumb luck.

The Nuggets were clock watching on draft night 2014. Tick, tock, tick, tock. Would Jokic indeed withdraw his name from the draft and remain in Europe, as his agent had declared?

Magic Nuggets Basketball
Denver Nuggets forward Nikola Jokic, right, of Serbia, works the ball inside for a shot as Orlando Magic center Bismack Biyombo, of the Congo, defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 16, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) 

"We guaranteed them we would take him at (No.) 41," Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly said in a conversation about Jokic, a second-round pick who arrived here to eye rolls and Nikoloz Tskitishvili references as yet another unknown prospect from a faraway land. "Otherwise, he was pulling out. Then who knows what happens?"

If Jokic doesn't happen? Something akin to Denver's 9-16 start to this season and a confusing, bland trajectory for the franchise. But Jokic happened. Ever since they tried something else and made Jokic the starting center on Dec. 15, the Nuggets have evolved into scoring juggernaut with the second-best offense in the NBA, directly ahead of the unfair Golden State Warriors. (Hat tip to Adam Mares of DenverStiffs.com for that stirring stat.) Nuggets action ball is back, baby. But even pegging Jokic as a centerpiece is selling him short. He's more than that. His impact on the franchise is going to look like Carmelo Anthony's, a long run of relevance that invites good players to Denver and spurs ownership to spend money on them.

That's the really juicy stuff, the franchise-altering stuff, that extends beyond Jokic's assist rate, which is tops among NBA centers, or my favorite part, his endearing belief that "offense beats defense." Now, for his next trick, Jokic is changing how the Nuggets think.

"Nikola's emergence has been so rapid. Even though we're pretty patient with our guys, it would be disingenuous to say we expected this," Connelly said. "But when you get a guy playing at this level it certainly allows you to look at the team and the construction of the team a little differently. With his unique playmaking skills — kind of playing an atypical style with so much coming out of the center position — I think we would be remiss not to consider how pieces fit next to Nikola."

The attraction to Jokic isn't simply that he can play; it's how he plays. The notion of me-first basketball was lost in translation. Who wouldn't want to play alongside a guy who's just as big as the big guys, but is able to pass like the small guys? The Nuggets PR department put together a four-minute highlight film of Jokic's passing and sent it to coaches voting on All-Star selections. Not his dunks (there's only been a dozen), 3-pointers or sweet flip-shots around the rim. His passing.

"He knows where guys are going to be open before they even know it," coach Michael Malone said. "He's a step ahead."

If the Nuggets were runners-up on Dwyane Wade, it figures Jokic will be a factor that closes that kind of deal in the future. When it comes to free agency, Denver has been basketball's equivalent to a haunted house with real zombies. There have been roughly 29 other places that free agents would rather go. Does he change the view of Colorado as a destination?

"I hope so," Connelly said. "He's an impossible guy not to like. He's got no ego."

Thursday night at Pepsi Center, Jokic limped through a hallway, holding his hip and the hearts of the Nuggets front office. He's day-to-day. But in a strange way even the injury had a silver lining. The Nuggets finally have a star to worry about, to hold their breath over, to build a contender around. This is my oldest NBA theory at work: In order for the Nuggets to be good, one of two things must happen. They must get lucky. Or they must be different.

They got lucky when the Detroit Pistons drafted Darko Milicic and Melo dropped into their lap. They were different by playing a rip-roaring style over a decade of action ball and postseason appearances. This is the start of that. Let the Jokic era begin.

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Twitter: @bypaulklee

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