How a prospect who couldn’t do 10 pushups became the best passer in NBA history


AN HOUR BEFORE Game 4 of the 2023 Western Conference finals tipped off at Arena in downtown Los Angeles, Ognjen Stojaković kept his eyes trained on Nikola Jokic.

Stojaković, the Denver Nuggets’ director of development and an assistant coach, stood beyond the 3-point arc, donning black shorts and a long-sleeved gray Nuggets T-shirt on this Monday evening in late May. He fed passes to the team’s all-everything center, who is going through a series of warmup drills against 7-footer Boniface N’Dong, a retired Senegalese center who is now a Nuggets player development coach.

Jokic backed N’Dong down in the post, shooting one-handed floaters over him. He shot midrange turnaround jumpers over him. He jab-stepped and pump faked, delivering a flurry of methodical footwork pivots and high-arching shots that splash the net.

A crowd gathered around half court to watch the show. From the bench, Nuggets staff and players laughed and smiled. “He’s too little, Jok!” shouted Nuggets backup center DeAndre Jordan. Stojaković, standing near the 3-point arc, grinned and kept firing passes to Jokic, admiring the fellow Serbian, whom he first saw about a decade ago, when Jokic was 17 and playing for Mega Basket of the Adriatic League.

“He was a package of Marc Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki,” Stojaković said, referencing two of the most skilled European big men to ever reach the NBA.

But Stojaković especially marveled at Jokic’s cerebral gifts. “There’s a line — you’re as fast as you can anticipate,” he said. “He anticipates situations two and three steps ahead. People don’t understand; before the situation happens, he can predict it.”

Which means Jokic sees lanes and angles and windows before they exist. Including the regular season and playoffs, he assisted on 468 layups and dunks last season, the most by any player in the NBA, per Second Spectrum tracking.

After the Lakers were swept by Jokic and the Nuggets, Lakers star LeBron James offered similar praise.

“He sees plays before they happen,” James said of Jokic. “Maybe it’s not talked about, because a lot of people don’t understand it, but I do. He’s special.”

A world away, in Jokic’s hometown of Sombor, Serbia, a 6-foot-7 man named Nebojsa Vagic followed the 2023 playoffs — which culminated with Jokic winning a championship and Finals MVP honors — with a special interest. He is Jokic’s godfather. He read the onslaught of remarks from James and others about Jokic’s intellect, and it takes him back many years, to when he first watched Jokic play as a boy.

In the years that followed, as Jokic grew and developed, scouts, coaches, commentators and spectators alike would watch him play on the game’s biggest stages and wonder: How did Jokic seem to anticipate plays before they happened? How could he whip passes into split-second windows for easy shots? How could he hold the ball and, with a series of subtle eye movements and head nods, orchestrate movement from his teammates?

Ask people in Jokic’s inner circle and outside of it, from the NBA and from his hometown, and the answers are unsatisfying — but tantalizing. That it all began in the smallest of gyms, where a young boy showed glimpses of what he’d later become: one of the greatest passers in NBA history.

“I think that it’s something that we normal people can never comprehend or understand how it’s possible,” Vagic said. “For him, it’s very simple. But for all others, it’s a never-ending story in trying to understand.”

NOSTALGIA SWEPT OVER Vagic as he peered into a familiar old gym built in the early 1970s. It was 2008 or 2009 in Sombor. Located about a mile southwest from the city’s center, the same crisscrossing wooden beams looked down onto the same scarred hardwood court; the same high, clouded windows poured in muted sunlight; the same red-stone walls formed its perimeter, and the same pull-out bleachers sat, at most, 300 people. Decades ago, Vagic had played basketball here, at the Mostonga Sports Hall. Next door, in a larger gym, he honed his skills in physical games against other adults.

Back then, Vagic could look into the stands and see his father and his father’s friend, a serious-faced agricultural engineer named Branislav Jokic, cheering him on with an expletive or three. To pay it forward, Vagic, now in his early 30s, had returned, back to cheer on Branislav’s youngest boy, a pudgy point guard named Nikola.

From the bleachers, Vagic looked at the boy, his roughly 13-year-old godson. This was his first time seeing Jokic play, but he observed quickly that the young boy seemed to control the game and its movement like a seasoned air traffic controller, the ball always in his hands.

“There was so much talent,” Vagic said, “and so much sense for the ball.”

Jokic seemed to anticipate actions before they happened, an element of his growing game that impressed Vagic the most. After all, he said, basketball — a sport he played professionally in Serbia — is a game of anticipation, and the young Jokic was unusually advanced in that category.

“He anticipates everything far deeper than we do,” Vagic said. “He sees things coming.”

But Vagic would come to learn Jokic wasn’t exactly basketball obsessed. Walking into Jokic’s bedroom in Sombor, Vagic didn’t see any basketball posters or basketball memorabilia. In fact, looking around the room, he couldn’t tell if Nikola was interested in basketball at all.

“He was never too crazy for basketball,” Vagic said. “He was never like that.”

Jokic displayed natural talent in almost any sport that involved a round object — tennis, table tennis, volleyball, billiards. When he did play basketball, Vagic said, the game came very easily, with innate gifts to move and see in ways others could not, as if he were fluent in some secret language that, to everyone else, sounded like gibberish. It came so easily to the young boy, Vagic said, that he appeared disinterested.

​​”The thing is, we can only see the surface, but he is like a wide ocean inside,” Vagic said. “He’s very excited, but you cannot see that, because he’s under control.”

A MAN NAMED Branislav Vicentic was sitting in front of his computer in Belgrade, Serbia, in 2012. The head coach of Mega Vizura, an under-19 professional team that plays in Belgrade, was watching a youth basketball game between Vojvodina and Partizan, two teams in the Serbian under-19 league.

As he scouted, his eyes immediately focused on a 17-year-old Nikola Jokic, then playing for Vojvodina. The focal point of the offense, Jokic hadn’t, to Vicentic’s trained eye, made any mistakes.

“The first time I saw him,” Vicentic said now, “I just fell in love.”

The next time Jokic played, Vicentic watched in person. Jokic wowed him again.

Then there was veteran sports agent Misko Raznatovic, who had first caught wind of Jokic by flipping through a Serbian newspaper and seeing the results of a junior league game in which the 17-year-old Jokic dominated. He gathered more intel. It wasn’t great. Jokic was out of shape. But he wanted to bring Jokic to the team at Mega anyway. Arrangements were made.

After Jokic signed to play with the team in the summer of 2012, Vicentic asked a track and field coach to test Jokic’s strength and endurance. It didn’t go well.

Jokic couldn’t perform 10 situps or 10 pushups. “I don’t know if this is for real or if he’s making a joke,” the coach told Vicentic. So Vicentic asked Jokic, who admitted it’s real.

Then they began practicing, and Vicentic saw Jokic’s mind at work.

It began subtly. During a warmup drill for skill practice, Vicentic asked Jokic to engage in a two-ball dribbling drill, and Jokic took to it naturally, as if he’d done it all his life.

“You practice this?” Vicentic asked.

“Never,” Jokic replied.

“I understood then,” Vicentic later said, “that he’s a one-of-a-kind talent.”

Vicentic coached Jokic for one year, and to this day says he has never seen anyone quite like him before or since.

“Listen, I don’t want to take credit,” Vicentic said. “Some [people] ask me, ‘Hey, you create Nikola Jokic?’ I don’t know how to make Nikola Jokic. I was blessed to have him on my team.”

He adds, “He’s Beethoven. You give him a piano. He makes music.”

As Jokic worked his way up the ranks at Mega, he came under the tutelage of coach Dejan Milojević, now an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors. From the start, Jokic’s passing made Milojević believe he could reach the NBA. “For him to be an NBA player, you have to have some elite skill set,” Milojević said. “The passing that he has was elite.”

One Eastern Conference front-office executive called Jokic “the best passing big man of all time.” But a Western Conference GM went further, saying Jokic is the best passer in NBA history, regardless of position. “I don’t think it’s close, either,” the GM said.

Milojević coached Jokic for 2½ years but struggled to convince people from the NBA that Jokic could play in the league. At the time, he said, Jokic simply didn’t look like an NBA player. One scout separately echoed that remark and said the first few times he saw Jokic play, back in 2012 and 2013, he didn’t even write down his name.

That scout would go on to work for the Denver Nuggets.

RAFAL JUC WAS a 20-year-old aspiring scout living with his parents in Poland. He traveled across Europe, hoping to see up-and-coming players and build his own résumé and a list of players to recommend to NBA teams.

It was at this time, in 2012, that he saw Jokic.

“When I saw him for the first time,” Juc said, “I never thought he would be an NBA player. Looking back, it’s kind of laughable — I didn’t think he was good enough to put some notes down on him.”

A year later, at the 2013 FIBA Under-19 World Championship in the Czech Republic, his opinion began to change. In the final game, Team USA defeated Serbia, but Jokic scored 10 points and added three rebounds in 19 minutes.

“You could already see glimpses of unique talent, in terms of passing, reading the floor,” Juc said. Jokic, yes, was out of shape, but something was there.

In August, Juc, through connections to Nuggets executives Tim Connelly and Arturas Karnisovas, became the international scout for the Nuggets. Connelly and Karnisovas had connections in the Balkans and knew of Jokic. But Juc didn’t have him as a top-priority prospect. It wasn’t until the 2014 Nike Hoops Summit, in Portland, Oregon, that Jokic became a target on the Nuggets’ radar.

Connelly once told Juc that when he was an executive with the Washington Wizards, they had a chance to draft Marc Gasol, and, at the last second, they had a change of heart. That decision had stayed with Connelly, and he encouraged Juc to be creative, to think outside the box.

Two and a half months later, the team drafted Jokic with the 41st pick in the second round of the 2014 draft, famously announced during a Taco Bell commercial. Jokic was asleep at the time he was picked. The Nuggets stashed Jokic in the Adriatic League in the 2014-15 season, and he became the MVP in Serbia’s top professional league.

In time, Connelly affectionately called Jokic “the algorithm” because of his ability to be presented with information and instantly understand it.

“If it happens once with him, he remembers it for all time,” Vagic said. “He’s got a fantastic psychological ability for everything. If something happened years ago and I’m uncertain, I just ask him. In a second, he tells me what happened, and I know that’s what happened. I don’t have to ask him twice.”

But for as many lessons as Jokic learned, his journey seems to have imparted just as many. Jokic ultimately taught Juc different lessons about scouting, Juc said.

“I probably fell for the trap of looking for athleticism,” Juc said.

At that time, Jokic didn’t meet the threshold — at all. He also had an odd, herky-jerky running gait — akin to a puppy that was trying to find his footing.

“You could see that he had all these great ideas,” Juc said, “but he didn’t know how to translate it on the court.”

His body, in other words, hadn’t yet caught up to his mind.

FOLLOWING THE NBA draft, Jokic was in sunny Santa Barbara, California, to spend a month at P3 Applied Sports Science, a training center that specializes in advanced athlete assessment.

On the first day of his evaluation in August 2014, the readings were historically disappointing. Jokic recorded what was then — and still is — the lowest standing vertical leap of any NBA player they had ever assessed, a group that is now more than 1,000 players. Seventeen inches. Not even a foot and a half.

P3 officials, including founder Dr. Marcus Elliott, weren’t sure what to make of this poorly conditioned second-round pick. Would he even make the league? Would he have any sort of career at all? After that assessment, Elliott approached Jokic and asked if he wanted to reserve any court time while he was at P3 to work on his basketball game.

“No, no,” Jokic replied. “No basketball. Basketball is good.”

Then Jokic patted his paunch of a stomach.

“This” — his body — “not so good,” Jokic responded.

Elliott had never before — and, he believes, never since — had any NBA player not pick up a basketball during their time at P3.

Jokic would steadily transform his body in the years ahead, which meant overhauling his diet and eliminating a three-liters-a-day Coca-Cola habit. There would be long offseasons in Serbia with Vagic, who began training with Jokic the summer before Jokic’s NBA summer league debut in 2015. They’ve worked together every offseason since.

Vagic, who makes a cured meat salami featuring deer and wild boar that Jokic loves, said he’ll spend a half hour with his godson back in Serbia shooting from different locations, and he won’t miss a shot. They’ll spend another half hour with Vagic and Jokic’s brother, Nemanja Strahinja, taking turns playing Jokic one-on-one — and Jokic will take turns scoring against each of them, never losing a game.

“He’s unbelievable,” Vagic said. “I wasn’t much of a basketball player. I didn’t have much talent. Nikola and I have fun about that every day. Every day. Just every day he jokes. Because everything he can do, I couldn’t do.”

And Jokic remains as dominant as ever. Through the first five games of the 2023-24 season, Jokic is averaging 26.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 7.4 assists on 60.4% shooting for the 4-1 Nuggets.

And already this season, Jokic has authored a highlight that pierced the edge of possibility: an 80-foot alley-oop inbounds pass to teammate Aaron Gordon, who caught the lob midair and soared for a dunk in a 108-104 win over the Grizzlies on Oct. 27. The pass, like so many from Jokic, went viral, igniting the same collective head-scratching as he routinely tests the creative limits of the game itself. And, yet, to Jokic, such plays represent who he has always been.

“To be honest, I’m playing the same way since my days in Sombor, I think,” Jokic said recently. “I didn’t change. Maybe I upgrade a little bit, but I didn’t change my style of play since day one.”

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