Once Upstaged By A Taco Bell Quesarito, Now MVP, Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic Has Come A Long Way

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic after the second overtime of an NBA basketball game in April 2021 in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic after the second overtime of an NBA basketball game in April 2021 in Denver.

Nikola Jokić has come a long way since playing second fiddle to a Taco Bell Quesarito.

Jokić was selected by the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft. Instead of giving Jokić camera time during the broadcast, ESPN announced the pick at the bottom of the screen … during a Taco Bell commercial.

A commercial for the new Quesarito. Part quesadilla. Part burrito.

You just can’t compete with that kind of combo.

But the guy nicknamed The Joker got the last laugh Tuesday, when he became the first player in Nuggets history to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award.

“When I came here six years ago we didn’t have many fans,” Jokić told reporters after the MVP award was announced. “Every year we’re trying to be better and … the last two or three years, every night has been a sellout. I like how people are appreciating what we are trying to do and trying to become. So it’s really nice to have those kinds of fans cheering for you.”

Jokić is the first Serbian-born player to win MVP. And he’s the lowest drafted player in NBA history to ever become the league’s most valuable player. So, he’s used to being the underdog, a role he relishes. He still thinks of himself as an underdog, which may seem hard to believe considering he just won the NBA’s top individual honor, an honor only a couple handfuls of people in the entire world share.

But shortly after the award was announced, Nuggets coach Michael Malone reminded reporters of the negative perceptions many so-called experts around the league have held when it comes to his star player. During a recent press conference, he wore a novelty T-shirt with Jokic’s image that featured some of the trash-talk Malone has heard about his star player, things like Jokic is a poor defender and he can’t jump.

“It speaks to all the things that were said about Nikola before he won this MVP award,” Malone said. “Not athletic enough, can’t play defense, bad attitude, all those things.”

Malone said he loves Jokić for the same reasons why the Nuggets’ big man doesn’t get talked about as much as other NBA stars— because he’s just such a low key, humble guy who doesn’t like the spotlight.

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Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) celebrate the team's double-overtime win against the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 5 of a first-round NBA basketball playoff series Tuesday, June 1, 2021, in Denver. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

“If Nikola was all about me, me, me, he wouldn't have had this success and I don't know if we would have had success,” Malone said. “He is totally selfless, one of the more understated superstars in recent memory. And you have heard me say countless times: The reason why in my opinion Nikola is a great player is because he makes everyone around him better.”

Malone notes that the Nuggets have won more games than any other team in the Western Conference over the last three years. 

“That doesn’t happen without Nikola.”

That’s something that’s not lost on Nuggets fans.

“I think we can already say that Jokić is probably the best Nugget ever,” said Bob Corboy, who was watching Wednesday’s game with friends at DNVR Bar on East Colfax. “He's probably got a while to catch Alex English just in terms of sustained greatness, but I don't think we’ve ever seen anyone do anything like this in a Nuggets uniform.”

Corboy also appreciates the Joker’s modesty and selfless play.

“He pretty famously said he prefers an assist to a bucket because an assist makes two people happy, and a bucket makes one person happy. So I think that’s embodied his own ethos since he’s played here.”

Corboy’s friend Trey Peterson said, “There’s no cocky attitude or anything like that with Jokić. He just goes out there and plays and deflects the limelight. I love it.”

Nuggets fan Sara Mirick appreciates that Jokić often deflects compliments while praising his teammates.

“We watched a little video of him getting the MVP award and the first thing he says, to paraphrase, ‘It’s because of you guys and I couldn't do it without the team,’ so that’s pretty rad.”

Longtime Nuggets fan Adam Dunning said Jokić “is an easy guy to root for.”

“I’ve never got to sit down with him personally and have a Serbian beer or anything but he seems like a genuinely good guy and he acts the same way whether the cameras are on or off. And I think that speaks volumes to his character.”

Jokić will be formally presented with the MVP award before the Nuggets clash with the Phoenix Suns in game three of their best-of-seven second round playoff series Friday night. Malone expects a raucous crowd at Ball Arena. The Nuggets recently announced that they will allow a full-capacity crowd to watch the Nuggets play the Suns.

As for that shirt Malone was wearing at the press conference that had all the Jokić haters’ comments on it ...  

“On the back of the shirt it says, ‘MVP. And the joke’s on you.’” Malone said.