When the Denver Nuggets drafted an unknown Serbian big man named Nikola Jokic with the 41st pick of the 2014 NBA Draft, most fans never noticed. In fact, we guarantee they didn't, because instead of showing the pick being announced or having their analysts talk about it, ESPN aired a Taco Bell commercial.
As unfortunate as that was for Jokic, who won't ever be able to go back and watch footage of his name being called, the Taco Bell spot that played over his selection on ESPN's draft ticket was fitting in a way. Jokic was large as a child, and he still weighed close to 300 pounds when the Nuggets selected him, living on a diet of gallons of Coca-Cola, Serbian food like cevapi sausage, various other meats and lots of candy.
"When he first came to us he was 295 pounds. He thought soft drinks high in sugar were OK and candy was OK," said Steve Hess, Denver's head of athletic performance. So Hess and Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger devised a plan to transform Jokic's diet and his body, to fully unlock the player who has transformed the Nuggets offense into one of the best in the league this season.
The first move was to cut Jokic off from his love of Coca-Cola. The 6-foot-10 center was literally consuming a gallon of the stuff each day, a memory that still makes Hess shudder. "Freaking Coke, man," he said. "It's freaking poison. Just the worst. That was the worst. But once we got him off of that, he was good to go."
With soda out of the picture, the next step dealt with solid food. Instead of creating a meal plan based around heavy restrictions, Hess gave Jokic a guide to the types of foods that were beneficial for him to eat, then worked them into a six-meals-per-day plan that Jokic immediately took to, beginning during Summer League ahead of his rookie season in 2015.
"He did an amazing job of adhering to the program," Hess said. "He bought into it. And he works really, really hard every single day. One of the most humble individuals I've ever met. I think the sky's the limit because he remains humble."
Since he arrived in Denver, Jokic has dropped over 30 pounds while decreasing his body fat from 21 percent all the way down to 9 percent. He is a completely different person.
Jokic's transformation extended to the gym, too. Like most big men who come into the league flush with talent but lacking refinement, Jokic had slow feet and a restricted range of motion. So when he wasn't lifting, Hess worked on improving his agility and extending his range of motion while simultaneously crafting a stronger base for Jokic to work from.
Jokic dedicated himself to the process, taking exactly one week off after the 2016 -2017 NBA season before getting back in the gym to work out with Hess. All that work has led to plays like this, where Jokic snares a rebound and speeds up the court with the ball like a point guard.
Jokic's minutes are up from last season from 21.7 to 27.4, and he's shooting almost 60 percent from the field, dropping 16 points per game as he tries to push Denver across the finish line and into the playoffs.
But even with all that Jokic has accomplished, Hess says there's still plenty of work to be done. "Everything we do is a progression," he said. "It's a lifestyle change. When you first adhere to clean eating, you drop a lot of water, especially when you're in that 300-pound range. So we wanted to get [Jokic] to gradually lose the weight, and it's been a process over a two-year period. But this is a long-term project that will stay with him for the rest of his life. So do we have more work to do? Abso-freaking-lutely."
Jokic has been easy to work with, though, and that has made his physical transformation all the more fun for Hess to witness. He's eased up on Jokic's six-meals-a-day requirement and even lets the big man get in a cheat meal once a week.
Just don't tell Hess what it is. "I don't even want to know," he said with a laugh.
- Nikola Jokic Used to Drink a Gallon of Coca-Cola Every Single Day
- Denver Nuggets Strength Coach Steve Hess Explains How Basketball Players Should Eat
- Training Routines With the Denver Nuggets
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