One is an MVP candidate and the other is a 30-year-old living the dream in his debut season in the best basketball league in the world.
But both Nikola Jokic and Facundo Campazzo are enjoying wonderful seasons with the Denver Nuggets and providing bags of entertainment with their creativity and passing flair.
The pair will be in action live on Sky Sports Arena in the early hours of Sunday morning (3am) when the Western Conference contenders face off against the Brooklyn Nets, who harbour hopes of coming out of the East this year.
Since Jamal Murray’s season was ended with a horrific knee injury, Campazzo, 30, has been thrust into a more prominent role and is thriving alongside Jokic, the most flamboyant big man in the league.
Jokic’s own path to stardom has been remarkable as well. The 41st pick in the 2014 NBA Draft has surpassed all expectations as his idiosyncratic game – his propensity for passing was cultivated during his teens where he spent years playing as a guard before a massive growth spurt saw him moved to the frontcourt – has made him a complete offensive threat in the modern NBA.
He has established himself as a triple-double threat every night and very much the threat opposition defenses look to blunt to stop the Nuggets getting into their rhythm.
Some of his passing defies belief at times as he exploits his size and ability to draw defenders to consistently get his team-mates easy baskets.
Argentine Campazzo is a totally different build – standing a full 1ft and 1in shorter than his team-mate – and plays at the opposite end of the court, but other than being less inclined to pull up and shoot, he is in a similar mould to the big Serb.
Campazzo joined the Colorado franchise in November following a fine season with Real Madrid of the Spanish Liga ACB, where he averaged 10.2 points, 5.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds while shooting 41.0 per cent from the field in 24.1 minutes per game. He also brought with him a winning pedigree as a two-time Euroleague Champion (2015, 2018) and a three-time Liga ACB winner (2015, 2018, 2019) while also winning the Liga ACB finals MVP in 2019.
The stuff of dreams
The step up to the NBA, though, is massive, particularly for a player joining not long before their 30th birthday and Campazzo admits he had to pinch himself when going onto an NBA floor for the first time.
He said: “I’m living a dream every day, playing with these guys, playing in this arena with the fans. The fans support us 100 per cent and give us an extra energy.
“Me and my friends used to play around pretending we were Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter… We tried to do the passes those guys did, try and imitate how they played. We used to see them in magazines and stuff and I never imagined this would happen for me. At that time, I never imagined that I’d be in this league.
Live NBA: Brooklyn @ Denver 08.05
“When I arrived, I didn’t stop to think and I didn’t have time to think. I finished up the season with Madrid and then it was straight into adapting to the team, training camp and preseason games, so everything went by very quickly.
“It’s like I’m living a dream, which it is. But I don’t permit myself to relax either, because I came here to compete and measure myself and to hold my own.
“It’s very nice the dream, I’m enjoying it a lot and I have a smile on my face every day coming to work but at the same time I want to measure myself against the best, I want to help my team-mates and want to achieve important things – so I’m not getting carried away by the dream, I’m keeping myself grounded and centred in my work.”
The ideal franchise
That attitude has served Campazzo well and has helped him acclimatise quickly to the pace and stylistic nuances of the NBA.
It’s very different to what he will previously have been used to in his career at Penarol, UCAM Murcia or Real Madrid but the Nuggets are a team who are used to working with players from diverse international backgrounds and coach Mike Malone is also a keen follower of basketball across various continents.
“At the start it was all new and I was nervous if I’m honest, especially in my first game wearing the jersey, first NBA game but once I’d played a few minutes in the game and after that, and of course having got a few preseason games under my belt, I felt confidence after that,” Campazzo said.
“It’s a different way of playing to what I was used to before and with that in mind I had to improve certain aspects of my game offensively, and in defense as well: how to play without the ball, defending more intelligently… it’s the kind of things you don’t realise when you’re playing FIBA basketball.
“If I want to stay at this level and get better, I have to continue to improve in those different aspects of my game. I’m trying to adapt as quickly as possible but more than anything I want to enjoy it. I want to take advantage of the minutes I get to play to try and help the team.”
Jokic enjoys the similarities in style they both share and has been impressed with how Campazzo has fitted in in Denver. He believes his new team-mate’s confidence is growing and, as that continues, he can see him being very successful in the NBA.
“Facu’s done great. You know, he’s still adapting, it’s a different style of basketball. But you can see that he’s playing better and better as the weeks go on.
“I think he’s going to be really good, just as soon as he can relax and probably tell himself ‘Oh, this is normal, I can be here’.”
Campazzo added: “The reception I got was incredible, not only from the international players, but from all the team talked to me as if they’d known me all my life. It’s a group that’s very close, and it’s close amongst the international fraternity. We fit together neatly.”
Following in the footsteps of Scola and Ginobli
When he joined the team, Campazzo became the 14th player from his country to be registered on an NBA roster.
Many of those have been bit-part players, but two players very much led the way in terms of Argentinians in the NBA: Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola – both of whom spent over a decade in the NBA – with Ginobili winning no less than four titles with the Spurs as well as being a two-time All-Star and All-NBA player.
“Of course, they were the ones who paved the way for Argentinian players and I spoke with most of them by mostly they were just congratulating me on getting to the NBA.
“I had the joy of playing with them on the national team and when we were younger we were always listening to them, whenever they spoke about the NBA we’d stop talking and listen. And right now I’m living everything that they were speaking about.
“If you want to become the best version of yourself then you have to listen to the advice that players like those two gave. I have to take advantage of what they said and all the advice they gave me back then.
“Personally, I don’t take their success as pressure on me. If anything it’s the opposite, I’m grateful.”
Learning from Luka
An interesting aspect of Campazzo’s pre-NBA career were the years he spent alongside a fledgling Luka Doncic in the Spanish capital.
The pair embraced each other warmly in the pre-game the first time they faced off as NBA foes and despite the Slovenian’s tender age when he was playing in Europe, Campazzo admits that playing against the Dallas Mavericks superstar was educational.
“He’s playing at an amazing level and I’m enjoying it immensely,” Campazzo said. “We played together at Real Madrid but you have to defend players like him hard all the time, and not just him, all of the players in the NBA.
“I try to train as hard as I play, that’s the way to get better, but lots of times I would defend him the hardest I could and he didn’t like it but he’d still make baskets. But I think he learned a lot, and me too! He taught me a lot which has served me well at this level, in the NBA.
“If I do the best I can, always leave 100 per cent on the court, something which is always a given really, then hopefully I can live up to their expectations.”
Stepping in for Jamal
The devastating injury suffered by Denver’s first-choice point guard Jamal Murray a month or so ago had the potential to completely derail the Nuggets’ push to contend for the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.
Clearly, the locker room was severely rocked by what happened, but they responded by reeling off nine wins in their next 10 games and Campazzo was immediately thrust into an expanded role.
He admits his style is a lot different though.
Campazzo said: “We play for (Murray) too, every game. That gives us extra energy. Every game, we try to play with hustle, with energy, just for him.
“I’m not a shooter, for sure, but if they let me shoot I will try to make it! I will try to make the right decision to get wins. I work so hard to play like this. The stats bit is for (journalists) but I just want to get wins and help my team.”
Focused on fitting in
It’s clear that Campazzo is enjoying himself as an NBA player, and he’s even been previously quoted as saying he feels ‘like a big kid’ playing in the league.
He’s already captured the heart of many Nuggets fans with his committed style and highlight-worthy passing, but he knows a lot of hard work lies ahead if he’s going to continue to be an important part of the team’s plans moving forward.
He said: “Adapting is the most difficult thing. It’s my first year, it’s a new team, new terminology, new offensive and defensive schemes but I have tried to adapt as quickly as possible to ensure I’m ready for important matches.
Facundo Campazzo is the first Nuggets player with 5+ steals in back-to-back games since Fat Lever in 1989. pic.twitter.com/YAEGmhjdqx
“It’s a team which has had international franchise players. I faced each one of them when I was younger, playing against Jokic at the World Cup for example.
“The coach likes international basketball too, and all of the assistants all the way down the chain have awareness so it makes it easier for you to train and for you to produce and I try to make the most of that.
“The most important thing is getting used to the team. My team-mates are really helping with that too, making it easier for me. It’s a high bar they set. It’s a team which was really good last season and a very strong playoffs, so the goal is to try and go a step further this time.”
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