Proof there’s a ‘Nikola Jokic stopper,’ but it’s not Draymond Green

Tony Nguyen | Denver Nuggets
May 16, 2024

After a performance like the one we saw from Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic on Tuesday night, a game in which the three-time league MVP scored 40 points, pulled down 7 rebounds, and dished out 13 assists — all while shooting 68 percent from the field, committing no turnovers, and being defended primarily by four-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert — it feels a little foolish to be writing about a ‘Nikola Jokic stopper,’ but as they say, the numbers don’t lie.

Let’s just start here: there is no “stopper” for Nikola Jokic. Sure, there are guys who do a better job than others, just as there are coaches who scheme up better defensive game plans against Jokic than others do. But Nikola Jokic is an elite offense all by himself, because even if he’s not scoring at the efficient rate that we’re accustomed to, he’s going to find ways to beat you as a passer or as a screener.

But in this case, we’re looking specifically at Nikola Jokic in 1-on-1 plays either in isolation or in the post, because as the numbers show, over the last five years, nobody in the NBA is better than Jokic in these situations. And when we narrow the focus onto that and that alone, there is a statistical case to be made for one common Jokic foe, and it’s not Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Anthony Davis, or any other perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate.

Nikola Jokic defenders

As you can see, there are a good number of names on this list who are known for their defensive capabilities, yet it’s Clippers big man Ivica Zubac who stands out as by far the most bothersome defensive option of Nikola Jokic. So what is it about Zubac that makes him the closest thing we have to a ‘Nikola Jokic stopper’? The answer to that question may lie in their Balkan roots.

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic being defended by Ivica Zubac

The ties that bind Nikola Jokic and Ivica Zubac

Long before Nikola Jokic was a three-time MVP, he was just an out-of-shape big man who was playing for Mega Basket, a Serbian developmental club that was coached by the late Dejan Milojevic, who was serving as an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors when he tragically passed away in January at the age of 46. While playing under Milojevic, Jokic fine-tuned his craft, got serious about conditioning, and began developing into the superstar he is today.

Milojevic coached Nikola Jokic for two seasons before The Joker made the jump to the NBA, and shortly after departing Europe, Milojevic was given the opportunity to coach another big man who would soon be NBA-bound… a seven-footer from Croatia named Ivica Zubac.

“I feel nice being part of their path,” Milojevic said during an interview back in 2020, when Jokic and Zubac were facing off in the 2nd Round of the NBA Playoffs (h/t Andrew Greif of The LA Times). “I’m really — I can’t find the exact word to describe this feeling that I have. I’m proud. Proud is probably the best word.”

Greif went on to write in his story that “Mega and Milojevic have served as the common link,” for Jokic and Zubac, and surely that bond had to have grown deeper over the last few years, and particularly in the weeks and months following the death of their former coach.

So maybe this shared experience of having been coached by Dejan Milojevic is what has allowed Ivica Zubac to fair so well against Jokic — at least compared to his contemporaries. Perhaps Milojevic had been in the ear of his former center, pushing him as hard as he did when Zubac was still in Serbia looking to make a name for himself.

“He challenged me,” Zubac said of Dejan Milojevic back in 2020. “I kept that in mind and was like, ‘OK, it’s time to turn it up.’”