Nikola Jokic \u0026 Devin Booker go face-to-face after that play \u0026 Jokic gets ejected 😮 Suns vs Nuggets
Nikola Jokic \u0026 Devin Booker go face-to-face after that play \u0026 Jokic gets ejected 😮 Suns vs Nuggets

It’s tough for any 20-year-old Serbian to start a new life in the United States. Not only do you have to become fluent in a new language, but you have to assimilate into a thoroughly foreign culture.

Now, imagine having to do that while being thrust into the NBA, a league environment that couldn’t be anything further from the lifestyle you’re so accustomed to in your homeland, then having to play in an event like the organized chaos that is the Las Vegas Summer League just 22 days after arriving from Serbia.

That combination of factors would be enough to bewilder anyone. So it’s understandable that Nuggets’ center Nikola Jokic — owner of a new four-year, $5.5 million contract — would think it’ll be a while before he’s totally adjusted to his new situation.

“It’s different, very different,” Jokic told CBSSports.com.”I think I’ll adapt with the help of basketball, I just need time. But I think it’s going good (so far). Really good.”

Despite needing time to adjust, there is one thing he’s noticed so far that he likes a lot.

“Everybody is smiling,” Jokic laughed. “Even when it’s bad, it’s good. Everybody smiles. Everybody’s good, everybody’s positive.”

There’s a lot of reason to be positive particularly with Jokic, given the growth he’s made in his game over the past year. Since being the 41st overall pick in the 2014 draft, Jokic’s stock has skyrocketed from borderline NBA prospect to potential building block for the Nuggets. Last season, he upped his averages across the board from 11.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game as a 19-year-old to 16.5 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists on his way to being named the Adriatic League’s MVP in 2014-15.

“After the first season, I got some experience and got older,” Jokic said. “Every season, I get better and learn new stuff. In the NBA, it’s different. You must do everything. Defense, offense, shooting, everything. I wanted to prove myself here and I will prove myself here.”

That comfort level was aided by the added responsibility heaped upon him in Serbia this year. Ratko Varda — their starting center the year before — moved on to Lebanon. That opened up the minutes Jokic needed to develop, and he took advantage of them in the best way possible. For their part, the Nuggets do seem to be taking the long-term approach with him, but it’s hard not to be thrilled about where he is compared to where he was when they drafted him.

“We’re very excited with Nikola,” Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly said. “He has an unbelievably high skill level. A late growth spurt allows him to have kind of a unique skill set. We’ll be patient with him, but he’s a part of our future and we’re excited to have him in the fold.”

Having said that, a player that relies on his feel for the game more than anything often requires some experience, and it’ll be interesting to see if Jokic gets that kind of time early on. With presumed starting center Jusuf Nurkic on the shelf with an injury to his knee, Jokic is the only true healthy center on the Nuggets roster — and that could stand to be true even in November because Nurkic’s status is uncertain at this point. Also, Jokic has experience playing with Emmanuel Mudiay from their appearance in the Nike Hoop Summit back in 2014.

The two showed terrific chemistry a year ago in the pick-and-roll, with Mudiay continually finding different angles to get Jokic the ball around the rim for easy lay-ins.

“Mudiay is a great young guard,” Jokic said. “He is a great passer. Our team is young, but I think we will be very good.”

Whether he’s ready for a lot of early minutes is up for the debate though, as he’s struggled with some foul trouble in summer league while he still adjusts to the speed of the game and physicality.

“It’s really tough here,” Jokic said. “Guys are strong. It’s physical. You must be fast. Bigs are fast, running all over the court. You must be ready for that.”

He’s shown up pretty well in summer league outside of the fouls, though, averaging eight points and six rebounds per contest. More than that, it’s been his intelligence that’s shown up. He almost always makes the right pass, and sometimes even makes the spectacular one to the opposite corner or the behind-the-back one to an open teammate. Defensively, he already knows how to use his 7-foot-3 wingspan to his advantage to cause problems on the inside.

Whether or not he’ll get to use those tools much in the NBA this season is up for debate. But even if he’s not playing, he’ll be learning about life in America throughout. He’s already started watching Friends, but despite being a fan of Serbian hip-hop he still hasn’t quite jumped on board with the American version.

“I listen, but I don’t know any words to any song,” Jokic said.

By the end of the year, that will probably change.

Just like everything else in his life.

Nikola Jokic could provide a spark off the bench for Denver. (YouTube screengrab)

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