How Nikola Jokic went from ‘soft’ to an NBA force

DENVER — NIKOLA JOKIC is sitting on a leather couch in the Denver Nuggets‘ player lounge, an ice pack attached to his right side.

There’s a five-inch scar that runs across the top of his left arm near his shoulder and several other claw marks that come in all different sizes and shades of red. There are some fresh ones from the previous night, when the Nuggets won Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series against the Portland Trail Blazers.

“All year round,” he says. “I have a long one here, a really big one from last year.

“I lead the league in scratches. I’m always like bleeding — I’m used to it. I am going to wear sleeves next year — 100 percent.”

They are remnants of a breakout season for Jokic, who landed in Denver four years ago as a largely unknown, Coca-Cola-guzzling second-round draft pick out of Sombor, Serbia. The 7-footer weighed about 292 pounds when he arrived and looked “soft” to one of the Nuggets conditioning coaches. Jokic was asked to test his core strength with a plank exercise, which requires the subject to hold a push-up position with forearms flat on the floor for as long as possible.

He lasted 20 seconds, tops.

“I died! I died,” Jokic recalls, growing animated. “I was shaking. I said ‘I can’t.’ I said, ‘fuuuuuuuu …'”

Those days are over. Jokic, 24, earned his first All-Star nod this season, flirted with MVP hype and has been dominant in his first playoff action, averaging nearly a triple-double.

But beneath the stats and the headlines and the scars is a playful 7-foot kid. It’s what makes “Joker” beloved by his teammates, coaches and seemingly every Pepsi Center employee.

Not long after Jokic shows off his battle scars, he sits up on the leather couch and starts reenacting a scene from his new favorite show.

“Did you see the pump-fake that Arya did?” Jokic asks before providing a basketball analysis of the recent “Game of Thrones” episode. He reenacts the defining scene from the show’s “Battle of Winterfell,” which ended with (spoiler alert) Arya killing the Night King by dropping her dagger from her left hand into her right and stabbing the show’s most fearsome character.

“But!” Jokic exclaims, pretending to hold his own dagger high in the air and dropping it while making a sound effect. “It’s a really good pump-fake. And the Night King, he jumped at it. So, he bite.”

GoT may be his current interest, but Jokic’s passion waits for him back in Sombor. He owns three horses — Dream Catcher, Donita Firm and Bella Marguerite — and grew up loving harness racing.

“You can see the passion,” Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger says. “That is his escape. He goes and sits down and watches his horse for hours.”

“I enjoy animals,” Jokic says. “Their nature. They’re really good animals. Every different horse has a different personality, like a human.”

IN PREVIOUS YEARS, Jokic would be back in Serbia. But this year, the horses are going to have to wait.

The Nuggets face the Blazers in Game 3 of the tied series on Friday night.

It’s Jokic’s first time playing this many games, but the extra wear and tear doesn’t seem to be taking a toll. He’s averaging 23.9 points, 12 rebounds and 8.6 assists. He’s also averaging 37.8 minutes, sixth-highest in the league.

Not bad for a player who still hears comments about his body and fitness.

“That story has been [with me] all my life,” Jokic says about surprising people who underestimate him based on his appearance. “To be honest, sometimes it is funny for me just because [sometimes what they say] it’s true, and [yet] I am still playing in the NBA.

“Someone said, ‘He’s not even in shape.’ I am playing in 80 games and he said that I’m not even in shape.”

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who described Jokic as “magnificent” after the Nuggets eliminated the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, joked about the shade thrown at Jokic’s body type and perceived lack of athleticism.

“I just hope that he doesn’t wreck it all going to the weight room or anything,” Popovich cracked with a sly smile. “You know?”

Jokic credits Eichenberger and Steve Hess, Denver’s former head of strength and conditioning, with helping him lower his body fat, changing his diet and adding more muscle mass to handle the physicality of the NBA.

“Someone said, ‘He’s not even in shape.’ I am playing in 80 games and he said that I’m not even in shape.”

Nikola Jokic

Jokic is listed at 250 but says he’s playing between 275-280 — his preferred playing weight.

He jokes about the changes in his body from the time he arrived in Denver.

“There were not any muscles,” Jokic deadpans. “Now around 292, but I have a couple of muscles.”

“To be honest, I like to be a little bit heavier like how I am right now,” Jokic says. “I was lighter than this, say 15 pounds. But I didn’t feel right. Because the guys are pushing me, I was not that heavy, I was light. I just needed a little bit more weight to keep up with those guys.”

Jokic drinks protein shakes and will follow detailed nutrition plans with prepared meals periodically during the season. Eichenberger had Jokic on a seven-week prepared-meal plan leading into the All-Star break. It increased Jokic’s intake from 3,000 to 5,200 calories a day. Jokic dropped 10 pounds by consuming the right type of calories and protein while eating five meals a day. Jokic had to remind himself to eat every three hours.

“He eats well,” Eichenberger says. “But he likes sweets. He really likes sweets.”

Eichenberger has visited Jokic in Sombor the past two summers to train, and he has gained a better understanding of Jokic’s eating habits. In Serbia, Eichenberger noticed that every meal they had started with a salad, then a soup followed by a meal and dessert.

“It could be cultural,” Eichenberger said of Jokic’s sweet tooth.

Jokic has made his share of sacrifices. After drinking three liters of Coke a day growing up in Serbia, Jokic had his last can of the soft drink on his first flight to Denver in 2015.

“I think it’s just mental,” Jokic says. “Like, don’t let Coke be stronger than you.”

JOKIC’S PREGAME ROUTINE sometimes includes scouting his own teammates. He looks for different tendencies or movements that could help his passing game.

“You need to know your own personnel,” Jokic says.

Jokic knows to factor in that Gary Harris and Monte Morris like to go right, Jamal Murray prefers to go left and to pass the ball directly to Will Barton and let him decide which direction to go in.

He also will improvise and deliver a wild-card pass to test the defense and see what he can get away with. The big man is like a point guard, always thinking two or three steps ahead.

“If I see something, even if it’s risky, I am going to try it,” Jokic says. “Because maybe that mistake is going to open up something else, or next time it is going to be there just to give it a chance. … I know it’s every possession matters, but I think maybe that possession is going to open up the next three or four times, something else just to see what the opposing team is doing, you know?”

Jokic has thrown the most passes in the NBA this season, some 800 more than point guard Ben Simmons, who is in second place. The Nuggets rank first among postseason teams with an average of 1.22 points per possession when Jokic brings the ball up the floor, according to Second Spectrum tracking.

Teammate Paul Millsap likens Jokic’s ability to read defenses to that of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.

“I just look where [defenders are] standing, what they’re doing, what they’re talking about, just listen to everything,” Jokic says. “You need to learn their calls, how they’re coming from the baseline and the nail [middle of the free throw line].

“For me, it’s just a normal thing. I just wonder what they’re doing and I am doing opposite of what they’re doing.”

“If I see something, even if it’s risky, I am going to try it. Because maybe that mistake is going to open up something else, or next time it is going to be there …”

Jokic on his passing mindset

Harris has seen opposing coaches try everything to neutralize Jokic’s passing skills.

“Let him score,” was the craziest strategy, Harris says. “Other than that, everybody tries to double him.”

Jokic is still surprising some opponents.

“He does a lot of little things that is in his favor because he doesn’t depend on athleticism and speed and all that stuff,” Portland’s Damian Lillard said. “So it is kind of sneaky.”

JOKIC WALKS ONTO the dais for his postgame session with the media, but before he takes questions, he addresses his newest nemesis: The microphone stand.

In what has become a comedic moment almost every time Jokic conducts a postgame media conference, he tries to remove the microphone from its stand so he can hold it close to his chest.

Jokic, though, has not been able to pull the microphone out or put it back with ease. Such was the case after Game 6 in San Antonio where he became so frustrated trying to put the mic back in that he cursed under his breath.

“F— this s—,” Jokic said with a sigh.

The clip made the rounds on the internet.

But after the Nuggets’ Game 7 win over the Spurs, Jokic successfully snapped the microphone back in place before celebrating with a hilarious roar.

“It’s a fight,” Jokic said, shaking his head. “It’s a fight. It’s 1-1 now and hopefully at the end of the season, I am going to beat the mic.”

At least this battle shouldn’t leave a mark.

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