On June 16th, Nikola Jokić‘s agent, Miško Ražnatović, tweeted that his client withdrew his name from the Draft. Panic ensued across the ocean. Phones started ringing, with teams calling to see why the hell this happened. It was a bluff.
“I didn’t really do it. I wanted people to think about it a little more, and see the reaction of the United States. When clubs woke up, they really started to protest, and then argue. Not only Denver, a few teams. So I said if a couple teams reacted that way, I can be sure that someone is going to pick him. So I decided to change my mind.”Miško Ražnatović, The Athletic
When the Nuggets selected Jokić with the 41st pick, he was fast asleep. The next morning in Serbia, Ražnatović called Nikola to tell him Denver selected him. “When he (woke) up, I told him he went 41 to Denver. He said, ‘Nice, OK.’” The Nuggets were a bit more excited that they got Nikola but had no idea the gem they found.
“We get all this unfair credit for drafting him. We had two picks prior! We could have picked him earlier. We waited ’til 41. It was just kind of lucky scouting, to be honest with you.”Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connely, The Athletic
There are dozens of GMs telling stories about how they were just about to trade up for Giannis or that they had Draymond high on their list. It’s refreshing to hear a GM be honest for a change. But it was more than luck with Denver. Everyone who scouted Jokić saw a talented playmaker. But what everyone couldn’t look past was Nikola’s significant lack of athleticism. When I say significant, I mean really significant. He wasn’t just unathletic by NBA standards.
“He was really weak. Our athletic coach at Mega said that we needed to take him out of practices to prepare his body for the serious practices. If they didn’t do that, he would have gotten hurt. So they took him out of basketball for a couple of weeks. They started slowly, to work on muscles and everything else because he was extremely weak. He couldn’t really even do push-ups or something like that. It was hard period for Nikola, because he’s a guy who likes to play, who has joy. But that first period, he didn’t have that joy because he didn’t touch the ball and they worked a lot on his body.”Miško Ražnatović, The Athletic
Despite all this and the fact they never met with Nikola, the Nuggets pulled the trigger. Why? They established a philosophy of what they were looking for in a player, and Jokić fit the description. They knew he was unathletic and not a really good shooter at the time, but he had something special. “It was the archetype that we really like in terms of IQ, skill and a guy that doesn’t have a huge ego.” To adress his lack of athleticism, the summer he got drafted, the Nuggets sent him to the best place to go – P3 Sports Science in Santa Barbara, California.
This was the first time Nikola got a 360 degree education on what it takes to be an NBA athlete, from his workout regime to diet and rest. P3 are the guys who saw something uniquely athletic in James Harden and Luka Dončić – they are at the top of the list when it comes to deceleration. They think differently about athleticism in Santa Barbara, and there were a few things special about Jokić. He didn’t jump high, but he got off the ground quickly.
“We do this test where instead of trying to jump as high as you can for height, we try to set a specific height — in this case, 10 feet, 6 inches — and see how quickly an athlete can get to that height, “So it’s a submaximal jump that is for speed as opposed to jump height. It’s important to jump high, but the actual times in a basketball game where it’s important to jump as high as you can, there aren’t that many. There is a certain utility to being able to get a certain spot very quickly. It’s probably not going to make ‘SportsCenter,’ but it’s probably going to help you do a lot of the little things right.”Eric Leidersdorf, P3’s director of biomechanics, The Athletic
But even with all that encouraging information from P3, the Nuggets didn’t suspect they had a future MVP on their hands. Nikola went back to Serbia to play another season in Mega before starting his NBA journey. Motivated by his summer in the US, Jokić exploded. In the first game of the season, he dropped 27 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. At the end of the season, the MVP of the Adriatic League was coming to Denver.
So while Tim Connely is modest and talks about luck, the Nuggets did many things right. We can’t disregard the great work their coaching staff did with Nikola’s development. When the moment came to choose between Jokić and Nurkić, a polarizing debate at the time, the Nuggets picked well again.
It’s no accident they have one of the best track records in drafting and developing players for over a decade now. Yes, some of it is luck. But once you get lucky, you have to get a lot of things right. The Nuggets did just that.