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Nikola Jokic Is Gone. Meet Nikola Joked.

After starting the season out of shape, the Denver Nuggets’ All-Star big lug has spent the NBA hiatus glowing up

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Friends, I come to you today with a confession: I am an aspiring meathead. I yearn for the cling-clang of clattering plates, and think wistfully of the sounds of two enormous dudes with the same haircut asking gym staff about the specific type of protein offered at the smoothie stand.

Before quarantine, I thought the answer to “Should I get swole?” was a resounding “Yes.” I bought mass-gainer supplements, and learned the meaning of phrases like “progressive overload” and “eccentric training.” I developed opinions on deadlift grips and sent texts to my friends when our gym installed a new squat rack. I know, I hate me too.

But then a (hopefully) once-in-a-century pandemic occurred, the gyms closed, and my only brush with strength training came when watching some guy lift the equivalent of a polar bear off the ground. Bulk season was over before it began.

Like dozens of other people locked in their homes, I doubled down on the idea of self-improvement. I laced up my running shoes and made salads and answered quandaries like “Do I pour another glass of wine?” or “Is it wrong to Postmates burgers for the third time this week?” by saying “Of course,” and adding another mile onto the next morning’s run. A brief dalliance into what I’m calling the Milk Bar Cookie Delivery Era aside, it was working.

After Thursday, it’s become clear I wasn’t the only one who made this choice. Have you ever seen a unicorn with a jawline that could cut glass?

Nikola Jokic is gone. Meet Nikola Joked.

I stand in awe of what might be the most intense, rapid physical transformation in the history of mankind. When the NBA season was halted on March 11, Jokic was known as the slow, supremely talented big man who consistently pushed the Nuggets toward the top of the Western Conference despite looking more like an NFL offensive lineman than an NBA MVP candidate. Now, as the league eyeballs its late-July return, Jokic appears to have spent his quarantine preparing to star in a Marvel movie.

Next to the Joker, Noted Ripped Dude Novak Djokovic looks like a NARP. Seriously, in two short months when he did not play professional basketball, this guy turned into this guy:

My man is in skinny jeans! And if Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly is to be believed, Jokic now has abs. Nikola, I beg of you, drop the cardio routine. Teach me your ways.

This is not to say that Jokic wasn’t effective with his old physique. Jokic dominated foes while his 7-foot build carried 284 pounds up and down the hardwood. He showed up for the preseason looking heavier than he had at any point in his young career, and struggled early before hitting his stride in early December. For the second consecutive season, he’s forced his way into MVP conversations, dropping a career-high 20.2 points a night on 52.8 percent shooting with 10.2 boards, 6.9 assists, one steal, and one block. His 34 percent career clip from beyond the arc makes him one of the most dangerous giants in the sport, and his passing creativity could inspire sonnets, or, at the very least, a limerick or two.

Most big men Jokic’s size are gangly and lumbering. The court shakes when Boban Marjanovic moves, or the Lopez brothers (Lopei?) leap. But Jokic was already unfathomably light on his feet. Now, with 20 (30? 40?) fewer pounds weighing him down, the traits that made him dynamic will only be magnified.

Slimming down isn’t a new advancement. Every offseason in every sport is marked by dozens of athletes claiming they’re “in the best shape” of their lives. Your squad’s behemoth running back? He’s a speed demon now. The local MLB team’s third baseman? He did Whole 30 and lost 70 pounds of fat. Your favorite shooting guard? He carries boulders underwater for some reason. In comparison, Jokic is a first-ballot Best Shape of His Life Hall of Famer. He listened to “The New Workout Plan” once, said “got it,” and went to work.

In 2017, my colleague Paolo Uggetti chronicled the thin NBA (thin-BA?) trend, citing how typically thicc-er guys like Jusuf Nurkic, Julius Randle, and even LeBron James shed weight in the name of agility. Back then, Jokic, who was entering the season at least 10 pounds lighter, said he thought it was a new era for big men in the league.

“A lot of big men in the league can do a lot of stuff,” Jokic said, “and I think the big men want to show the small guys what they can do.”

To their credit, the small guys are getting in on the act, too. Here’s James Harden, looking slim enough to grab that chip you dropped between the counter and the fridge:

Slim Harden and Svelte Jokic have entered our lives at the perfect time. Last week, NBA owners approved a plan to restart the season with 22 teams in Orlando. The top 13 teams in the West and best nine in the East will play an eight-game stretch leading into the playoffs, with the potential for play-in games if the margin between the eighth and ninth teams in each conference is four games or fewer. By early July, players will be arriving back at team facilities to begin training camps, and on July 31, the games begin.

Thanks to Jokic’s newfound fitness, the shortened run-up to the season could benefit the Nuggets. With Jokic, Denver has consistently been good, but never great. The Nuggets have improved each year since landing him late in the 2014 draft, breaking 50 wins last season, and making the playoffs for the first time in his tenure. After falling to Damian Lillard and the Trail Blazers in Game 7 of the Western Conference semis, the Nuggets brought former Thunder wing Jerami Grant and now-healthy super-sub Michael Porter Jr. into the fold, and at the time of the shutdown, logged the fourth-highest winning percentage in franchise history.

Jokic played well in his first postseason, tallying 25 points, 13 boards, and eight dimes across his first 14 appearances. Defensively, he held his own as well, helping Denver advance past LaMarcus Aldridge and the Spurs. But following an almost-four-month hiatus, the upcoming playoffs will likely feature chaos, either stemming from the number of players no longer in game shape, or too much time spent off the court. Jokic has already eliminated one of those concerns. Far be it from me to tell you things are finally changing in Denver, but if its star’s new physique is any indication, things might just work out.