Nikola Jokic’s stellar play lifting Nuggets to new heights

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DENVER | Nikola Jokic fancies himself a point guard who just so happens to be stuck in a center’s 250-pound frame.

“I’m telling that to everybody,” the Denver Nuggets standout said. “But nobody believes in that except me.”

FILE – In this Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019, file photo, Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic picks up a loose ball and heads down the court in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks in Denver. Jokic, a 7-footer from Serbia, is leading the Nuggets to new heights so far this season with his style of play in the pivot. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

It’s as good a description as any for the enigmatic and even hard-to-stop, breakout star 7-footer nicknamed Joker.

He doesn’t exactly have the most athletic build or leap out of the gym, but he’s elevated the Western Conference-leading Nuggets to new heights this season. Jokic is set to become Denver’s first All-Star since Carmelo Anthony in 2010-11 and is being talked about in the MVP conversation.

Jokic shrugs off all the attention. He’s just an unassuming big man doing uncommon things on the court so often it’s becoming common.

“A 7-2 Magic Johnson,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said as he over-inflated Jokic’s height in comparing him to the Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer. “He’s as good of a passer as any guard in the league. He can shoot 3s. But his ball handling is something I admire.”

Jokic (pronounced yo-kitch) sees the floor with a point guard’s vision, sinks long-range jumpers with a shooting guard’s poise and drives with a big man’s mentality. He’s earned the respect of San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who’s spent some time speaking with Jokic. Popovich appreciates the various levels to the game of the 23-year-old from Serbia — enough to even rib him.

“He’s kind of pudgy,” Popovich cracked. “He doesn’t jump out of the gym. He doesn’t run that fast, but he might be one of the smartest players in the league. And he’s got skills and he knows how to use them and he enjoys the hell out of himself out there. He’s been very important for them, obviously.”

At 24-11, the Nuggets are tied for their best NBA start in franchise history through 35 games with the 1976-77 squad. He’s been a main reason why, averaging 18 points, 7.6 assists and 9.9 rebounds.

His recent play with three starters sidelined by injuries led TNT analyst Charles Barkley to anoint Jokic as a front-runner in the MVP race. His co-hosts didn’t exactly agree.

“Wait, he’s not impacting the game?” Barkley incredulously retorted.

No arguments from the Nuggets faithful. The fans serenaded Jokic with a chorus of “M-V-P” after his third triple-double of the season — and 19th of his career — in a win over the Knicks on Tuesday. He took it in stride.

“Whatever they want to do,” said Jokic, a second-round pick in 2014 who signed a max contract over the summer worth around $147 million for five seasons. “But maybe when we’re finalists.”