By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) – Nikola Jokic capped a dream year in his fledgling career when he helped Serbia qualify for the Olympic Games after a fine rookie season in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets.
Jokic, who averaged 10 points and seven rebounds in 21.7 minutes on the court for the Nuggets, was named the most valuable player of an Olympic qualifying tournament in Belgrade which hosts Serbia clinched emphatically.
The 21-year-old poured 23 points in Saturday’s 108-77 rout of Puerto Rico which sealed Serbia’s Rio berth, the week-long event being his first involvement with the national team.
“I am at a loss of words to describe how I feel,” the delighted power forward told Reuters after the match.
“I am lucky to be on this team with these guys, who I met just three weeks ago. I have to thank them and the coaching staff for helping me blend in so seamlessly.”
“This is a great bunch with a fantastic atmosphere in the dressing room. A few days’ rest and then we are off to Mount Kopaonilk (in southern Serbia) for the Olympic build-up.”
The versatile Jokic, who can also play as a center, took a road less traveled to the NBA.
Instead of honing his skills in a stronger European league, he went across the Atlantic last year straight from Serbia’s nondescript side of Mega Leks, who are fast becoming a production belt of top talents.
Based in Belgrade but playing their home games 75 kilometers north of the capital in Sremska Mitrovica, a town with a population of just 41,624, Mega Leks finished as last season’s runners-up in a regional league incorporating teams from the former Yugoslavia.
Apart from Jokic, they have nurtured players such as Detroit Pistons center Boban Marjanovic, who moved up north after a debut season with the San Antonio Spurs.
Jokic pointed out how important the time at Mega Leks was for his career.
“It was my springboard,” he said. “I had all the freedom in the world there to develop the right way as a player.
“I didn’t know what to expect having gone straight to the NBA but things panned out perfectly.”
Although fans and pundits heaped praise on Jokic for his outstanding performances, he said very little had changed in his daily routine and game skills.
“I play the same way, I just gained a bit of muscles and speed to match NBA standards. I do everything I can to help my team on the court, whether it’s the Nuggets or Serbia.”
(Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)