Nikola Jokic: I’m a point guard trapped in a center’s body

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DENVER (AP) Nikola Jokic considers himself a point guard who just so happens to be trapped 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.”

It’s as good a description as any for the hard-to-label and even harder-to-stop play of the 7-footer nicknamed Joker.

He doesn’t exactly have the most athletic look or leap out of the gym, but he’s elevated the Western Conference-leading Nuggets to new heights this season. Jokic is in line to become Denver’s first All-Star since Carmelo Anthony in 2010-11 and is being mentioned 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, knocks down 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 chatting 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 big 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.”

Really, he’s just a low-key player who in the offseason can be found back home in Serbia hanging out with family, friends or his two race horses.

Ask him about Bella Marguerite, the newest horse in his stable, and his eyes light up.

“She’s scared but calm when the race comes,” he recently said. “She’s a completely different animal. She’s fast.”

Once the ball goes up, he’s a different breed of center.

“In some ways an anomaly,” Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “He doesn’t show super athletic ability. He plays the game close to the floor. But it’s one of the great things about the NBA game, guys like him that have the size and skill and know how to use leverage and angles and their vision and senses can be All-Star-caliber players.”

Jokic grew up watching the likes of Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Boris Diaw and Shaquille O’Neal. He’s also been studying Bill Walton and Hakeem Olajuwon, to name a few.

“Mixed a little bit of old and new guys,” Jokic said.

It’s hard to pinpoint his best game this season, but this one ranks up there: On Oct. 20 against Phoenix, when he joined Wilt Chamberlain as the only NBA players to record a 30-point triple-double (35 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) while being perfect (11 for 11) from the field.

He raised his game even higher with starters Gary Harris, Paul Millsap and Will Barton out of the lineup (Harris and Millsap have recently returned).

“He’s always carried the same demeanor, the same swagger,” guard Monte Morris said. “Nothing’s really changed.”

This is something the Nuggets hope will change: Jokic making the All-Star Game . Not since Anthony wore No. 15 in Denver – Jokic’s number now – has a Nuggets player suited up in the game.

“If he doesn’t make it, the great thing about Nikola is that it will sting, we all will be upset and hurt by it, but it doesn’t get in the way of our team goals,” coach Michael Malone said. “He’s truly a team player. He cares about the team first. That’s why he’s a unique young man.”

As for Jokic’s assertion he’s really a point guard in a center’s frame, Malone didn’t quite buy it.

“He’s just a great player,” Malone said, “trapped in a great player’s body.”

Associated Press freelancer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Report: Heat, Celtics, Mavericks, Grizzlies may show interest in Crowder trade

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The Phoenix Suns had media day on Monday, but veteran Jae Crowder was not there, part of a mutual agreement with the team to sit out until a trade could be found. It left players and GM James Jones addressing the issue.

What teams are interested in Crowder? Shams Charania of The Athletic says to watch for the Heat, Celtics, Mavericks and Grizzlies among others.

Miami has been at the front of the line in terms of interest (and Crowder has suggested online he would welcome a return to Miami). The Heat have minutes to fill at the four after P.J. Tucker left for Philly and Crowder — who was on the Heat team that went to the bubble Finals against the Lakers — would be a solid fit. Putting together a trade is a little more tricky. The Heat would likely want Duncan Robinson at the core of the deal, but to make the salaries match the Suns would have to throw in another player — Dario Saric, Landry Shamet, Cameron Payne, Torey Craig — and that means the Heat have to throw in a pick (a protected first) or a minimum-contract player (Gabe Vincent?) to make the deal work. Not impossible, but not likely.

The Celtics need depth at the four but what they can offer is bench minutes, filling Danilo Gallinari‘s role (he is out for the season with a torn ACL) but putting together a trade is next to impossible financially considering who Boston would be willing to give up (not Robert Williams). Dallas could put together a deal if the Suns are interested in Dwight Powell (probably not, the Suns just paid Deandre Ayton a lot of money to be their center) or Reggie Bullock. Memphis could send out the dead money of the Danny Green contract (out for the season due to injury) and picks, or Ziaire Williamson and some minimum players (probably also with picks). Atlanta, Chicago and other destinations have come out in rumors.

As for why Crowder pushed for a trade, the man himself posted his own hype video on Instagram and Tweeted this.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported the most heard speculation around the league as to the reason — the Suns were going to start Cameron Johnson at the four to have more shooting and Crowder wanted none of that — but the reason now is moot. Crowder will get traded.

The only questions are when and where.

Durant, Irving talk about Nets moving on from ‘very awkward’ summer, but drama continues

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Media Day — arguably the most boring and tedious day on the NBA calendar — was anything but in Brooklyn.

After a summer Kyrie Irving admitted was “very awkward” — where both he and Kevin Durant pushed to be traded, and Durant threw down an ultimatum saying it was him or coach Steve Nash and GM Sean Marks — everyone was back under one roof and trying to stay on message about just wanting to win.

But drama will follow this team like a dark cloud until they force the conversation to be about something else. Like how many games they are winning.

Until then, the awkward questions and moments will come. For example, why did Kevin Durant ask for a trade this summer? What did he want to see changed? He talked about the team feeling unstable last season. Which it was (for a variety of reasons).

“My whole thing was, I wanted everybody to be held accountable for their habits as a basketball player. I think a lot of stuff was getting swept under the rug because we’re injured or this guy’s not around or just the circumstances. I thought we could have fought through that a little bit more and focused on the guys that were here a little bit more.

“You know, when I went out with the injury, we lost 10 in a row. And I’m like, we shouldn’t be losing some of these games that we lost, regardless of who’s on the floor. So I was more so worried about how we’re approaching every day as a basketball team. And I felt like we could have fought through a lot of the stuff that I felt that held us back.”

Those are the best, drama-free answers he could give. But Durant still loves to stir the pot on Twitter and did so later in the day.

(That was the question asked boiled way down, but both the question and Durant’s answer had a lot more context, it was not a confrontational answer in the moment.)

Kyrie Irving said there were options for him this summer, although limited ones, because he is unvaccinated. He also talked about the reasons he wanted to return to the Nets.

Marks handled the inevitable “your star wanted you fired” questions as well as he could, saying at one point “that’s pro sports.”

“Everybody’s entitled to their opinions and I think from us, it’s not to hold a grudge against what Kevin said, but it’s a little bit of saying, ‘All right, if that’s the way he feels, what’s going on here?’ Like, what do we need to change?” Marks said.

In the end, everyone talked about moving on and the potential for this roster. Durant is not disappointed to be back.

“I wasn’t disappointed. I still love to play. I knew that wasn’t going to get affected regardless of what happened this summer,” Durant said.

The Nets have the talent on the roster to be title contenders, but have more questions than any other team at that level after the past couple of years: Can Durant stay healthy? Will Irving be focused and committed for an entire season? How does Ben Simmons fit in and what is his role? Can their thin frontcourt hold up? Will they play enough defense? Is Steve Nash up to the task? Does this team have the will and drive to be contenders?

Playing through the drama is the only way to answer all those questions, but if they do this team could be a powerhouse.

PBT Podcast: Golden State Warriors season preview

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The Golden State Warriors will enter the season hanging banner number four from this era and passing out their championship rings, but this is a team with more questions than most returning champs.

Otto Porter and Gary Payton II are gone and their minutes will go to a young core — Jordan Poole, Moses Moody, Jonathan Kuminga, James Wiseman — who are going to be asked to carry a larger load. Particularly during the regular season.

Dalton Johnson of NBC Sports Bay Area joins Kurt Helin of NBC Sports to break down this coming Warriors season, what to expect, and if the young core can get the older vets to the playoffs rested and ready to defend their title. There’s also talk of what comes next in Golden State, as some hard contract choices are coming in the next few years.

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Khris Middleton says he will miss start of season following wrist surgery

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When Khris Middleton first went under the knife this summer to clean up issues with his left wrist, he expected to return in time for the start of the season.

At Bucks media day Sunday, Middleton said he’s not going to make that opening night goal but should be back early in the season, as reported by Jamal Collier of ESPN.

The Bucks open the season on the road Oct. 18 against the Celtics (who have their own set of issues heading into this year).

Middleton’s importance to the Bucks was evident in the playoffs, when not having him as a secondary shot creator was a key aspect of their seven-game loss to the Celtics.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds a game last season. A healthy Bucks team — with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Middleton, and Jrue Holiday as the core — enter the season as serious title contenders. But they need Middleton, so they will not rush him back.