Bill Walton is becoming Nikola Jokic’s biggest fan, and he’s tired of reductive superlatives: “One of the greatest basketball players ever”

PORTLAND, Ore. — Nikola Jokic was in a rush to leave the building last Sunday after his sixth All-Star Game. His abbreviated version of a break was finally about to begin. But he made time for one of his biggest fans.

In the hallways beneath Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Jokic stopped to dap up Hall of Famer Bill Walton. The day before, during a public practice, Walton had sought out Jokic on the sideline to chat. Their interactions at All-Star weekend are becoming something of an annual tradition by now.

“Big man to big man,” Jokic said.

What does the 71-year-old Walton tell the Nuggets big man?

The same stuff he eagerly tells everyone else who’ll listen.

“His celebration of life through basketball, his focus on the team … he’s better than perfect. He’s Nikola Jokic,” Walton told The Denver Post. “He’s the best player in the world. I watch a lot of Denver Nuggets basketball, and every time I watch, I just get a smile on my face. It’s fantastic.”

Walton, a winner of two championships and an MVP during his celebrated but injury-shortened career, has long remained a fixture of the college and professional basketball communities. He is famous for his out-there analogies and asides while providing enthusiastic color commentary of Pac-12 games for ESPN, but he is especially moved by Jokic — so much that he’s practically a spokesman for the Serbian center. In the last year, he has raved about Jokic everywhere from The Pat McAfee Show to The New Yorker.

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The admiration runs so deep that Walton needs to share it with Jokic directly, whenever possible. Whenever they’re face-to-face.

“Joy and happiness. And hope. And optimism. And purpose,” Walton said. “He plays with purpose. He plays to win the games. And he does it with beautiful style, grace, dignity, professionalism. Nikola Jokic represents the conquest of substance over hype.”

“He just told me (his) appreciation. Nice things about me,” Jokic told The Post. “I really appreciate it. Just a nice thing when a legend can talk to you. I think it’s amazing.”

As minor as their interactions might be, they’re also a window into a side of Jokic that is seldom highlighted: his respect for NBA history, particularly the Hall of Famers who dominated at the center position in the generations before him. Over the years, he has developed a mutually appreciative on-air relationship with Shaquille O’Neal, who attempts to say something in Serbian every time Jokic joins TNT’s Inside the NBA for a postgame interview.

Jokic has also grown increasingly introspective about his All-Star appearances. He said after making the team this season, “I will say to the guys in the locker room when I go there, it’s always a pleasure to be around them, in that group of people. It’s an honor and a legacy that me or the guys over there are going to appreciate when we’ve finished (our) career.”

Speaking of legacy: There’s a point Walton wants to make about Jokic’s.

Presented with the common notion that Jokic is one of the greatest passing big men of all time, Walton scoffed.

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“He’s one of the great basketball players ever,” he said. “It’s a disservice to (Jokic) to limit him. He’s an incredible scorer. He’s a fantastic rebounder. He’s an incredible passer. He’s an incredible teammate. He has it all. Don’t try to limit him. Don’t try to box him in. Because with Nikola Jokic, there are no limits.”

Jokic emerged from his break (or lack thereof) by earning triple-doubles by the end of the third quarter in back-to-back games. He has shot 81.5% from the field in consecutive wins (including one over Walton’s Trail Blazers), averaging 25 points, 17 rebounds and 14.5 assists. He’s up to 122 career triple-doubles entering Sunday’s clash with Golden State.

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And the Nuggets (38-19) are back within 1.5 games of first place in the West.

Consider Walton along for the ride from afar.

“You have the best basketball player in the world on your team, you’ve got an incredible fanbase, you’ve got a fantastic city, a great state, great community, great ownership in the Kroenke family,” he said. “And it’s a wonderful scenario.

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“It’s a privileged opportunity to be a part of it as a fan and to see what (Jokic) and the team mean to the game of basketball. Because this team will inspire new generations of fans, of players, of business opportunities, of realization what a special place Colorado and Denver are. You know, Colorado, it’s the launching pad to the universe.”

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