Nikola Jokić? Luka Dončić? Goran Dragić? Nikola Vučević? What is the commonality between them all? If you said that their names all end in “ic,” you would be right, but you would be remiss to the point of ignorance. To give them a little more respect, these are the names of star NBA players who surpassed expectations and led their respective teams deep into the 2020 playoffs.
To give some statistical context, let us compare the points per game (ppg) of each of these four players during the 2020 NBA regular season. The majority of these games were played in stadiums with fans, as opposed to the playoffs, which are currently being played in a bubble near Orlando, Fla., without fans. To list the increases of a couple of the players, Jokić went from 19.9 ppg during the regular season to 24.4 ppg in the playoffs and Dončić from 28.8 ppg to 31.0 ppg. Combining the four players, they represent an average increase of 4.45 points per game. This magnitude shows that they are not only better, but have taken on more of a responsibility for their team.
It seems that these specific players have been able to find comfort in the uncertainty and pressure surrounding the COVID-19 situation. They have excelled individually and have garnered success for their respective teams. Jokić and Dragić both surprisingly led their teams to the conference finals, knocking off championship favorites in the Los Angeles Clippers and the Milwaukee Bucks, respectively. Dončić and Vučević both played exceptionally well against these same favorites. This is surprising because basketball is a sport where the favorites almost always win, due to the length and difficulty of a seven game series.
What do these players really have in common? They all have ancestors who were once residents of Yugoslavia. As exemplified in the Yugoslavian basketball program, the European style is defined by a tenacious level of hard work, coupled with a love for the fundamentals and a disdain for the extras. These unique values of the Yugoslavian program still permeate today.
The league focuses far more on defense than dunks, and teaches players how to “think” about the game rather than rely solely on their physicality. According to a Rolling Stone article on the Yugoslavian national team, “Their ability to stifle their opponents isn’t reliant on being stronger and faster than the other team; it comes from discipline and mutual trust.”
During a pandemic where professional basketball players are stuck inside a bubble with only their teammates to interact with, it seems as though this mutual trust shone through for these players. One thing we know now is that if you see a player trained by the Yugoslavian basketball league, be wary, and expect the unexpected.