Six nuggets for the numbers of wins the Nuggets have collected this season on the second night of back to backs.
1. Will Barton has watched Nikola Jokic go from little-used backup center to face of the franchise in four seasons. In 2015-16, Barton’s first full season in Denver, Jokic was a lumpy second-round pick so obscure, a Taco Bell commercial was airing on ESPN when the Nuggets picked him 41st overall. At first, Barton wasn’t sure what to make of him. Jokic was skilled, but Barton wondered if he was athletic enough to keep up? Barton understands exactly what he’s looking at now.
“He’s the best player on our team,” Barton said. “We’ve known that for a while now. He’s going to be an All-Star this year. He’s one of the best players in the league.”
Jokic steamrolled his way to 40 points on 15-of-23 shooting, 10 rebounds and eight assists in a 116-113 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday. The Nuggets needed a bounce-back performance after falling to a Devin Booker-less Phoenix Suns team Saturday. Jokic made sure that happened almost singlehandedly. He’s done that a lot lately, carrying Denver to the top of the Western Conference despite a laundry list of injuries. Improbably, he’s butted his way into the MVP conversation.
“I think it’s a no-brainer that he should be in the conversation,” Barton said. “A team that wasn’t in the playoffs last year has the best record in the West, one of the best records in the NBA. Our starting five has barely seen the floor together. What he’s doing, how can you not say he’s an MVP candidate?”
2. Jokic is averaging a career high in points (19.2 ppg) and assists (7.5 apg), but the way in which he’s grown the most this year might be from a leadership standpoint. Jokic is becoming comfortable as the face of the franchise in Denver. Teammates and coaches have noticed him speaking up during crucial moments more than he used to.
“He’s taken tremendous leaps in that area, and I’m so proud of him for that,” Barton said.
“He’s definitely accepted it,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone added. “I think this summer when he signed that contract he (realized) heavy is the head that wears the crown. There’s going to be much asked of him now that he’s our franchise player. He hasn’t shied away from that. He’s gotten so much more comfortable with being vocal.”
There was a lot working against the Nuggets on Sunday. They were playing a good team on the second night of a back to back. It was their fifth game in seven days. Jokic wasn’t going to let any of that be an excuse, though.
“For me, to be honest, there cannot be fatigue. It’s just half of the season. I think I did a really good job this summer, and most of the guys did a good job this summer, so fatigue cannot be an excuse, and we cannot mention fatigue.”
The Nuggets are 6-1 on the second night of back to backs this season. They’ve grinded out wins even when heavy legs are weighing them down.