NBA fans scoffed and chuckled last week when Denver Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said that Nikola Jokic, his prized big man known for his amorphously mountainous shape almost as much as his transcendent skill and precision, looked like a new man in a photo that Jokic sent over from quarantine.
"He's beach ready. He has abs," Connelly told Altitude Sports Radio. "He showed up in great shape. He's sitting there. He sent me a picture. No shirt on. He's got abs. I've never seen him have abs before."
Front office execs have a tendency to overstate players' improvements, whether physical or on the court, so most understandably took Connelly's comments with a grain of salt -- and perhaps a side of french fries. But, lo and behold, the man was not lying. Photos and video have come in from Serbia, where Jokic has apparently been doing some serious work on his body. He showed up at an event in Belgrade looking like a svelte GQ model.
Now, before you start googling "Jokic liposuction South Beach Diet," keep in mind that the wheels for this transformation were set in motion long ago. Jokic said in February that he had lost 20-25 pounds during the season through diet and exercise, and his weight loss coincided with the upward trajectory of his play -- he averaged 25.5 points, 10 rebounds and 7.2 assists on 64 percent shooting in the month of February.
It's natural to assume the weight loss will help him on the court -- most players experience increased athleticism and quickness when they shed significant pounds -- but Jokic's game is so unique that it begs the question of whether it could negatively impact his game.
Jokic himself told ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk last year that he preferred playing around 275-280 pounds (he looks lighter than that now), and he confounded NBA fans by playing an incredible 64 minutes in a four-overtime Game 3 loss to the Blazers in last year's Western Conference semifinals. Jokic put up 33 points, 18 rebounds and 14 assists in the game, silencing any critics claiming that he was out of shape.
"To be honest, I like to be a little bit heavier like how I am right now," Jokic told ESPN. "I was lighter than this, say 15 pounds. But I didn't feel right. Because the guys are pushing me, I was not that heavy, I was light. I just needed a little bit more weight to keep up with those guys."
Given his size and unique skill set, Jokic uses his body as well as anyone in the league to get and hold position, whether it's in the post as he surgically slices apart defenses with his passing or when he's boxing out opponents for one of his patented one-handed, flat-footed rebounds. You just can't get around the guy.
It's fair to at least question whether significant weight loss would actually hurt the things that Jokic does so well on the court.
Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love experienced a statistical drop after shedding weight, and later admitted that he "got too skinny" and vowed to put on more muscle. Conversely, Toronto Raptors center Marc Gasol has excelled since losing a significant amount of weight, so these things obviously depend on each individual player.
There's no guarantee that Jokic will continue to lose weight or that his game won't be positively affected by being more mobile and active, but let's just say that slimmer isn't necessarily better when it comes to his particular style of play.