Denver Nuggets

Nikola Jokic: Denver Nuggets superstar on the cusp of being lowest-ever NBA Draft pick to win MVP

Courtesy of his record-shattering numbers, Nikola Jokic's 2020-21 campaign was one for the history books.

Playing in every one of the 72 games, the Serbian big man averaged career-highs of 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.3 assists. Despite recording the third-most minutes played during the season, he was not far off from joining the elite 50-40-90 club with shooting splits of 56.6 percent from the field, 38.3 percent from beyond the arc and 86.6 percent from the free-throw line.

Leading the Denver Nuggets to a 47-25 record behind that production helped Jokic emerge as the favourite from other MVP finalists in Joel Embiid and Stephen Curry.

If he wins the MVP award, it's historic on multiple levels.

Lowest-drafted MVP in NBA history

If named MVP, Jokic will be the first Nuggets player in franchise history to receive the honour.

As the 41st overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, he will also become the lowest-ever draft pick in NBA history to ever receive the league MVP.

Although he would join Steve Nash and Giannis Antetokounmpo as the third non-lottery pick to win the award, he would shatter their previously co-owned record of pick No. 15 for the lowest-ever draft selection to win the MVP award

Of the 44 MVP awards announced since the NBA-ABA merger, 17 trophies have been awarded to No. 1 overall picks, led by LeBron James' four.

Here's a breakdown of the MVP awardees based on where they were drafted in their respective classes.

League MVPs by draft pick
Draft Pick No. No. of MVPs Players
1 17 LeBron James (4), Magic Johnson (3), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (2), Tim Duncan (2), Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Bill Walton, Allen Iverson, Derrick Rose
2-5 10 Michael Jordan (5), Charles Barkley, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden
6-10 6 Larry Bird (3), Stephen Curry (2), Dirk Nowitzki
10-14 4 Karl Malone (2), Kobe Bryant, Julius Erving
Outside lottery 4 Steve Nash (2), Giannis Antetokounmpo (2)
ABA 3 Moses Malone (3)
Total 44

For an award dominated by the top picks of each draft class, particularly those in the top 10, Jokic's victory is a breath of fresh air.

It's a fairytale turned reality: a second-round selection from the Eastern hemisphere evolving into the cornerstone of a franchise and winning the most-coveted individual award in professional basketball.

Technically, Willis Reed was the first-ever second-round pick to win the award when he earned it in 1970. But in 1964, when the Hall of Famer was selected with the first pick in the second round, the first round only consisted of seven selections - a far-cry from the 30 picks in each round in modern times - leaving Jokic alone in that designation.

Rise to the top

Like every player selected late in the NBA Draft, the starting position wasn't handed to Jokic.

Although he started in 114 of the 153 games played in his first two seasons, it was a period when the Nuggets franchise was trying to decide their future between their two young big men in Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic. They even tried playing them together, but that didn't work out, and when it came time to decide, Jokic had already separated himself.

Denver picked Jokic, investing their future in him and started building their future around him. That decision has taken the Serbian's career and the team's record upwards simultaneously.

Denver's rise and Jokic's numbers since becoming the cornerstone
Season W-L record (%) West Standings, Season ends PPG RPG APG Shooting efficiency
2017-18 46-36 (.561) 9th, Missed playoffs 18.5 10.7 6.1 49.9 FG% / 39.6 3P% / 85.0 FT%
2018-19 54-28 (.659) 2nd, Conf. Semis 20.1 10.8 7.3 51.1 FG% / 30.7 3P% / 82.1 FT%
2019-20 46-27 (630) 3rd, Conf. Finals 19.9 9.7 7.0 52.8 FG% / 31.4 3P% / 81.7 FT%
2020-21 47-25 (.653) 3rd, Conf. Semis* 26.4 10.8 8.3 56.6 FG% / 38.8 3P% / 86.8 FT%

*2021 NBA Playoff run is ongoing.

There are only a handful of players in NBA history whose rise to superstardom, proportionally, makes their team better, turning them into a perennial contender.

Let aside the fact that Jokic was neither picked in the first round of the draft, nor had he spent or played any portion of his basketball before the league in the United States.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Greek national, is probably the only other player who could tick all of these boxes that Jokic can boast.

One-off or sign of things to come?

There has clearly been a rise in the accolades and recognition that late-first-round picks or second-round picks have received over the past decade, but none has been as pronounced as Jokic's MVP case. Nearly half of these late first-round or second-round picks have been international players.

In 2019, four of the top five end-of-season awards were won by international players, and three of those four were players selected outside the lottery - MVP (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Greece), MIP (Pascal Siakam, Cameroon) and DPOY (Rudy Gobert, France).

The last four Defensive Player of the Year award winners, and eight of the last nine, have come from outside the lottery. Of the last nine, four have been late-first-round or second-round picks. In the case of the Most Improved Player award, five of the last 10 winners have been selected outside the lottery. Of the five, four are late-first-round or second-round picks.

Having said that, it's one thing to showcase the biggest jump in the league over one season (for MIP) or be the best defender (one dimension of the game), it's another to be named the league's best player.

Jokic winning the MVP award isn't a one-off because, barring injuries, he will remain a top MVP candidate in the near future.

So, although, the Serbian has been a part of the recent wave of international players getting recognised, he has clearly separated himself from the group to an elevated tier that only belongs to him and Antetokounmpo.

The views on this page do not necessarily represent the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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