Nikola Jokic: Denver Nuggets center crowned NBA's Most Valuable Player

Nikola Jokic was selected with the 41st draft pick in the second round when he entered the NBA seven years ago.

Now, by overwhelming consensus, he’s No. 1.

The Nuggets’ big man was revealed Tuesday as the NBA’s Most Valuable Player for 2020-21, making him by far the lowest draft pick ever to win the award. He also becomes the first true center to win the award since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000.

The Joker now has his name etched alongside the greatest players in league history, which surely seemed unlikely when he was that unheralded prospect out of Sombor, Serbia in 2014.

“To be honest, I didn’t even think I would be in the NBA,” Jokic said.

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“My goal when I started to play basketball back home, it was playing in EuroLeague because that was kind of the closest top league to my country.”

He did a little more.

Jokic was the runaway winner, getting 91 of the 101 first-place ballots cast, 100 of them from a global panel of sportswriters and broadcasters who cover the league, the other being an aggregate first-place ballot compiled from fan voting.

That fan vote was the outlier: It went to 2011 NBA MVP Derrick Rose of the New York Knicks, the only vote Rose got.

Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid was second, Golden State’s Stephen Curry was third, 2019 and 2020 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee was fourth and Phoenix’s Chris Paul was fifth.

The previous record-holders for lowest draft picks who became MVPs were Steve Nash and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who were both chosen 15th overall. Antetokounmpo won the MVP award each of the last two seasons.

Greece now cedes the bragging rights to Serbia the fifth nation outside of the U.S. to claim an MVP, joining Canada (Nash), Greece (Antetokounmpo), Nigeria (Hakeem Olajuwon) and Germany (Dirk Nowitzki).

The news came in a team meeting Tuesday, with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver appearing on a video screen to deliver the word.

“First of many,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

Nikola Jokic is presented the 2020-21 #KiaMVP Award by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. pic.twitter.com/exJEJqFvcy

After the top five, the rest of the voting was Dallas’ Luka Doncic, Portland’s Damian Lillard, New York’s Julius Randle, Rose, Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Washington’s Russell Westbrook, Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and, tying for 13th, was the Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, Brooklyn’s James Harden and the Lakers’ LeBron James.

James got one fifth-place vote extending his streak to 18 years with at least one vote in the MVP race.

Jokic’s rise was meteoric, but not totally unexpected after the way he played in recent years. Even Kobe Bryant, back in 2019, said he had challenged Jokic to fulfil his potential and win an MVP award.

Challenge accepted. Challenge met. And now Jokic has the trophy that Bryant won in 2008.

Nikola Jokic is the first #KiaMVP to play every regular season game for their team since Kobe Bryant in 2007-08. 💜💛 pic.twitter.com/3wYNCjv6Eh

“MVP! BEST PLAYER IN THE NBA!” Nuggets team-mate Will Barton posted on Instagram.

“I couldn’t win it without you guys,” Jokic told his team-mates when the word came.

Jokic had a league-high 60 double-doubles and added 16 triple-doubles second-most in the NBA behind only triple-double king and former MVP Westbrook this season. Jokic’s scoring average jumped from 19.9 points per game last season to 26.4. He tied his career high with 10.8 rebounds per game and his average of 8.3 assists was just shy of Wilt Chamberlains all-time season average (8.6) for a center.

He shot 56 per cent from the field and 39 per cent from three-point range.

“The Denver Nuggets drafted me, it was an opportunity for me to become an NBA player,” Jokic said. I think I did a good job of using that opportunity.”

A year after leading the Nuggets to the Western Conference Finals in the Walt Disney World bubble in Florida, Jokic steered his team through a trying season marked a rash of injuries, most notably to fellow star Jamal Murray, who tore his left ACL in April.

Amid all those injuries, not to mention a jampacked season where virtually everyone got some rest along the way, Jokic was a rare everyday player, a big man who logged big minutes. He’s the only player to start all of his team’s regular-season games in the last two seasons, being on the floor for tip-off all 145 times. Others have also played in every game, but no one else has started them all.

Including playoffs, Jokic has logged 5,766 minutes in the last two seasons. That’s nearly 300 more than anyone else; he’s one of only six players to eclipse 5,000 minutes in that span.

Despite that ever-changing cast around him, Jokic guided Denver to the No. 3 playoff seed in the West. Behind Jokic, the Nuggets went 13-5 after Murray tore his ACL on April 12 and he led Denver past the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round of the playoffs.

And his numbers against the Blazers? Historic. He averaged 33 points and 10.5 rebounds on 53 per cent shooting from the field, 43 per cent from 3-point range and 92 per cent from the free throw line making him the first player in NBA history to average 30 points and 10 rebounds with the lofty benchmarks of 50 per cent from the field, 40 per cent from three and 90 per cent from the foul line in a playoff series.

“Lifes about little moments,” Malone said late in the regular season. “And Nikolas got about 56 moments where he’s shown he’s the MVP.”

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