NBA Exclusive: Denver Nuggets' Nikola Jokic and Will Barton Talk Christmas Day

Philadelphia 76ers v Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets will be hosting the New Orleans Pelicans on Christmas Day as part of the NBA's long-standing tradition stretching back to 1947.

Nikola Jokic and Will Barton talk about their personal performances this season and how they have translated across to Denver’s overall game as a team. Currently ranked second in the league’s defensive ratings and occupying a spot in the Western Conference top four, the Nuggets have placed a lot of pressure on themselves to excel. 

Jokic, Denver’s 24-year-old centre, says: “I think our expectations that we give ourselves are really high, and that we want to accomplish something… We can be, of course, better, but we could be worse, too. Me personally, I think we have so much time left in the season, but I think I'm coming back to [how I was playing] last year.” 

The 7-foot Serbian native, like many of the NBA bigs, brings a different style of playing to the glass, relying more on his skill and IQ for what he may lack athletically:

“I think I brought something different to the NBA… I can do pretty much everything on the floor. Then Coach [Michael Malone], of course, gives me freedom and an opportunity to play my game and he started liking it and teammates started liking it and we started winning games. I think that's kind of the answer; just Coach gives me the freedom and I kind of didn't stop playing how I'm playing my whole life.”

Coach Michael Malone is currently enjoying a phenomenal 19-8 record and a five-game winning streak in his fifth season with Denver. The All-star Head Coach has turned the Nuggets into a consistent top-five team in a stacked Western conference and with a fairly stable roster there may be another shot at the Championship on the cards this season, something Jokic supports:

“We have the same coverages, same routine, same system -- we are playing the same system four years. Just by knowing each other, by knowing what other players can do on defence, just to helping each other, multiply effort, I think just probably playing with each other that many years, it's something -- it's not easy for us, but in terms of winning games, we know we need to play well on that end of the floor.”

But Jokic hasn’t been a one-man show as his partnership with Jamal Murray is one of the best in the NBA right now. The All-star doesn't believe in taking any games easy and it shows in the way he is consistently working to create that special chemistry with every player on the team:

“Me and Jamal are playing really hard, especially in the last few Playoffs. I think we have a lot of experience just by playing 14 games, just playing two seven-game series against San Antonio and against Portland. We won the seventh game against a good coach, good team, then we lost against a good coach and a good team. Just the experience that we have, and when the playoffs start, that's the time we need to bring our "A" game.” 

Minnesota Timberwolves v Denver Nuggets

However, there is no denying that Denver is the underdogs of the NBA experiencing less attention and coverage than the likes of the Lakers or Bucks despite their competitive edge in the Western Conference. But this hasn’t dampened the team spirit or drive as they seem comfortable flying under the radar whilst also being a steady fan favourite.

Another prominent player in the Nuggets’ lineup this season, Will Barton, has just been ranked five in ESPN's real plus-minus rankings behind three MVPs like Giannis, LeBron, James Harden and one Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard. Barton said:

“It's pretty cool to see my name up there with some of the best players in the NBA. But my role on my team is to go out there and compete at a high level and just try to make one play for our team… I can't get all caught up in those type numbers and things. It's pretty cool to be up there with them, but I've just got to keep trying to play good basketball.”

The 28-year-old guard is averaging 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds this season with a high of 26 against the 76ers on 11 December. He is putting up the best defence of his career whilst also maintaining some energetic offence, a much-needed improvement in a Western Conference that is experiencing a more competitive season. 

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets

Barton has enjoyed watching his team, particularly Jokic, fighting through a tougher competition to hold onto their position as a serious contender for the Championship:

“With Jokic, it's his quest to be one of the best players in the league and a joy to watch. I saw when he came in with no expectations. Now he really tries to be great and to see him go from that to where he is now, it's amazing. But if you've really watched his development, he's played the same way since day one, he just now has more of an opportunity, and once he shows the flashes of what he could do, the organization gave him the reins to the team and now he's able to do it more consistently and at the highest level.”

Despite the potential shining through in the shape of the Denver Nuggets, it’s by no means going to be an easy stroll to this year’s playoffs, however, their fixture against New Orleans will hopefully bring them a step closer and is just one of the many highly-anticipated games of the festive season.

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