Considering Nikola Jokic’s current status as the best of the best in the National Basketball Association, it’s fair to wonder why he lasted all the way until Pick No. 41 in the 2014 rookie draft. True, he has progressed by leaps and bounds since then, with a championship backstopped by three Maurice Podoloff (now Michael Jordan) and Bill Russell Trophies. On the other hand, the otherworldly talent he possesses should have already been obvious nine years ago; after all, it isn’t as if he suddenly became nimble and athletic.
To be sure, Jokic has been underestimated throughout his career. For instance, he was picked next to last in the 2023 All-Star Game. Shortly after, he was denied a third straight regular-season Most Valuable Player award; voters deemed Joel Embiid a more deserving recipient, never mind his superiority in terms of advanced metrics. To his credit, he has seen fit to ignore the apparent disrespect; he is comfortable in his own skin, marching to the beat of a different drum en route to success. And, if nothing else, he has used it as motivation to continue proving his worth.
The Nuggets, of course, know how fortunate they are to have Jokic leading their cause. They understand, keenly, that without him, they are mediocre at best. Which is why they are only too happy to have the competition continue underestimating him and, by extension, them. The fact that he doesn’t seem to care about individual accolades serves only to underscore his priorities. During media seasons, he constantly chucks by the wayside talk about his stats and ensuing MVP narratives. Heck, he even left his Finals MVP hardware on the table after it was handed to him. As he noted in his post-title interview. “It’s good. The job is done. We can go home now.”
Make no mistake, though. Jokic is fully aware of the gravity of his latest accomplishment. It doesn’t matter if the Nuggets’ playoff run consisted of matches against eighth, fourth, seventh, and eighth seeds. They played all who were in front of them, and they crushed all who were in front of them. And, in the process, he put up videogame numbers matched by a mere handful in the annals of pro hoops. That he did so in his own way and at his own pace further accentuated his position as first among equals.
So don’t be fooled by Jokic’s outwardly nonchalant disposition. He cares about what he does. “Basketball is not the main thing in my life, and is probably never going to be,” he argued last month. But even as family comes first for him, he is guided by a work ethic that compels him to be at his finest no matter what he does. Which is why, his statement notwithstanding, he went on a tear that showed all and sundry his place among the league elite: At the top, with no one coming close.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and human resources management, corporate communications, and business development.