Seven years ago, the Denver Nuggets used the 41st pick in the NBA draft on an unheralded center from Serbia.
On Tuesday, Nikola Jokic became the sixth international player — and third European — to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award, sources confirmed to ESPN.
The Denver star becomes the first center since Shaquille O’Neal in 2000 to be named the league’s MVP. Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry were the other finalists for the award.
Jokic put together one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history, finishing the year with career-best averages of 26.4 points and 8.3 assists and tying a career best by averaging 10.8 rebounds. He also shot 56.6% from the field, 38.8% from 3-point range and 86.8% from the foul line. He also led Denver into the second round of the playoffs despite injuries to three of Denver’s guards — Jamal Murray, Will Barton and PJ Dozier — a feat that none of the other teams that made it to the conference finals of last year’s playoffs in the bubble in Orlando — the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat and Boston Celtics — were able to match.
The combination of Jokic’s play and availability gave him an unassailable case for the award in the eyes of the voters. He becomes the first player drafted in the second round to win the league’s top individual honor in the common draft era, and also joins Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki and Giannis Antetokounmpo as international winners of the award.
It may have been Embiid, who had the best season of his career and led Philadelphia to the best record in the Eastern Conference, who won this award had he not suffered a bone bruise in his knee in March. But Embiid wound up missing 21 games during the regular season — about the only thing that could slow him down, as he set career-bests in points per game (28.5) and all three shooting percentages (51.3% overall, 37.7% from 3-point range, 85.9% from the free-throw line).
After Curry, a two-time winner of this award, missed all but three games last season after breaking his hand, he led the NBA in scoring for the second time in his career, averaging an even 32 points per game while shooting 42.1% from 3-point range on a career-high 12.7 attempts from behind the arc per game.
If there were any doubts Curry was still among the game’s elite after the year mostly spent away and entering his mid-30s, he quickly dispelled them. The 33-year-old nearly single-handedly kept Golden State’s offense afloat this season without Klay Thompson, who missed his second straight season due to injury, this time with a torn Achilles.
Like last year, the NBA has reverted to its traditional rollout of the awards during the playoffs, rather than having a large awards show at the end of the postseason, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this report.