LOS ANGELES — Jusuf Nurkic still has a lot of learning to do—about the NBA, about basketball, about America, about the English language. He didn't start speaking English until he came to America, which he didn't do until this past summer, when the Denver Nuggets traded for his rights on draft night.
But the brash Bosnian rookie, who was the Chicago Bulls' pick at No. 16 in 2014, has picked up his fair share of swarthy sailor vocabulary, including a certain eight-letter reference to fertilizer.
"Being a rookie is really [insert fertilizer reference here], if I can say that, because it's really tough and hard," Nurkic told Bleacher Report, prior to Denver's 102-98 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Monday, when asked about the toughest part of his ongoing adjustment to life with the Nuggets. "It's crazy. New guy, nobody respect you for no reason, you know. I think that's hard."
In that way, Nurkic is like any young newcomer to basketball's biggest stage. A player of his size (a deceptively mobile 6'11" and 280 pounds) and experience (or lack thereof) can expect the whistle to go against him more often than not.
|Jusuf Nurkic, in Summary|
|20||6'11"||280 pounds||Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina||No. 16 overall in 2014|
So far, that's been the case. Coming into Monday's action, Nurkic's 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes were the most in the league among players with at least 15 games under their respective belts in 2014-15, per NBA.com.
"I like to have him out there on the floor as much as possible," said Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw, who pointed to foul trouble as the aspect of the game in which Nurkic needs the most work. "That's controlled by him a lot and his foul situation."
Nurkic's penchant for penalties wouldn't be such a concern if he were just another big body with six fouls to give. He's proven to be much more than that, particularly since assuming Timofey Mozgov's old starting spot in early January. According to NBA.com, Nurkic ranks eighth in rebounds per 36 minutes among players who've logged at least 15 games.
"The one thing that he's been able to do consistently for us is rebound the ball," said Shaw.
But even that undersells Nurkic's surprising set of skills.
"He's good, tough, skilled, more skilled than you think," noted Clippers coach Doc Rivers. "He really knows how to play, can really pass. He's a good player. That's probably why they made one of the moves they made with Mozgov, so they could get this kid more playing time, I guess."
Indeed, his production has gone up nearly across the board with Mozgov now in Cleveland. More minutes, more points, more rebounds and, yes, more fouls. All told, Nurkic averaged 6.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 3.1 fouls in 15.4 minutes per game prior to Monday's loss in L.A. With the current class of first years as thin as it is, even those modest numbers could earn Nurkic consideration in the league's Rookie of the Year race.
"He just has to be able to find a medium point in terms of fouls because he has been in foul trouble pretty much every game he's played," Shaw said.
Nurkic picked up his fair share of fouls against the Clippers at Staples Center on Monday. He notched his fourth infraction at the 10:09 mark of the third quarter, but rather than pull Nurkic right away to save him from a fifth, Shaw left his first-year center in the game. After getting his pass picked off by J.J. Redick on the next possession, Nurkic responded with a pair of soft-handed shots inside to help Denver flip a three-point hole into a lead of the same size. He added another well-measured hook in the post to put the Nuggets up eight at the end of the third.
There were times, though, when he looked rattled and rushed with the ball on offense. In that regard, Shaw noted, Nurkic must learn to "slow down offensively."
"We do get the ball inside to him and he doesn't finish well," said Shaw. "Probably in the last two weeks, since we traded Mozgov, just to take his time and slow down and finish his opportunities."
That mix of mistakes and positive plays is to be expected of anyone who's just three months into his NBA career, but especially for someone who, like Nurkic, has been playing the game for less than six years. Nurkic, now 20, didn't pick up a basketball until he was 14.
And he might not have even gotten that far if not for the Paul Bunyan-esque exploits of his father, Hariz, a police officer in his home town of Tuzla in Bosnia. The elder Nurkic, who stands a tall-tale-appropriate seven feet and 400 pounds, wound up in the local paper after he allegedly fought off 14 assailants on his own.
Surprisingly enough, Hariz was never an athlete himself, despite his massive frame. "He never tried because, you know, no shoes for him in his time," Nurkic quipped.
Enes Trnovcevic, a sports agent in Bosnia, read the story about Nurkic's father and reached out to Hariz shortly thereafter, asking if he had a son. Before long, Juka (as Jusuf is known) was in Slovenia—an average-sized kid who'd lived a normal life, whisked away to a foreign country to play a sport with which he wasn't familiar, in anticipation of a growth spurt that did, indeed, arrive...and then some.
"You must love it because you played basketball, but you know, that's your life," Nurkic said. "You need to go somewhere else, like another country, to play. Your family stay home. It's difficult."
Nurkic got a bit of a reprieve this past month, when his family, his father included, visited from Bosnia for their first trip to American soil.
"Denver's really nice for family, you know," Nurkic said, smiling. "Little bit snow, little bit sun, little bit everything, little bit cold. Everybody like Denver."
Apparently, Juka does, too. He plays the game with a joy and confidence that, depending on how you look at it, either belies his age or gives it away. Every good play—a bucket, a rebound, a shot contested—elicits a wry smile and, sometimes, a smattering of trash talk.
Or when he gave Marc Gasol, an All-Star starter and former Defensive Player of the Year, a taste of his own medicine:
"It's just sport, you know," Nurkic explained. "I think it's nothing personal or something like that. In the game, it happen that emotion, you know. Talk to some guys, you know, that's sport. Nothing bad."
Not that anyone in Denver is complaining about Nurkic's attitude. Quite the contrary.
"I like the fact that he's kind of oblivious to everything that goes on," Shaw said in praise of his rookie center. "He's our most physical player."
That's lofty praise coming, as it does, from a guy who has Kenneth Faried, otherwise known as "The Manimal," starting at power forward.
Added Shaw: "He's fearless. He comes from a region of the world where I'm sure he's used to, he's prepared for whatever he has to face. He doesn't complain about anything. He gets out there. He plays the way he knows how to play. He doesn't back down from anyone and we need more guys like that on our team, to be honest."
Indeed, Shaw could use all the help he can get, with his team, at 18-27, headed toward its second consecutive trip to the draft lottery. Perhaps the Nuggets will find another Nurkic in the 2015 draft.
For now, they can take comfort in having one block of Balkan stone to shape into a budding star at center.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.