Nikola Jokic and Will Barton discuss Nuggets’ success, coach Mike Malone

Photo: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Nikola Jokic and Will Barton of the Denver Nuggets spoke to the media, including TalkBasket.net, during a global conference call about their season and how important head coach Mike Malone has been in their development as players.

The Nuggets are currently in third place in the West with a record of 18-8.

Jokic is averaging 17.1 points, 10.1 rebounds and 6.7 assists, while Barton is averaging 14.7 points, 6.9 rebounds (career-high) and 3.4 assists.

Jokic and Barton rank second and third respectively in points per game on the team.

The Nuggets will host the New Orleans Pelicans on Dec. 25, part of the NBA’s five-game Christmas Day lineup.

Q. I just wanted your take on how you see things going for you so far and for the Nuggets?

NIKOLA JOKIC: I think first of all, I think we are having a good season. I think our expectations that we give ourselves are really high, and that we want to accomplish something, so that’s why I think there’s a little pressure. There’s — all of us, we miss shots, we struggle a bit but at the end of the day, I think it’s a really good season for us so far. We are top four in the West, so we are playing good. We can be, of course, better, but we could be worse, too. Me personally, I think we have so much time left in the season, but I think I’m coming back to [how I was playing] last year.

Q. I am keen to know from yourself, how have you brought out the best in your game in the NBA when so many players rely on athleticism and you have to use skill and smarts and other things to try and overcome that.

JOKIC: Yeah, I mean, I think I brought something different to the NBA, so I think I brought that I can do pretty much everything on the floor. I think it’s not just me. I think there is a lot of guys in the NBA that — just kind of big men in the NBA that can affect the game in so much other ways. But to be honest, I’m playing like this since I was little. I was always really good with the ball, I was always passing the ball, scoring, shooting the ball. I think for me, that’s just normal thing. Then Coach [Michael Malone], of course, gives me a freedom and an opportunity to play my game and he started liking it and teammates started liking it and we started winning games. I think that’s kind of the answer; just Coach give me the freedom and I kind of didn’t stop playing how I’m playing my whole life.

Q. Have you found that the level of scrutiny on your performances and your overall game has increased since you became an All-Star, and do you feel the need to save energy mentally or physically before the Playoffs and the competition for the NBA title?

JOKIC: No. I think that you cannot do that. I think how the NBA works for me, I think the thing how I think the NBA works, every game is important. The win in November is the same in May. Like because we are the Denver Nuggets and we made the Playoffs two years ago by one game, for me there is no easy game. There is no, like, I’m going to skip this one or I’m not going to play hard this one. I think you cannot think that way. Champions are not thinking like that. We as a team, as a group, we need to go out there every game and every day to do our best and try to win our games.

Q. You guys are currently ranked second in defensive rating. You’re known more as an offensive player, but what’s been the key to your success and the team’s success on that end of the floor so far this season?

JOKIC: Yeah, I think for me it’s easy. That’s an easy answer, just because it’s the same team. We have the same coverages, same routine, same system — we are playing the same system four years. Just by knowing each other, by knowing what other players can do on defense, just to helping each other, multiply effort, I think just probably playing with each other that many years, it’s something — it’s not easy for us, but in terms of winning games, we know we need to play good on that end of the floor.

Q. I was wondering about last Playoffs and last season, the two-man game with you and Jamal Murray really emerged as a strong and important element of the offense, but it seems like your style of play and the offense that’s built around you is necessary to involve all the players in the offense. How do you approach finding a balance between those two aspects of the offense?

JOKIC: Yeah, I think me and Jamal together, it’s really, really improving and getting better. But I had kind of a little chemistry with every player on our team, so it’s not just me and Jamal. Like my first was like that with me and Gary [Harris] and with me and Will Barton. So it’s not just me and Jamal. I think, yes, we are kind of a big part, but we cannot do anything without our teammates. They help us a lot. When they are open, they are going to make shots, so it’s not just me and Jamal.

Q. Your relationship with Jamal Murray is one of the best partnerships in the NBA at the moment, but when it comes to working with experienced veterans like Paul Millsap, Gary Harris, Will Barton, how has that aided your development? And lastly, what has Mike done with his team to mold it into a consistent top-five team in a stacked Western Conference?

JOKIC: Like I said, me and Jamal are playing really hard, especially in the last few Playoffs. I think we have a lot of experience just by playing 14 games, just playing two seven-game series against San Antonio and against Portland. We won a seventh game against a good coach, good team, then we lost against a good coach and good team. Just the experience that we have, and I think the Playoffs, when the Playoffs start, that’s the time we need to bring our “A” game. And then with Will Barton and Paul Millsap, I think Gary, they are really experienced, especially Paul Millsap.

Q. What has Mike Malone added to this team as a coach to make them a consistent top-five team in a stacked Western Conference?

JOKIC: Oh, to be honest, he asks us a lot of times, like you can see him talk to players, what you think about this, what you think about that. He knows we are the players, that we see something different. He always has a good play, but sometimes he just asks us what you want to run, what you like. He trusts us a lot, just because this is my fifth year with him, so we go together, we know each other a little bit, so just the trust that he had with us, it’s huge. It means a lot to me and the guys.

Q. Fans in Serbia aren’t sleeping at night because they’re too busy watching you in Denver. People in Serbia would love to see you playing in the NBA Finals as well as leading the Serbian team to an Olympic gold medal. How do you rate your chances of those two things happening next year, and what would it mean to you personally?

JOKIC: I mean, to be honest, I don’t think right now about anything just for me. My goal right now is with the Denver Nuggets, and my goal is to be the best right now. The Olympic team qualifications, I think that’s far away, so I don’t even think about it. I don’t even think about the Olympic Games right now because I think you cannot affect something that is like seven, eight months in front of you.

Q. Actually the Nuggets are third in the Western Conference, but usually we don’t see them, we don’t hear about you guys as contenders in the media or on social media, so do you guys feel underrated in the NBA community?

JOKIC: I really don’t know. It’s just something that — like you cannot let that affect, anybody underdog you or a favorite. We like where we are right now. We don’t think about anybody else with the media or other teams that think about us. Like we just think about ourselves. I think that’s the goal for us because last year we were doing that and we were making Playoffs. We were winning the first round. To be honest, if we’re underdogs, we like it; if we’re favorites, I like it. It’s something that you cannot let that affect you, you know.

Q. Nikola, what sort of satisfaction do you take from seeing yourself in a prominent position with the Nuggets, seeing [Luka] Doncic, seeing lots of overseas guys starting to really become the faces of their franchises and moving up in the standings in the league?

JOKIC: Yeah, I love the story, to be honest. I love the journey. Their journey is great. When I first came here they had 26 wins, I think, and then that year we had 32, and then every year we were better and better. Just the journey, just the struggle with everything. The fans are — they were not coming and they are coming every year more and more. Just the story that we are kind of riding right now, I think that’s the best thing, and I enjoy it a lot.

Q. Talk a little bit about your relationship with Danilo Gallinari and how much he helped you establish yourself in the NBA.

JOKIC: Yeah, I was playing with Gallo, and that was a fun year, that year playing against him the summer against Italy, so it’s always good to see old teammates and just to see them playing well. Of course Gallo, he gave me a little bit of grief. I think against Toronto my first year I scored like 27 or 28 points or 29 points, and he said, you show everybody that you can do it, now you need to do it every night. So it’s really good advice if you think about it.

Q. This week you have been ranked five in ESPN’s real plus-minus rankings behind three MVPs like Giannis, LeBron, James Harden and one Finals MVP like Kawhi Leonard. For you is it the recognition of how important you are to the Denver Nuggets?

WILL BARTON: I really don’t try to pay attention too much to that. It’s pretty cool to see my name up therewith some of the best players in the NBA. But my role on my team is to go out there and compete at a high level and just try to make one play for our team. That’s the whole thing that we focus on. I can’t get all caught up in those type numbers and things. I don’t need to have the same role on my team as those players. It’s pretty cool to be up there with them, but I’ve just got to keep trying to play good basketball.

Q. I was wondering, this season it seems like not only is the Nuggets’ team defense improved but your individual defense is at the highest level it’s been in your career. I was wondering if approaching the season if you’re really making a concerted effort to do that, and if there’s any toll that takes on your effort and the 48 minutes of agame on the offensive end, as well.

BARTON: Well, it’s definitely something that I came to the team trying to focus on, being a better defender, being a better team defender. Like I say, we have the athleticism for winning a championship, but I know to do that we’ve got to be one of the best defensive teams in the league. I’m out there on the court, so I have to do my part. It really doesn’t take away from our offense. If you look at the numbers, I’m still pretty much averaging what I’ve averaged basically during my career. It actually gets me going on offense. It gives me more energy; it’s making me play harder; it’s making me be more into the game.

Q. How has the team bounced back since the struggles on the East Coast?

BARTON: It’s tough anytime you lose two games in a row but you get to come home and play five games, so we just wanted to focus on protecting our home court. We’re very tough to beat at home, and we just wanted to really get back on track after a tough road trip. A good team will always find a way to win after going through some adversity.

Q. What’s the difference this year in the competition in the Western Conference compared to last year with more teams — last year it was just the Warriors and you guys atop the conference and this year there seems to be more competition. Do you have any thoughts on the difference in competition this year? And then also, have you made any adjustments as a team from this year to last year?

BARTON: We knew coming into this season it was going to be more open, more spread out with the Warriors kind of bugging out with KD [Kevin Durant] departing and AD [Anthony Davis] going to the Lakers, the moves that could be made with Kawhi and Paul George, [Kristaps] Porzingis going to Dallas with Luka. We knew there would be more parity and more teams competing and it would make the West more competitive. We knew what we were going up against and we knew we had to be ready, and I feel like so far we’re doing a good job of that.

Q. I would like to know what sort of satisfaction you’ve taken from the way the team has risen up the standings in recent years and become such a contender. I also wanted to know what your first thoughts were when you saw Nikola Jokic play for the first time with the Nuggets. Did you look straight away and think this guy is going to be an All-Star, a great player for us?

BARTON: It’s been a process. Obviously we’ve been working hard to become a playoff team, a winning team, but now we’ve accomplished that, so now we want to be one of the best teams in the NBA. I’ve enjoyed the process. We’ve been working hard, and a couple little changes, we’re doing that. With Jokic, it’s his quest to be one of the best players in the league and a joy to watch. I saw when he came in with no expectations. Now he really tries to be great, and to see him go from that to where he is now, it’s amazing. But if you’ve really watched his development, he’s played the same way since day one, he just now has more of an opportunity, and once he shows the flashes of what he could do, the organization gave him the reins to the team and now he’s able to do it more consistently and at the highest level.

Q. When you were traded to the Nuggets, you were kind of part of the, quote-unquote, young core, but now you’re like the fourth-oldest player on the team, and I was wondering if you see your role growing in terms of leadership and how you relate to the younger players on the team.

BARTON: My role has definitely grown on the team. Definitely kind of funny to see when I first came up here, I was just one of the young guys, and now being one of the oldest ones on the team, having so much experience on the team, it’s something I embrace, though. The young guys, they remind me of myself coming in, just trying to find their role, find their place in the league, establish themselves, and you just try to talk to them about how to be professionals and how to go about everything the right way and try to give advice on how not to make some of the mistakes you made, try to lead them in the right direction.

Q. What influence has head coach Mike Malone had in your development as a player?

BARTON: He’s had a big influence on my development. He gave me a chance to really be myself in the NBA and play my game. Really he just gave me a chance to develop on the floor and play through my mistakes and become the player I am today. He’s played a huge role in that.