DENVER — Well, this is a twist.
At a time when sports media enable LaVar Ball’s daily nonsense and NFL running backs celebrate 1,000-yard seasons while their team whiffs on the postseason, the Denver Nuggets face a different kind of problem. The star basketball player at Pepsi Center wants zero part of the public spotlight.
Does Nikola Jokic desire to be famous?
“Not a bit. I just want to play basketball. That’s it,” Jokic told me earlier this season. “Billboards? No! I want to go in the restaurant and just walk in and nobody knows me. That is going to be the best thing ever.”
Hate to break the bad news, Big Honey. You’re 7-feet tall and the best promotional video at Pepsi Center is “Jokes with the Joker.” There’s a better chance Jokic is comfortable flying commercial than flying under the radar.
Hey, it’s a good problem to have. The Nuggets often can be too unselfish.
Refreshing, isn't it?
What local hoopheads are itching to see is if Jokic is ready and willing to guide the Nuggets where they need to go — back to the playoffs with a seed that allows them to avoid the Warriors and Rockets. (Aside from maybe the Spurs, Denver can get hot and beat anyone else.) No better time than now.
Starting Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks, the Nuggets are home for nine of their next 12 games. And more than half of those opponents are struggling with sub-.500 records. The Nuggets are 21-19. If it’s not too much to ask, they should be right around 28-23 by the end of January. It's doable.
There are times when it’s fair to wonder if there’s been too much responsibility placed on Jokic, who became so good so fast it's easy to forget he won’t turn 23 years of age until February. Oh, the pressure doesn’t come from Michael Malone, the coach, or anyone else employed by the franchise. The Nuggets have performed an admirable job of shielding a young prodigy who would rather be racing horses in small-town Serbia or flying a drone above Sloan’s Lake than answering questions about himself.
"You want to talk to me?" Jokic said recently. "Why?"
The Nuggets are bringing along their young cornerstones slowly but surely, and I believe their patience is about to pay off with a sweet little run. Here, check out Malone’s comments after Jokic had a triple-double in a loss to the Warriors. Does this sound like a coach who’s demanding too much?
“I saw Nikola just playing,” Malone said. “My message to him was a simple one: Yes, you’re a player, but I care about you as a person first and foremost. I love you. I want you to just relax. I want you to play the game to the best of your ability. If you make a mistake or miss a shot, so what? You’re still our guy and we believe in you 1,000 percent.”
He's good enough, he's smart enough, and doggone it, the Nuggets love Nikola. But there's ample pressure bubbling elsewhere. The postgame scrum in the tunnel at Pepsi Center often resembles a family reunion or the charter meeting of the Jokic fan club. Back home in Serbia, and to a number of folks who depend on him here, Nikola Jokic is kind of a big deal. He’s not above faking a phone call to avoid the hysteria that shadows him down the street in his hometown. And when it came time to inform his homeland if he would be playing for Serbia in EuroBasket, he politely declined the invitation.
“I know if it’s not one thing people will be mad (about it), it’s something else,” he said, begrudgingly accepting the fact that he's a wanted man.
The joy of Jokic is that he plays basketball with the imagination of a kid, spinning passes that most 7-footers (or anyone, for that matter) would never consider to be an option. It's when Jokic gets frustrated and looks like he's just waiting to clock out from a 9-5 job that his Nuggets tumble into a slump.
Count me in the crowd that can't wait to see the finished product when big-money forward Paul Millsap returns to the lineup some time after the All-Star break in mid-February. Until then, and really for the first time in the Jokic era, the Nuggets need the man to be The Man. No pressure.