Nuggets All-Star Nikola Jokic once hated his assistant coach. Now they’re inseparable.

On a sunny, sticky day in San Antonio two months ago, two Serbians hit the River Walk to unwind.

The Nuggets were at the end of a grueling seven-game road trip that spanned multiple time zones when the uncompromising travel demands of the NBA lifestyle relented a bit. The team had a true off day in Texas sandwiched between two games against the Spurs.

Off went reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and Nuggets assistant coach Ogi Stojakovic, walking and talking along the snaking, shady path. Over seven seasons, their relationship has grown through multiple stages. At this point, what Stojakovic means to Jokic is all-encompassing. His influence on Jokic’s basketball development has been profound, but as an outlet away from basketball, he’s been just as significant.

“He’s like a big brother, like a mentor, father, he’s like a really good friend,” Jokic told The Denver Post. “He’s really everything. … How much he helps me on the court, he helps me off the court just to get out of the basketball … We hang out, for real. When we have a day off, my family is always with his family.”

One day after Jokic was named to his fourth consecutive All-Star game, he reflected on how integral Stojakovic was to his success. According to Jokic, his fellow countryman deserves significant credit for him winning MVP honors a season ago, becoming a perennial All-Star and sharpening skills he never knew he had.

Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver ...
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Nikola Jokic (15) of the Denver Nuggets and Ogi Stojakovic watch the action against the New York Knicks the fourth quarter of Denver’s 132-115 win at Ball Arena on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022.

Jokic first arrived in Denver for the 2015-’16 season, and Stojakovic, who’d arrived a season earlier, made a quick impression.

“I hated him,” Jokic said. “We argue, we fight all the time. Beginning of the third year, I was young, and I was just not … I didn’t know what I’m gonna do, but he always knew. He always wanted me to be the best as I can.”

Stojakovic wasn’t fazed at the early friction. In fact, he called it “normal.”

“The process from becoming talented to being a player or to reach full potential, it needs time,” he said. “It needs lots of energy and effort. When he came, we worked a lot — one of the main things at the beginning was for him to build good working habits. That’s not easy.”

Stojakovic used to run a basketball academy in Belgrade, and Jokic was familiar with his work. Though they didn’t know each other personally, Stojakovic was aware of Jokic, who was then a rising star for his club team, Mega. As the Nuggets made more of an emphasis on drafting international players, team president Tim Connelly hired Stojakovic to ease their transition.

Once Stojakovic began working more closely with Jokic in Denver, he recognized the immense potential to be cultivated. He saw the touch and shooting prowess of Dirk Nowitzki, blended with the IQ and physical stature of Marc Gasol. Later, as the Nuggets dictated more of their offense around their preternatural star, he added Steve Nash’s playmaking to the Jokic profile.

“That’s how I mentally projected him,” Stojakovic said. “Now I can say he’s unique.”

Among the NBA’s most voluminous shooters within five feet of the basket, Jokic’s 69% shooting percentage trails only the game’s most prolific inside scorers. But stretch those top-10 inside scorers out to 5-to-9 feet, and Jokic’s numbers are jarring. This season, Jokic is shooting almost 60% from that range, which is nearly double the percentages of Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Joel Embiid. The only three players who take more shots from that area are Ja Morant, Luka Doncic and Pascal Siakam, another indication of Jokic’s rare shot profile.

And those were the shots Stojakovic hammered that he work on.

“Like all the shots I kinda make, I’m doing that since my Day 1 here,” Jokic said. “I was mad at him, like, ‘Why I’m doing this? I’m never going to shoot like this.’ All the floaters, all the one legs, all the mid-ranges. I never thought I’m gonna be a mid-range guy because I thought I’m just gonna roll, floater, and I’m gonna maybe shoot a couple threes.”

Humble and respectful of how skilled Jokic was before he ever got to him, Stojakovic isn’t taking credit for Jokic becoming a deadly three-level scorer. But it’s undeniable that his early insistence on expanding Jokic’s arsenal helped mold a future MVP.

“I mean, he would be (a mid-range shooter),” he said laughing. “He’s so talented. He would be everything. Our main thing, he was naturally good at his touches around the rim, and then we start to build all his technique and all his skills according to his talent. He’s great passer, right, so in order to be great passer, you need to be a great shooter. You need to connect defense.”

This is the central premise of Stojakovic’s theory. The more attention a player draws from a defense the more power he wields. And that’s why he helped Jokic adjust his shooting motion, raising his elbow to draw opposing centers in, even if it only meant dragging them out of position a few more inches.

“He’s not really athletic, but he’s long,” he said. “It was like, OK, ‘We put that elbow even a little bit higher, that release was even higher.’ All those in-between shots, we polished that, all those floaters, left, right, in-between shots. We add also runners, so he has more space. And basically start to build with different kind of footwork, so how he can get more space. From there, we add ball-handling … Even today, every year, we’re adding one or two things depending on the defense.”

Denver Nuggets coaching staff member Ogi ...
AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Denver Nuggets coaching staff member Ogi Stojaković works with Nikola Jokic before the first quarter against the Orlando Magic at Ball Arena on Monday, Feb. 14, 2022.

Like Jokic’s ever-evolving game, Stojakovic learned to adapt as well. Nuggets coach Michael Malone calls Stojakovic a “basketball junkie,” and said he’s had a meaningful impact on all of Denver’s players, not just Jokic.

“He’s grown so much in his development,” Jokic said. “He’s always thinking about, like, today, we were doing something different than yesterday. He always tries to put something new to give us different perspectives of what we can do in some kind of situations.”

With the amount of time NBA teams spend together, the lines between family and colleagues tend to blur, especially in their case.

In early November, Stojakovic was diagnosed with COVID-19, which later progressed into pneumonia. While Jokic checked on him routinely, his wife, Natalija, made Stojakovic pies almost every single day, he said. Stojakovic wasn’t with the team until he showed up in San Antonio for the two-game jaunt.

A viral video shared by the Nuggets’ social media account showed Jokic ambling toward the team bus when he noticed Stojakovic for the first time in nearly a month. Jokic beamed at the sight of his friend, crouching low to hold and hug him twice.

When the two hit the River Walk the following day, there was ample ground to cover.

“Trying to speak a lot of different things, mostly about life,” Stojakovic said. “Sometimes, I go in basketball because I have a tendency to go in basketball. … We talk about family, about home, about basketball, a lot of different topics … Reading books. He likes to read certain books. I like to read different type of books. Just going back and forth about life.

“It’s hard for the guys, people who are not in NBA, they don’t understand,” he continued. “Too many games, too much pressure, too much basketball. Sometimes, let’s just be regular. Let’s be Nikola and Ogi. That’s it. Basketball is just part of our lives. If you understand that, that’s going to help us.”

Stojakovic is both a thinker and a tinkerer. He can’t help but analyze workouts and assess how to improve a particular player. As he was helping to assemble Jokic’s game, he would inevitably start talking to himself while on walks with his wife.

“So my wife is always like, ‘OK, stop talking to Nikola,’” Stojakovic said.

Their bond, once born of basketball, has become so much deeper than a typical player-coach relationship.

“I always say, he’s a true friend,” Jokic said. “… There’s a couple guys that deserve a lot of credit, and he’s on top of the list.”

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