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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, July 10, 2018 1:00 am

NBA

Nuggets' 'Kobe, Shaq' staying put

PAT GRAHAM | Associated Press

DENVER – Nikola Jokic and Will Barton grew up worlds apart. Their paths, though, followed a similar route to a big payday with the Denver Nuggets.

Jokic signed a max contract worth around $147 million for five seasons, and Barton returned on a four-year deal that could earn him more than $50 million.

As bench players a few years ago, Barton made a comment that stuck with his center.

“He called us Kobe and Shaq,” Jokic recounted Monday at a news conference for the pair. “We kind of grew together.”

Bonded by similar roads.

From Serbia, Jokic was a second-round pick by Denver in 2014 (41st overall) – a 6-foot-10 project who needed to lose about 30 pounds. He did and has blossomed into one of the top big men in the league.

From Baltimore, Barton was a second-round pick by Portland in 2012 (40th overall) – a sharp-shooter buried on the Blazers' bench and just needing a chance. He got one when Denver traded for him and became a versatile reserve player/occasional starter.

“I don't think we are a team that can follow other archetypes in how teams are built,” Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said. “We have to find and develop guys. We have to find and develop guys who want to be here long term.”

Jokic is an unassuming star in the making. His 10 triple-doubles last season were the most in a single season for a Nuggets player since Fat Lever in 1987-88. In addition, Jokic is the fifth player in NBA history with 3,000 or more points, 2,000 rebounds and 1,000 assists in his first three seasons, joining Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Maurice Stokes and Sidney Wicks.

“To see how quickly he's made the jump and how comfortable he is producing against the elite of the league, it's something I've never seen,” Connelly said. “He's one of the best players in the NBA.”

The spotlight really isn't his thing. He'd much rather be back home in Serbia this time of year, where his routine goes something like this: Work out, lunch, go to the stables to check on his two horses and then work out some more. He doesn't like the attention.

“He's got this huge contract and life-changing money and everything, but he's going to still be with his horses, still wear sweat pants, even though we tell him to wear a button-up shirt,” cracked his brother, Nemanja. “He feels comfortable. I don't think anything is going to change about it.”

Jokic is trying to help the Nuggets reach the postseason for the first time since 2012-13.

Around the league

New Orleans signed free-agent guard Elfrid Payton and re-signed guard Ian Clark, each for one year. ... Minnesota signed forward Anthony Tolliver to a one-year, $5.75 million contract. He has played for nine different franchises and spent last season with Detroit. ... Kyle Anderson's move to Memphis became official. Anderson averaged 7.9 points for the Spurs last season.