Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

When Selfless Superstars Shine the Brightest, the Whole Team Wins

It’s no surprise that the MVP award for the NBA finals typically goes to a player who came into the league as one of the top draft picks — players like Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and LeBron James who all were selected in the first round of the NBA draft.

In fact, you have to go back to 1979 to find a finals MVPs whose journey didn’t begin as a first-round pick — that is until this week when Nikola Jokic took the honor after leading the Denver Nuggets to their first NBA title.

The 6-foot, 11-inch center from Sombor, Serbia, was picked in the second round of the 2014 draft with the 41st overall selection, making him the lowest drafted player to win MVP finals honors. (Dennis Johnson, the 1979 finals MVP, was the 29th pick in the 1976 draft.)

Jokic has developed into one of the league’s top players, but it’s not just his scoring, rebounding, and defense that make him valuable. It’s also his impact on the team and organization with his selflessness, on the court and in life.

If you follow the NBA — and I live in Denver, so I definitely followed the NBA this year! — you know that Jokic is widely respected for his humble, team-first approach to the game. In Game 1 of the finals against Miami, for instance, Jokic had a triple-double – 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 14 assists – but it was the assists that had everyone talking after the win.

“That’s the beauty of Nikola,” said Denver Coach Michael Malone. “I learned a long time ago the defense tells you what to do, and Nikola never forces it. If they’re going to give him that kind of attention — he had 10 assists at halftime, I believe — well, he’s going to just pick you apart.

“Yeah, one thing about Nikola is he takes great satisfaction in making plays for others. He really does. I think he takes more joy in that. I don’t think he cares if he scored 27 points or not. He cares that we’re up 1-0.”

The coach was correct in that assessment.

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“Right now the most important thing is to win a game, and try to win a game in any possible way,” Jokic said after Game 1. “I don’t need to shoot and I don’t need to score to ‘strike’ (affect) the game and I think I did a good job today.”

I am a fan of Nikola Jokic, and not just because I live in Denver. I am a fan of selfless leaders who not only talk about a team-first approach but live it and inspire others to live it, too. That’s Nikola Jokic. That’s what made him the MVP and it’s what made the Nuggets champions of the NBA.

“He’s not trying to be something he’s not,” Malone said. “He’s not trying to create a narrative other than ‘I’m Nikola Jokic, I play for the Denver Nuggets, I’m going to do everything I can to help our team win, and I’m going to do it with class, I’m going to do it with professionalism, and I’m never going to make it about me.’ That’s a rarity.”

Malone compared Jokic to Tim Duncan, a hall-of-famer who won the finals MVP three times when he played for the San Antonio Spurs.

“Tim Duncan was a selfless superstar,” Malone said. “And I look at Nikola Jokic in that same vein. I think Nikola Jokic is a selfless superstar.”

Duncan, of course, was not only a first-round draft pick but the first player picked in the 1997 draft, so the superstar part was to be expected. Jokic has turned into a superstar as a player, but, as Malone said, it hasn’t changed him. Too often, leaders start off like Duncan or Jokic, but they notch a few wins, fall in love with the praise that follows, and lose focus on who they are and what really matters. But it’s the selfless stars who shine the brightest and who never fade with time.


Top image: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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