Before Nikola Jokic boarded the Nuggets’ bus for last Monday’s game at Sacramento, coach Michael Malone pulled him aside in the hotel lobby. Malone revealed that he would not be coaching that night because he had been suspended, and reminded Jokic that fellow starters Paul Millsap and Wilson Chandler were sidelined because of injuries. “What a great opportunity for you to step up and be a leader. … These guys are looking to you now,” Malone told Jokic. So when Jokic noticed his teammates were “a little sleepy” during pregame warm-ups, he spoke up before contributing 16 points and 14 rebounds to a win posted under strange circumstances. When he collapsed to the floor with an ankle injury during Wednesday’s blowout loss at Houston, Jokic went back in the game despite the pain. After the Nuggets let a 20-point, second-half lead evaporate to two Friday against Memphis, he scored 14 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to propel them to victory. This is the type of evolution the Nuggets have been long stressing they needed from Jokic, now in his third NBA season. But now it’s even more imperative, after Millsap, an all-star power forward, suffered a significant wrist injury that could sideline him for months while the Nuggets still aim for their first playoff berth since 2013. “I think he trusts me,” Jokic said of Malone. “He kind of just wants to let me know, ‘Just go out there and be yourself and help the team.’ ” The physical production the Nuggets will require from Jokic in Millsap’s absence is not much different than last season, when Jokic “was a second-year player putting a franchise on his back,” Malone said. The playmaking center has 11 double-doubles in 19 games this season, and is rated the NBA’s 10th-most efficient player while averaging 16.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game. Jokic is shooting 40.9 percent from 3-point distance, higher than his career average of 34.6 percent. Also, he has become more committed on the opposite end of the floor, entering Saturday leading the entire NBA in defensive real plus/minus (2.93).
Nikola Jokic’s leadership key for Denver Nuggets during Paul Millsap’s absence
Denver Post | Nov 27