The story of a nighttime marriage between Serbian big man Nikola Jovic and the Miami Heat is amazing at first sight.
As for the Heat, he caught an experienced 6ft 11in, 223lb big man at the Under-19 World Championships in Latvia last summer. There, Jovic was named to the All-Tournament team along with Chet Holmgren and Jayden Ivey – as well as number 1, 5, respectively, in the NBA draft on Thursday.
“Obviously he was really good out there,” Heat assistant general manager Adam Simon said Friday of Jovic, who was taken at number 27. “He was really impressive for a kid who’s maturing in his body.”
For Jovic, all it took was a similar first impression when he attended Game 5 of the Heat in a landslide victory over the visiting Philadelphia 76ers during the Eastern Conference Finals in May.
“The atmosphere there,” Jovic said, “was crazy. The first impression was great.”
That’s not to say that instant attraction will lead to instant success, given that Jovic turned 19 on June 9, making him one of the Heat’s youngest players.
“Physically, he’s mature in his body,” said Simon, who leads the Heat’s draft scouting. “You can see it in the last two years. He has good, strong shoulders, and he is going to grow in them further.
COVID-related concerns have kept Simon and his immediate staff from participating in the Under-19 World Championships. But what European scout “Hit” saw was enough to keep international lines open.
“He was one of the priority guys to see this year and we all took turns going there to see him,” Simon said. “He was on our radar.”
There were a lot of twists and turns along the way. The Heat saw Jovic during pre-draft camp in Chicago in a May practice hosted by his agency, but there was no practice at the FTX Arena.
“He should have,” Simon said, “but he got hurt.
For a team operating in win-now mode, Jovic’s timeline at this point may not be exactly the same.
“The whole draft is full of players who are developing, they are so young,” Simon said. “He is advanced in that sense. But any player who enters the NBA needs development. So let’s see.
“He can handle it – 6-10+ who can handle it. He has this skill set. He sees the game. He can get through. He can find guys. Sometimes he worries, but I think he can learn from that. But at least he has the ability to make plays. What we like about him is that someone his size can handle this.
“And then shooting, wherever he shoots, he shoots confidently. There is never any hesitation. He’s really good at catching.”
From Kristaps Porzingis to Aleksey Pokusevski, the blow to such experienced flexible European players comes on the defensive side.
But in this regard, Jovic could be a legitimate Heat player.
“I think the guy is athletic enough, fast enough and tough enough to be able to play defense the way we want to,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “The way we play, we change all the time, we are kind of positionless basketball. He has the ability to do these things. This is how we see him.”
When it comes to how Jovic sees himself in the NBA, it’s like a young player who has spent years playing professionally in Europe against opponents older and stronger than those his peers face.
“I played against grown men. I think this is what helped me the most. It was very hard there,” said Jovic, who was born in Leicester, England, where he spent his first nine years.
“If I get into the game right now, I’m sure I can help the team – my pass, vision. What a lot of people don’t see is that I’ve improved the protection. I am a big security guard who can turn everything on. The things that can be translated immediately are my shooting, my passing skills and basketball IQ.”
It ultimately proved tempting enough for the Heat to get past defenders like Kentucky.
Ohio State forward TyTy E. J. Liddell, Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams, and Tennessee guard Kennedy Chandler.
“We just think this guy is a rising talent and from that perspective, you couldn’t get past at 27,” Riley said. “There were other guys on the board that we liked, but I also think they were duplicates of ours. So this is a very unique player. Unique size, unique skills.”