RIO DE JANEIRO — Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic was the MVP of the Olympic qualifying tournament in Serbia last month, leading the home country with 17.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Jokic earned First Team All-Rookie honors last season, but the qualifying tourney was his first action for the senior national team, a veteran-laden squad that won silver at the 2014 World Cup and finished fourth at least year’s Eurobasket. On the international stage, it was a coming out party.
On Monday, however, Jokic looked like a rookie again in Serbia’s 95-80 loss to Australia in Group A pool play. Jokic was playing behind former NBA player Miroslav Raduljica and was unable to make much of an impact off the bench. His numbers (seven points, three rebounds, two assists in 17:55) don’t tell the whole story, because his body language made it look like he didn’t want to be there.
Australia has a starting frontline of Aron Baynes (Pistons) and Andrew Bogut (Mavericks), who are backed up by the Pistons’ Cameron Bairstow and former NBA player David Andersen. They play physical and that was a problem for Jokic, a skilled big who needs to get tougher.
“They played man basketball,” Raduljica said afterward. “This is a man’s sport.”
“Obviously, the intensity of the big guys from Australia is huge, second to none,” Serbia coach Sasha Djordjevic added. “Baynes, Bogut, Andersen and Bairstow know how to play a tough, physical game and maybe [Jokic] felt it a little bit. But he has to respond.”
Jokic didn’t get many touches in the Serbia offense. But he was pushed away from the basket by Bairstow on a post-up in the second quarter and his jump-hook was well off the mark. On a key fourth-quarter possession (in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated), Jokic let Andersen back him down for a basket that put Australia up six.
Djordjevic immediately took Jokic out of the game after that defensive possession, but brought him back after Stefan Bircevic fouled out. Jokic later took a hard foul from Australia’s Joe Ingles (Jazz).
“He’s young and this is great experience for him,” Djordjevic said. “He’s a very smart player, so we need more from him, obviously. But maybe it’s normal, a player like him, he’s a quick learner. This is a good thing. Yes, he had a good qualifying tournament, but I believe and I hope that no one is living in the past, because every day is a new practice. Every day is a new game. Every day is a new challenge.
“We need his creativity. He’s very smart. I believe that in the tournament, he’s going to become instrumental.”
More challenges await Jokic this week. Serbia will face France (with Rudy Gobert, Boris Diaw and Nuggets teammate Joffrey Lauvergne) on Wednesday and the United States on Friday.