DENVER — What I remember about that day — Nikola Jokic’s first media day as a Nugget — is a long, optimistic conversation with the man who drafted him, general manager Tim Connelly.
“He could be special,” said Connelly, who nailed it.
The Joker was there, too, hiding away in a folding chair in a lonely corner of the team’s practice gym. The Nuggets sent their fourth-string PR guy — his words, not mine — to walk the 20-year-old Serbian through his first interviews here. You know, the interviews that never came, since Jokic was a teenager from Europe so overlooked ESPN ran a Taco Bell ad the exact moment he was drafted.
“The Broncos, they are good,” Jokic said then, a few months after Denver won Super Bowl 50.
Yes, that’s how much has changed around these hills. The Broncos, they were good.
Four years later: the Joker, he is good.
“I mean, he has some passes where you’re just like (whoa),” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said before the Nuggets thumped the Blazers 124-98 in Game 5 late Tuesday at Pepsi Center.
“He sees the help defense and sees where everybody’s going to be, where people have to help and they’re going to go (before they go). I just think his IQ, you can see where he played point guard (as a kid) — his vision and he sees the play before it happens."
He sees the play before it happens.
God bless Serbia’s most famous soothsayer.
Thanks to a second-round draft pick and a bunch of other savvy moves along the way, the Nuggets sit one win from the fourth conference finals appearance in team history — the second of Joker’s lifetime, which dates to Feb. 19, 1995.
Jokic had 25 points and 19 rebounds in Game 5. The Blazers are resorting to scare tactics and crispy elbows to stop him. Problem is, the Jamal Murray show is worth the price of admission as well, and the self-titled Blue Arrow had 11 points in the first half of a game the Nuggets blew wide open. Will Barton’s slump is long over, Gary Harris will be haunting Damian Lillard’s dreams when this series is over, and Paul Millsap justified his $30 million salary with 19 first-half points.
The Nuggets are playing peak action ball at a time of year you must play peak action ball.
In the second half of Game 5, the Blazers quit.
Pulling the strings is Jokic, whose story started here, with a Nuggets front office that saw something nobody else did. The Nuggets are sensitive about the topic: who found Big Honey?
“Team effort,” is what Connelly says, forever declining to identify which scout changed Colorado sports history forever. No matter. We all won in the end. Before it was a sure thing Jokic would leave Europe and join the Nuggets right away, Connelly would share a handful of grainy videos on his smartphone. They showed a mountain of a man who sometimes even looked to score a basket. But there was one play on his smartphone where the 7-footer dribbled the length of the court, pulled a Tyson Barrie spin-o-rama, and dished an assist to a guard.
Like I said, it was grainy, but you could see it.
Jokic was asleep in Serbia when Denver drafted him 41st overall, in the second round, and his unorthodox way of dominating playoff games has awoken a sleepy franchise from its slumber.
“The first time I seen him I got a little glimpse of him at summer league. I didn’t hear anything about him. I was just watching the games,” Barton told me on Tuesday. “He could play a little bit. But you don’t think much of it because he’s a second-round rookie.”
“You didn’t know if they were going to bring him over (from Europe) or not. Then training camp came and he came over,” Barton said. "He was impressing us in training camp. It’s still small glances. ... Then you’re like, This guy can play a little bit. Then he starts playing more and it’s like, This guy’s pretty good. Then he’s just ascended into what he is now.”
Game 6 is Thursday in Portland. As he finished an interview on Joker's first media day, Malone whispered as he walked away, "He'll have a chance in a few years to surprise a lot of people."
It's been a few years now, and Joker's Nuggets are one win from the conference finals. Surprise.