DENVER—Nikola Jokic was selected with the 41st draft pick 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. “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. “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.
“It’s a big accomplishment, but it’s something that like I said to the guys, it’s not just me,” Jokic said. “I came here six years ago and I was growing, the organization was growing, the coaching staff was growing, the players next to me were growing.
“I couldn’t do it by myself. It’s an individual award, but it’s the effort of everybody.”
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 United States 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. He wore a T-shirt Tuesday night with some of the knocks that Jokic has heard over the years, including “Can’t Jump,” “Flopper” and “Poor Defender.”
The back of the shirt told a different story: “MVP. Joke’s On You,” it said.
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 fulfill his potential and win an MVP award.
Challenge accepted. Challenge met. And now Jokic has the trophy that Bryant won in 2008.
“MVP! BEST PLAYER IN THE NBA!” Nuggets teammate Will Barton posted on Instagram.
“I couldn’t win it without you guys,” Jokic told his teammates 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 Chamberlain’s all-time season average (8.6) for a center.
He shot 56 percent from the field and 39 percent from 3-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 percent shooting from the field, 43 percent from 3-point range and 92 percent 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 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3 and 90 percent from the foul line in a playoff series.
“Life’s about little moments,” Malone said late in the regular season. “And Nikola’s got about 56 moments where he’s shown he’s the MVP.”
By Arnie Stapleton