Friday, June 14, 2024

Klee: The Denver Nuggets’ European Union

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DENVER — The new norm at Pepsi Center unfolds like a Lonely Planet guidebook, a 400-level foreign language course, a basketball atlas.

Arturas Karnisovas, the assistant general manager with the Nuggets, leans against a padded wall inside the upstairs practice gym. And here comes Danilo Gallinari, all smiles and Italian pride. Gallo shouts in Italian at Karnisovas, who responds, of course, in Lithuanian. The exchange goes on, and on, in various dialects and decibels, until new head coach Michael Malone walks past to explain how he’s adjusting to life inside the United Nations of the NBA.

“See,” Malone says, “That’s why I’m listening to Rosetta Stone on the way to work.”

The new Denver Nuggets have an accent. They speak in tongues, their native tongues, and their playful energy suggests they would be fun at parties.

“I don’t know what it was like before,” Malone says. “But this is a really, really good group to be around.”

Denver’s potential is not lost in translation, though a lineup that opens the season Wednesday night at Houston with a teenage point guard, a newly 21-year-old shooting guard and 24-year-old center with 24 games of NBA experience won’t realize it for another year or three. But watch close, because it’s coming, and then tell your friends you saw it first. It’s true this 2015-16 season is about star rookie Emmanuel Mudiay, Kenneth Faried and Gallo; the future is about those guys plus the three big men from lands far, far away: Jusuf Nurkic, 21, a 285-pound contradiction, a tiptoeing rhinoceros from Bosnia; Joffrey Lauvergne, 24, a Frenchman whom Malone loves for “his toughness”; Nikola Jokic, 20, a 6-foot-10 Serbian forward whose skill level far exceeds what his experience should allow.

“You look at Nikola Jokic, and the first thing that comes to your mind is a man that size should not be moving this way,” Karnisovas says. “I don’t even know if there is a player that size that’s (almost) 300 pounds that can move laterally the way he does and can pass and has skill. He’s quite a prospect. He really is.”

At the center of Denver’s international movement is Karnisovas, the most decorated basketball man inside Pepsi Center. Oh, you didn’t know? Here, Karnisovas can shoot hoops with his two boys in their Lone Tree suburb without a doubletake from neighbors. But the 1996 European Player of the Year remains a Lithuanian icon who “gets us in any gym in Europe,” as general manager Tim Connelly says. Karnisovas returns home as a celebrated figure of a national team that won bronze medals in the 1992 and ’96 Olympics.

“It’s in our DNA,” he says. “In Lithuania, they joke around and say, ‘We took Naismith’s book and made it our Bible.’”

This rebuild will be a project and a process. If the end product pans out, it will be because of the Nuggets’ “European Union.”  

***

The past two decades of Nuggets basketball taught two things: The Lakers get all the calls, and free agency is a cool idea, just for everybody else. The revival of Nuggets action ball must matriculate almost organically, with risk-taking drafts and by developing prospects into something the rest of the world didn’t forecast.

The Nuggets most operate differently. When two men move their lives from Serbia to Colorado to follow baby brother around the NBA, that qualifies as different.

Nemanja and Strahinja Jokic know the lonely roads carving through Utah better than most Americans. They drove overnight to see their brother, Nikola, play in the Las Vegas summer league, just before they drove 36 hours from Denver to New York to join him for the rookie transition program, then to Dallas and Los Angeles for preseason games in which Nikola played 41 minutes, combined.

“My brothers, they are crazy,” Nikola says.

As part of their Colorado transition the three Jokic brothers hiked the infamous Manitou Incline, 2,700 steps of agony Nikola swears he will never climb again.

“We got lost when we got down. We didn’t have water,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t want to go there anymore.”

Cheesy as it sounds, the journeys of the Jokic brothers embody the two elements most critical to Denver’s revival: Unusual and worth the risk. Rebuilding a sense of family is why this offseason Malone traveled to Italy to meet Gallo’s clan, why veteran point guard Jameer Nelson spotted the tab in flying his teammates to his hometown of Philadelphia for a weekend of paintball battles.

“Our first step was to get guys who wanted to be here,” Connelly says. “Guys from Europe, they love Denver. It’s not overwhelming. They’re more at home.” 

***

In 1990, at 18 and carrying only two packed bags, Karnisovas showed up at Seton Hall with zero concept of NCAA basketball. “Not a clue,” he says. But he played the college game, scouts the college game and is aware Duke, Kentucky and Kansas have 58 former players on NBA rosters. The latter begs the most common question from the cheap seats: With stateside talent, why place an emphasis on Europe?

“We hope to shoot for the stars when we select one,” Karnisovas said. “Hopefully he hasn’t been exposed to most of the teams. We are trying to get him, a star, that way.”

Evaluating European prospects hardly is new; “Dirk (Nowitzki) changed everything for European guys,” Karnisovas says, when the Mavericks made the Germany-born future Hall of Famer the ninth overall pick in the 1998 draft.

“I think we’re also very careful,” says Karnisovas, a Rockets scout before arriving in Denver. “But we know there’s three ways to operate your team. One is through the draft, one is through free agency and one is through trades. Usually with trades you’re exchanging your problems for somebody else’s problems.”

The Nuggets sought a niche and plunged their resources and acumen into roads less traveled. Between Connelly, whose first European scout was in France to see Boris Diaw in 2000; Karnisovas, who four times played in the Euroleague Final Four; and Rafal Juc, a 24-year-old international scout and assistant with the Polish national team; they are leaning on international relations to revitalize the franchise.

“In the U.S. right now it’s such an AAU mentality,” Malone says. “And the players that come (from Europe) into the NBA, in a weird way, they haven’t really been coached in the fundamentals of the game. When you get these international players they’re so skilled. They know things that we, as coaches, take for granted. They know how to pass, cut, shoot, handle.”

Karnisovas adds, “We are looking for elite, elite, elite in every category — size, shooting, rebounding, IQ. Will it pan out? You never know. We will see.”

Perhaps the most trying aspect of this process is the one in shortest supply: Patience. Mudiay, a prodigal rookie, escapes his teenage years in March; Jokic can legally sip a Jelen Pivo in Serbia, but not here; Nurkic turned 21 in August.

“It will require patience,” Malone says. “Not only from me, but the entire organization.”

The basketball experiment developing in LoDo speaks multiple languages. It is as risky as summiting the Incline without water, as unique as Jokic spinning a bounce pass through traffic.

“It will take some time,” Karnisovas says. “But we have high expectations. We have a chance to be very good in time.”

The Nuggets have an accent, and hope, and one ties into the other.

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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