LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Ciaran Wolohan used to be observing the Denver Nuggets play on tv a few years in the past when he noticed a huge guy with gangly hands snatch a defensive rebound, spin round and uncork an 85-foot move to a teammate for a fast-break layup, multi function fluid movement.
Wolohan, who coaches males’s and ladies’s water polo at Wagner School on Staten Island, used to be shocked. He hopped onto the web.
“I needed to glance up who he used to be, as a result of he used to be this large, unfit-looking man,” Wolohan mentioned. “But it surely used to be simply this superb, full-field move, and I used to be like: best water polo methodology.”
The participant used to be Nikola Jokic, and Wolohan used to be no longer shocked to be told that Jokic used to be from Serbia, a water polo hotbed.
“He’s been round water polo,” Wolohan mentioned. “You’ll inform needless to say.”
Jokic, a 7-foot, 284-pound heart, may simply be the water polo international’s favourite basketball participant. He passes like a water polo participant, treats the ways of basketball like one or even resembles one, along with his shipping-crate body.
“It’s a large guy’s game,” mentioned Sean Tierney, 47, who performs for the Denver Water Polo Membership. “There’s numerous bodily touch — numerous bellying up.”
On Sunday, Jokic did the whole thing for the Nuggets however put them excessive in a 105-103 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in Recreation 2 of the N.B.A.’s Western Convention finals. He had 30 issues, nine assists, 6 rebounds and four steals, and he scored the Nuggets’ ultimate 12 issues ahead of Anthony Davis beat the buzzer with a game-winning 3-pointer for the Lakers.
Denver trails in the best-of-seven series, two games to none, ahead of Game 3 on Tuesday.
“We need to fight,” said Jokic, an All-N.B.A. second-team selection. “That’s our only chance.”
Jokic didn’t play water polo formally — he was never on a team, he said — but he would strip to his swim trunks and toss the ball around with his friends when he was growing up in Sombor, a small town about 100 miles northwest of Belgrade.
That did not make him unique. Serbia has a deep passion for water polo. There are water polo pools in nearly every city. Young people will drag goals to the lake on weekends. The Serbian men’s national team, a fixture on the Olympic medal podium, won gold in 2016.
“Oh, it’s probably the biggest sport,” said Bora Dimitrov, the men’s water polo coach at St. Francis College in Brooklyn.
Basketball has gained ground in recent years, thanks to the exploits of N.B.A. players like Jokic, Bogdan Bogdanovic of the Sacramento Kings and Boban Marjanovic of the Dallas Mavericks. Dimitrov, who grew up in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city, said he would put all three of them on a billboard alongside the tennis champion Novak Djokovic as the country’s biggest sports stars of the moment.
But water polo is a part of the cultural fabric, and Jokic did not specialize in basketball until he was teenager. He dabbled in many sports when he was young, and that likely helped him develop his dexterity, said Ognjen Stojakovic, the Nuggets’ director of player development.
“He’s actually very good in volleyball,” said Stojakovic, who is also Serbian. “You should see him. All the sports with the ball, he’s unbelievable. Especially Spikeball.”
Spikeball is a game in which players smack a small ball off a round, horizontal net, and the Nuggets apparently moonlight as Spikeball aficionados.
“You would think he’s M.V.P. of Spikeball,” Stojakovic said of Jokic.
At the same time, Jokic’s proclivity for palming the basketball is one of the sharpest parallels that water polo practitioners draw when they watch him on the court. One-handed passes. One-handed rebounds. One-handed floaters. One-handed dribble handoffs. Jokic additionally has the addiction of conserving — and every now and then waving — the ball above and at the back of his head with one arm as he fends off his defender with the opposite. He may as neatly be treading water whilst he does it.
In water polo, nobody but even so the goalie is permitted to make use of two fingers at the ball. It’s the tough identical of a double dribble.
Manucher Ghaffari, 64, the founder and head trainer of Rocky Mountain Neptunes Water Polo Membership, a adolescence membership based totally in Boulder, Colo., famous different similarities between the 2 sports activities: press and zone defenses, counter assaults which are like instant breaks, the necessary position that the middle performs and the significance of passing.
“However so that you could make such correct passes with one hand, that’s ordinary,” Ghaffari mentioned. “No longer many basketball gamers can do this.”
The court-length passes stand out to Brian Clark, 59, who additionally performs for the Denver Water Polo Membership. Maximum basketball gamers do a large windup with a movement that features a step ahead with the other leg and an enormous practice throughout the throwing arm. No longer Jokic, whose decrease 1/2 stays nonetheless as he whips the ball, his hips and core producing all his energy.
“He’s status there, he’s were given his chest up and he’s were given his arm immediately again,” Clark mentioned, “after which simply does a growth! And that totally is a water polo transfer.”
Water polo other folks can also be territorial with regards to Jokic, particularly when the ones water polo persons are from Denver.
“It’s frustrating when he does it and the announcers are like, ‘What an implausible baseball move,’” Clark mentioned. “It’s no longer a baseball move!”
Extra in most cases, there’s Jokic’s option to the sport and what Dimitrov, the trainer at St. Francis, described as his countryman’s “water polo thoughts.”
Persistence is a distinctive feature in water polo. Video games have a tendency to be low scoring — Serbia received the boys’s Water Polo Global League championship closing 12 months via edging Croatia, 12-11 — and gamers moderately move looking for probably the most high-percentage photographs. The ones passes wish to be spot on when everyone seems to be chest-deep in water.
“It sort of feels like each time Nikola throws the ball, he notices that one small step of benefit that his teammate has over a defender,” Dimitrov mentioned, “after which he places the ball in that pocket to create a possibility for a very simple layup.”
Jokic is the uncommon participant who turns out able to bending video games to his most popular pace: methodical bordering on painstaking. He has joked that he does no longer have a lot of a decision.
“I’m affected person as a result of I will not in point of fact run instant,” he mentioned.
However even within the half-court, Dimitrov mentioned, Jokic continuously takes his time. He surveys the location and plots when to strike.
“When you’re taking a more in-depth glance, he has an absolutely other recreation than some other participant,” Dimitrov mentioned. “Nobody has the similar construct or the similar strikes.”
Tierney recalled enjoying towards Serbian groups when he used to be more youthful and the way one of the most gamers have been infamous for his or her pre-match routines.
“You’d see a man sitting at the facet, having a cigarette ahead of he’d soar within the pool,” Tierney mentioned.
After which the sport would get started, and the Serbians would impose their will. “It used to be unbelievably intimidating,” Tierney mentioned.
There’s something about Jokic that is in a similar fashion misleading: Nobody is mistaking him for Mr. Olympia. The Wall Side road Magazine as soon as described him as a “penguin on stilts.” His many fans are familiar with the semi-apocryphal stories about his emergence as a basketball prodigy.
“Other players were like, ‘Has he ever lifted anything heavier than a spoon in his life?’” Dimitrov said. “But he would do these amazing things.”
With the ball in his possession, Jokic is a magician. He just wears sneakers instead of a Speedo.