With new deal, Jokic sets aim at leading Nuggets to playoffs | PostIndependent.com

With new deal, Jokic sets aim at leading Nuggets to playoffs

Pat Graham
Associated Press

DENVER — Fair warning: Don't challenge Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris to a game of Spikeball.

The Denver duo are the team's undisputed champions of a sport that's a little like volleyball, only players hit the ball off a trampoline-style net that's set up on the ground. They recently won a team tournament.

"It's the perfect sport for me," the 6-foot-10 Jokic said.

Or basketball. Because he's pretty good at that, too.

The versatile big man averaged 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 6.1 assists last season. His reward from the Nuggets was a max contract worth around $147 million for five seasons.

Next on The Joker's to-do list: Lead the Nuggets back to the postseason for the first time since 2012-13. Denver lost out on the eighth and final playoff spot last season with an overtime loss in Minnesota during their last game.

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"We have an identity now and Nikola is a huge part of that identity," coach Michael Malone said. "He's slowly and surely having that confidence and that swagger to be a franchise player."

The Nuggets added another veteran presence in Isaiah Thomas, a dynamic point guard who's trying to re-ignite his career after dealing with hip issues. He's still on the mend after a hip procedure in March. There's no timetable for his return.

"If you're a fan of basketball, you know what I bring to the table when I'm healthy," said Thomas, who joined the team in part because of a relationship with Malone that stems from their days together in Sacramento. "I'm going to bring excitement and energy."

Also back is guard/forward Will Barton, who signed a four-year deal that could earn him more than $50 million. Barton and Jokic figure to be in the starting lineup along with Harris, Paul Millsap — healthy again after tearing a wrist ligament last November that sidelined him for 44 games — and point guard Jamal Murray. The Nuggets open the season on Oct. 17 in Los Angeles against the Clippers.

"Everybody has a feel for each other, because we've been here as a team for a while," Murray said. "It's good to have that chemistry."

The squad has grown tight through informal workout sessions, such as the one Millsap hosted in Atlanta. They've also been working out quite a bit together in Denver.

"We have guys who are willing to work and put the team first," Millsap said. "Everybody is doing the right things."

Harris even went to Serbia to visit Jokic over the summer. He saw up close how popular Jokic is in that part of the world.

"He's the man," Harris said. "He's the president."

Those two have developed quite a camaraderie, which extended to the Spikeball field. They beat Millsap and Barton in the final.

"Me and Gary — we had a good connection," Jokic explained of their Spikeball accomplishments. "We can't lose."

PRICE IS RIGHT

So who's the better free throw shooter between Murray and assistant coach Mark Price?

"Me," Murray responded.

Over his playing career, Price was a 90.4 percent free-throw shooter. Murray currently checks in at 89.8 percent over his first two years in the league.

"I'm going to get him," Murray cracked. "We're going to have this conversation again."

WEIGHTY ISSUES

Murray gained about 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason to be able to absorb more hits when he's barreling down the lane. Jokic also got stronger.

"You don't see it?" Jokic cracked of his muscle gain.

DEFENSE WINS

The Nuggets are stressing defense after allowing 108.5 points per game in 2017-18. Then again, Malone always preaches defense.

"Maybe we're going to be the No. 1 defensive team in the league," Jokic said. "If we have some improvement, we're going to be satisfied for that."

FRIENDLY CONVERSATION

When Millsap came back from his wrist injury, he had a conversation with Jokic. The extent of the message: This was Jokic's team to lead.

"It felt good to me, when someone like Paul said something like that," Jokic said. "He kind of relaxed me, so I can be confident in myself."

SLOW & STEADY

Rookie forward Michael Porter Jr. underwent a second back procedure in July and there's no timetable for his return. Porter was taken by Denver with the 14th overall pick in the June draft. He was considered a top-five selection before a back injury that required surgery limited him to three games at Missouri in 2017-18.

"Getting better week by week," Porter said.