DENVER — Nikola Jokic was struggling to find the right words.
A day before the Nuggets faced the Los Angeles Clippers last week, the Serbian big man was asked about the differences between how basketball is played in his native country and how it’s played in the United States.
The Nuggets-Clippers matchup on tap featured the two best Serbian players in the world: Jokic, who at 22 years old had already established himself as one of the most talented big men in the NBA, and Milos Teodosic, the Clippers’ scruffy faced point guard who helped guide Serbia to a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics with his passing wizardry.
The wheels were turning inside Jokic’s head. He appeared to be on the verge of articulating it, but nothing came out. Finally, after some thought, he came up with something.
“We have that,” he said, snapping his fingers.
That that? Asked about it later, Jokic explained he was referring to the team-above-all-else mentality that’s pervasive in his home country. That means finding the open man, he said. Not forcing shots. A belief that the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts.
“Playing the right way,” Jokic said.
In Serbia, the individual is deemphasized to the point where it’s frowned upon to ask about your own numbers after a game. University of Colorado freshman Lazar Nikolic, who grew up in Belgrade, the country’s capital city, said printouts of box scores aren’t even available after games back home.
“There are no box scores,” he said. “None. They don’t keep box scores.”
Nikolic explained professional players in Serbia often return home after a game without knowing how many points they finished with. Sometimes, Nikolic tried to keep track of his point total in his head. But when the action heated up, most of the time he forgot.
“Some guys count,” said Nikolic, who’s averaging 14.1 minutes per game in his first season with the Buffaloes. “I usually lose count because I’m concentrating on the game. So I never knew.”
In Nikolic’s experience, players who prioritize themselves over team success often don’t make it in Serbia.
“There are some players who are very good when they’re little. Their parents would be in the stands like, ‘Oh, points. Oh, rebounds,'” he said, mimicking someone jotting down numbers in a notebook. “Usually, those guys don’t make it because they try to make it about themselves. … Everybody knows you can’t win by yourself. All the great Serbian players have been great playmakers and have made other players good. That’s just the Serbia mentality.”
Nuggets player development coach Ognjen Stojakovic played and coached in Serbia before he accepted a job as an assistant video coordinator with Denver in 2014. That summer, the San Antonio Spurs steamrolled the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, four games to one. The Spurs put on an offensive clinic in that series, averaging 25.4 assists per game.
“The best example of Serbian basketball in the NBA is the San Antonio Spurs,” Stojakovic said.
The 2014 NBA Finals were illustrative of what can happen when a team is concerned only with making the right play. No Spurs player averaged more than 20 points per game in the series. Tony Parker led the way with 18.0 points per game. Kawhi Leonard (17.8 ppg), Tim Duncan (15.4 ppg) and Manu Ginobili (14.4 ppg) were right on his heels. As a team, the Spurs shot a scorching 46.6 percent from three-point land.
“It’s not important who is going to score or how many points you score at the end of the game,” Stojakovic said. “The only thing that’s important is to make the best play in that moment, whatever it is. It can be a drive. It can be a pass. It can be a screen. So just playing the proper way.”
Jokic, who ironically is one of the league’s advanced statistics darlings, holds a similar belief.
On Monday, the Nuggets beat the Portland Trail Blazers 104-101. Jokic scored 16 points, but he shot just 5-17 from the field — an uncharacteristic off night. Asked to evaluate his team’s play afterward, Jokic explained the ball movement against Portland was better than in previous games but still not where it needed to be.
“If we play the right way, we’re going to have more wins,” Jokic said. “When we start playing more iso basketball, it can help your statistics. But I hate statistics. We know the right way. We’re going to keep playing the right way.”