Q&A: Nikola Jokic on playoff race, tattoos, his meat stash and more

Zach Lowe talks to Nikola Jokic about chasing the No. 8 seed and more. AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Now that he's back in the Denver starting lineup, dishing dimes and crossing up Draymond Green on the fast break, fans outside Denver -- and little Sombor, Serbia -- are beginning to realize how good Nikola Jokic is.

Jokic finished third in Rookie of the Year voting last season, and he's again leading Denver in almost every advanced statistical measure.

Jokic sat down with ESPN.com on Monday night in Oakland to talk about his game, his journey from Serbia, his family, his diet, and much more.

How do you like this new starting five, with you at center and two combo forwards -- Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler -- around you? You guys are scoring off the charts.

I like it. The whole team likes it. We compete in the first quarter now. Before the change, we always trailed by 10 or 15 points in the first quarter, it seemed like. Now we have a chance to compete for the whole game. Sometimes we are even leading.

That is generally a good thing. I feel like you and Gary Harris already have a really good chemistry. He's a smart cutter, and you love throwing those passes from the elbows.

People think Gary is just a shooter and a defender. But he's really good. He can do everything.

Be honest: Were you frustrated you weren't starting once Mike Malone separated you and Jusuf Nurkic?

No. Not at all!

Seriously?

Actually, to be really honest, I like to play off the bench because [Denver] is usually in the bonus already. You can get a few easy points at the free-throw line and get going. But if you start, you have more time. To be honest, I don't really care if I'm starting or coming off the bench.

Wow. Were you surprised pairing you and Jusuf didn't work? Or that the team scrapped it as soon as they did?

I think we can play well together, but it wasn't as good for the team as we thought it would be. So we changed it up. It's not a big deal. I think we can still play well together. But we have some better options on our team.

Two seasons ago, Nurkic blocked a shot, and microphones near the court caught Kenneth Faried pumping him up by shouting some Serbo-Croatian curse words at him. I was impressed. Now that there are two guys who speak that language, are you teaching the entire team? You have the best curse words in the world.

Oh, yes. As much as we can. Jameer [Nelson] really knows how to swear. The coaches all know how to swear. All of them. Tim [Connelly], our GM, he knows too.

Are there any refs that understand, or can you get away with saying whatever you want?

I don't think so, but I try not to talk to them much.

You lost a lot of weight when you came to Denver. I know that cuisine. What was the hardest thing to give up?

I mean, the food I ate before was normal food -- chicken, rice, meat. But it is cooked in a different way there. Here, it doesn't have any taste. I just need that taste, man. But it helped me, what [Steve] Hess [Denver's director of athletic performance] and Felipe [Eichenberger, associate head strength and conditioning coach] did for me that summer.

They really prepared me for the NBA. I'm glad they did that to me.

You must miss cevapi [a sausage made of three meats popular across the former Yugoslavia].

We don't have good cevapi here anyway.

Rumor has it you have a stash of Serbian meat at home just in case you get a craving.

Oh, of course. Come on. You have to. But the thing I miss the most is fish stew, with some pasta on the side. If you come to Serbia, you have to try it.

That seems like something you should be allowed to eat.

Yeah, but it is cooked in a different way there, I guess.

Is it true you used to drink a gallon of Coca-Cola every day?

Yeah. Maybe three liters or so. It was a lot.

How early in the morning did you take your first hit?

Never in the morning, because we had practices in the morning, and I could never drink before. But after practice, it was glass after glass. I couldn't stop.

Ever dabble now, or have you totally kicked it?

I haven't had any in the last one-and-a-half years. On my flight to come to Denver, I had my last Coke ever.

Any withdrawal headaches?

No. Nothing. It was easy. It felt really good, actually. It was good to know I didn't need it.

You get to lead fast breaks, and that is probably my favorite part of your game.

It's mine too. Oh man, I am so happy when I get to dribble the ball.

You played a little point guard growing up, right? Well, backup point guard, I guess.

Yeah, people sometimes say I was a point guard, but I wasn't really. My teams in Serbia always had really good point guards. But I have always loved to dribble the ball. Even when I was outside, just walking by myself, I would always love to dribble and imagine my defender there in front of me -- what I would try to do.

Have you ever tried anything fancy on a fast break that went wrong, and had Malone yelling at you?

Last year, on my first couple, I threw some really bad passes to Faried. Like, really bad. Turnovers. But it's not ordinary to have the center dribble or lead the fast break. It's different.

Did you have to convince him in meetings to let you bring the ball up like that?

I just started doing it.

That's the best way. What did you think of Malone's defense on the crunch-time out-of-bounds play last season? Do you remember that?

Oh, yeah. Against Dallas. We basically had six players on the floor. That was unbelievable. That's who he is. He's a really emotional guy. Passionate. He hates losing. We loved it. We also might have made fun of him a little bit.

I didn't know this before reading up on you, but you were into harness racing as a kid. There are even some photos of you racing, sitting in that little cart. How'd you get into that? Was there a track near your home?

Horse racing is big in my hometown, so I just went one day, and it was like, "Wow, I really like this." I loved the beauty of the horses. I loved the adrenaline of a race. When you are riding a horse, and another one comes right by your ear over here, it's amazing. You feel it. You feel the ground shaking, the hooves on the ground.

Would your height have become a problem eventually?

I think they can make the carriage bigger.

Did you play water polo growing up?

Not seriously. But my brothers and my best friends -- we always loved being in the water and throwing a water polo ball around.

You had one move against the Knicks where you caught a pass on the move with one hand, turned your body toward the rim, and just shot the ball without gathering it or touching it with both hands at all. That was a water polo move.

I loved playing every sport. Soccer, water polo, horses. Whatever. I just loved it -- especially competing against my brothers.

Your older brothers are already famous in Denver. A few people said I had to ask about them. They are boisterous at games, and covered in tattoos apparently, right?

Both of them.

But you have none.

I think in the NBA, it's something new that a player doesn't have tattoos. That can be my thing.

They are characters, right?

They look like serial killers, but they are actually really nice people when you meet them.

You are in foul trouble a lot. It seems like a lot of your fouls are just frustration fouls, where you get upset about something and decide to hit someone.

Yeah. I do. I get mad. Sometimes I just want to stop a fast break, and I forget to think about how many fouls I have. But most of them are frustration. I need to learn I can't hurt myself and my team.

You seem like a pretty calm guy -- not so temperamental.

Usually! My father always told me -- my brothers get crazy really quick, but me, I'm so calm. You need to really piss me off for me to be upset, usually. You need to do something really bad to me.

Has anyone in the NBA really pissed you off in a game? Maybe a really physical center, like DeMarcus Cousins or someone like that?

No. No one. This is fun.

What about Nurkic in practice? That has to get ugly.

Ha. We do get really competitive. That's true. That's a good one. But it's not like we get angry.

Every center is shooting more 3s this season except you. Why not? Do you want to shoot more?

No! I want that to be almost like my secret weapon. Like when I need it, I'll take it. I'm gonna take it when I'm 100 percent sure it's going in. Well, maybe not 100 percent. You know what I mean.

Mike Miller gave you the "Joker" nickname. Do you like it? Can we do better?

I love it. I like the Joker. He is the one that surprises everyone. He outsmarts people. He can beat everybody. So I like that one.

Some people call Novak Djokovic "Joker," though I guess "Nole" is his real nickname. Do we have room for two Serbian "Jokers," though? Have you discussed this with him?

Yeah, I met him last summer at the Olympics. His nickname is usually "Nole," so I can have Joker.

I've heard you are really into this brand new show -- like almost obsessed with it: "Friends."

Oh, yeah. I am watching it all the time and trying to talk to people on the team about it. They laugh at me. I realize it ended a long time ago.

How far are you into it?

I'm in Season 7 or 8, I think.

OK, so you're not badgering people anymore about whether Ross and Rachel will get together in the early seasons.

No, I'm way past that now. I have to finish the whole thing.

How good can you guys get? You're about to play the Warriors. Did you guys discuss the fact that this could be a first-round series?

Yeah, why not? Our problem is that we are looking for only No. 8. That was our goal from the beginning. That was a problem. If our goal was No. 4, 5, 6, 7, whatever, maybe we would be better. But now we just need that eighth spot.