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 tons of candy.
After being drafted, Jokic played one more season overseas before joining the Nuggets in the summer of 2015. He arrived overweight, out of shape, and with a diet that would make Jughead blush.
“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, the former Nuggets’ head of athletic performance who oversaw Jokic’s body transformation. Hess and Nuggets strength and conditioning coach Felipe Eichenberger devised a plan to transform Jokic’s body and fully unlock his tremendous athletic potential.
The first move was to cut Jokic off from his love of Coca-Cola. The towering 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.
“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 first arrived in Denver, Jokic has dropped over 40 pounds while decreasing his body fat from 21 percent all the way down to around 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 helped Jokic become one of the most versatile players in the NBA. He’s capable of snatching a rebound, pushing the ball up court himself, then punctuating the play with an athletic finish. Not many 7-footers can do that.
So far this season, Jokic is averaging new highs in assists (7.4) and steals (1.5) per game while also putting up 18.1 points and 10.2 rebounds per contest. Charles Barkley recently stated he believes Jokic should be the front runner for NBA MVP. With the “Joker” leading the way, the Nuggets have emerged as the newest powerhouse in the NBA’s Western Conference.
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