The Denver Nuggets are on the verge of an NBA Championship, in no small part because of Nikola Jokić, the two-time MVP, the presumptive Finals MVP and will at some point challenge
Luke O’Brien’s John Elway’s claim as Colorado’s greatest athlete.
We all know the Jokić story by now. He’s a wife guy and a horse girl, a loving father and a pure hooper. He’s slow and unathletic and is the single most unstoppable player in the NBA. And for all this to happen, the Nuggets drafted him during a damn Taco Bell commercial and had to convince him to that two liters of Coca-Cola and half a kilo of Borek was not a healthy breakfast. He’s in the best shape of his life, playing 42 minutes per game with his belly hanging over his shorts.
The question begs to be asked: If Jokić truly came out of nowhere, how come the Nuggets were the only Colorado team to scout him? It’s not a ridiculous question — Jokić played in just three games for Mega Basket during his age 17/18 season, the age he would be getting recruiting by college programs. He knew he had the NCAA option, since his brother Nemanja played college hoops at Detroit Mercy and C.W. Post, wherever that second one is. Perhaps his head coach Dejan Milojević, now an assistant on the Golden State Warriors, promised that he would build a motion-based offense that would showcase his preternatural passing vision while limiting his defensive weaknesses. Or maybe it’s because a certain coaching staff was resting of their laurels after losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, content that whatever they were doing was good enough.
While Jokić was fighting for minutes in Belgrade, Tad Boyle was leading the Buffs to their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. His 2012-13 squad was full of promise, as they had Andre Roberson wrecking havoc on defense, Spencer Dinwiddie and Askia Booker stepping up as sophomores, Josh Scott being a grown man at 19-years-old, and Sabatino Chen being the senior leader. Despite the talent, this team had brutal stretches of offensive ineptitude that led to some ugly games that they still won more often than not. (Tad Ball, baby.) Clearly they needed more offensive firepower, ideally a gifted scorer and playmaker who can adapt to any defensive gameplan thrown at him.
Once Roberson left for the NBA, Boyle inserted redshirt freshman Wesley Gordon into the starting lineup next to Josh Scott. That was, however, the wrong two-big lineup considering what the team could have had if Tad had shuffled over to Sombor to scout a certain someone. Instead of offering a scholarship to the future Hall of Famer, he brought in a freshman class that derailed much of the momentum he had built since taking over. Jaron Hopkins, Tre’Shaun Fletcher, Dustin Thomas and George King made up a very talented recruiting class, but only the two-star King graduated in Boulder while the others ended up at Fresno State, Toledo and Washington County.
It would turn out that the 2013-14 season was Tad’s last ranked team until 2019-20. Even then, the good times lasted only as long as Dinwiddie’s ACL held up, as the 15th ranked Buffs would finish the season 9-10 without the future NBA starter. Colorado had no offensive focal point without Dinwiddie, since Booker wasn’t exactly a natural point guard, Thomas airballed countless corner threes as a starting forward, and Xavier Talton made true his dream to start in the NCAA Tournament (please don’t look at this box score). It’s unlikely that Boyle would have played Jokić to his true potential, but surely he could have thrown an entry pass to Josh Scott.
Jokić was drafted after his age 18/19 season, but stuck around Mega for another year, so we could assume that he would done the equivalent and played his sophomore season in Boulder. That’s the year Jokić turned into a star and won the Adriatic League MVP. This is also the same year the Buffs were led by senior year Askia Booker to a 16-18 finish that ended with an embarrassing loss to Seattle in the first round of the CBI. Maybe Big Honey is unable to lift an offense with Ski and XJ chucking shots, or the locker room is so toxic that the Serbian retires to his horses, but maybe — just maybe — our hero is doing pump-fake and-1 three-pointers in the NBA Finals.
Jokić might have come around a few years too early for the Colorado Buffaloes. It wasn’t until 2015-16 when Tad Boyle and staff made their way to Europe. In Antwerp, Tad walked the pedestrian-friendly recruiting paths where the bricks were laid by Thomas Akyazılı. In Sarajevo, he bumped shoulders with chain-smoking ex-Yugoslavs to find Kenan Gužonjić in the back of the club. And even in Belgrade, he arrived five years too late to secure the talents of Lazar Nikolić, a playmaking forward who could run the offense from the high post.
I don’t fault the CU coaches for letting Nikola Jokić slip through the cracks, but after asking what could have been, I understand the fans for thinking Tad Boyle is the real joker.