Nikola Vučević always looks forward to matchups against Nikola Jokić.
As a competitor, each bout between the Chicago Bulls’ reigning All-Star and Denver Nuggets’ reigning MVP affords the chance to test each other’s mettle against the cream of their position’s crop.
And on a personal level, Vučević and Jokić’s bond goes way back – from the days before Jokić entered the NBA and Vučević first heard of the gangly Serb who played the center spot like no one has before, to becoming, in Vučević’s words, “pretty close off the court” now.
“Over the years we've gotten to know each other really well,” Vučević told NBC Sports Chicago before the Bulls’ 109-97 victory over Jokić’s Nuggets on Monday. “He's obviously a great player and a good friend of mine. So it's fun to go up against him.”
Though Vučević and Jokić share a handful of on-court similarities, their bond was initially forged over commonalities outside of basketball. Vučević spent most of his childhood in Belgium, but when he was 12 years old his family moved to Montenegro, which is adjacent to the south west of Jokić’s native Serbia.
So when Jokić made his jump to the NBA one year after being drafted by the Nuggets in 2014, Vučević – who first came stateside from Montenegro as a 16-year-old high-schooler, then attended USC from 2008-2011 before being drafted into the NBA by the Philadelphia 76ers – made himself available to offer whatever guidance he needed.
“When we (the Magic) would play the Nuggets (during Jokić’s rookie year), he'd ask me certain things that I already had to go through as a rookie – and also, before, (about) adjusting to life in the U.S.,” Vučević said. “Just little things here and there that helped him.
“He's done great for himself, he's been able to adapt well and take over and become one of the best players in the league now. But whenever you see a young guy that comes in you try to help him. It's not easy. I mean, you leave your home, you leave your country, your friends, your family, everything to come here. It's obviously a dream come true for all of us, but it's still not easy to do when you leave everything behind, you have to come here, it's all new. It's a whole different world.”
Jokić, even after losing to Vučević’s Bulls Monday, flashed a grin when asked about their relationship, which spans from All-Star weekend shenanigans to joint sessions playing the popular video game Counter Strike.
“We have a great relationship. He’s a great player,” Jokić said of Vučević. “I actually don’t remember how I met him the first time, but I was with him at All-Star (weekend) a couple times, we hung out together. He helped me with some personal stuff. He’s (been) here a long time. We play Counter Strike a lot together.
“I’m happy to be able to see him getting better and better. When he was in Orlando, they made the playoffs a couple years. He was really trying to find a new home, and I think this (the Bulls) is a really good situation for him.”
Vučević and Jokić are two high-profile members of the NBA’s Balkan fraternity – with other notable names including Luka Dončić, Goran Dragić (who are both Slovenian) and others. Those four, along with Boban Marjanović and Nuggets forward Vlatko Cančar, were famously photographed together over dinner and drinks in August 2020 while living in the NBA’s bubble campus that hosted the conclusion of the 2019-20 season. That meal, Vučević said, foreshadowed “one hell of a night.”
During Monday’s game, Vučević, who logged a 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in victory, and Jokić, who notched his 60th career triple-double in defeat, spent multiple stoppages exchanging friendly conversation – and even a couple laughs. Afterwards, Bulls rookie Marko Simonović, who is Montenegrin, posted a photo to his Instagram story of Vučević, Jokić, Cančar and himself together.
“It's always great to catch up with those guys, and whenever we play teams that have guys from the Balkans there, you always talk to them, you see them before games, talk about things that are going on,” Vučević said. “There was a time when there weren't many people from the rest of the world here.”
Vučević and Jokić are just two success stories. And Vučević, for his part, takes seriously the responsibility of stewarding the next generation in the right direction.
“It's important because we all go through it, the change, the period to adapt here,” Vučević said of being a resource to younger players. “For example, for me, I was here in high school for a year, then college, then I got to the NBA. But then, like, some guys came straight to the NBA. I'm able to help them with the mentality and how to adjust and things like that. Then, for me, I changed teams (he was traded from the 76ers to the Magic after his rookie season). I can talk to somebody about changing teams.
“I think it all helps because we have a certain way that we are as Balkans. We are specific in a way. So when you talk to certain people that are from there they kind of know what you're going through and it can help. It's just kind of a brotherhood and you can rely on it and it's great to have.”
Vučević and Jokić embody that dynamic to a tee. They also embody a new age of do-it-all centers that, Vučević notes, have adapted their games to thrive in an era where big men were once undervalued.
“If the game evolves you have to evolve with it. That's everything in the world,” Vučević said. “Big men, they're much more skilled than probably they ever were as far as, you know, outside of the paint, shooting the ball, dribbling, passing. I think it's a big advantage. It helps us big men to be able to play in so many different ways.
“All of those guys (Jokić, Joel Embiid, Bam Adebayo) that are top big men in the NBA, they still have presence inside and can still do it inside. But now we're also able to do it outside. It's all a different way of playing. I think we've done a great job of adapting.”
From the first time he watched Jokić play, Vučević has appreciated the multi-dimensionality of his game. That respect goes both ways.
“He (Jokić) kind of came out of nowhere for people here (in the United States),” Vučević said. “People didn't really know about him and what he could do. Obviously I knew of his skills because he played overseas, he played in Serbia, and I was able to watch him and know what he can do.”
What Jokić can do is, well, everything, according to Vučević. He shoots, dribbles and passes like a guard, but maneuvers the low post like the dominant big men of yesteryear. Vučević prides himself on honing a similar tool kit in his decade-plus in the NBA.
And, for Monday at least, he can pride himself on edging out his close friend and contentious competitor. Until they meet again.