Getty Images: Garrett Ellwood
The Nuggets youngest seven-footer might also prove to be the most consistent big man this season, after an off-season filled with basketball.
"Minutes are up for grabs for those that want to take them," said Nuggets assistant coach Chad Iske.
"We have a real deep team and young team and all our guys deserve chances at minutes," Isked added. "But they have got to prove it out here on the practice court and getting in their extra work."
On the practice court Tuesday afternoon, the 7'0" and 265-pound Kosta Koufos was out to prove that he deserved those minutes. In a short five minute burst, playing on the opposite five-on-five team as JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov, Koufos erupted for 8 points and 5 offensive rebounds.
"The difference between offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds? You get an opportunity to score or get the team another chance to score," said Koufos. "Whenever the shot goes up, I just want to go for the rebound. I feel very confident in my rebounding."
And scoring is just what Koufos did with three of those boards. Before anyone had a chance to react to him, Koufos tipped in the first board off a missed free throw, quickly put another in off the glass a few possessions later, and dropped another home at the rim after coming down, and going back up instantly, with a board in traffic. Koufos was in beast-mode on the glass and Iske and the coaching staff are taking notice.
"We thought he had an incredible off-season. He was here almost the entire summer, working out every day," Iske said. "He worked out hard on his rehab (for his knee) with Steve (Hess) and the guys in the training room. And when he wasn't able to do live, he was working on his jump shot and free throws. As soon as he could start moving around, he started working on his low post game and all the different things we wanted out of him in the offense."
Koufos was moving with ease on this day and showing off his explosion in his rebounding on healthy legs. "I feel really good," Koufos said. "I worked hard this summer to get my knee back to 100-percent strength. It's a very minor thing, but I feel very good this year."
We saw Koufos' early training camp success rewarded with a start at center on October 6th in Las Vegas against the Los Angeles Clippers. Playing roughly 15 minutes against L.A., Koufos went 3-7 from the field for 6 points and grabbed a team-high 8 rebounds. The Nuggets do not tailor their game-plan around their big men, but instead ask them to do the dirty work and reward themselves by hitting the glass.
"We set a lot of ball screens and then we want our bigs rolling down through the defense trying to be a problem and if they don't get it (the ball) then it puts them in the position to be on the offensive glass or to put in easy tip-ins when their man helps," Iske said.
And how has Koufos responded to his role in the Nuggets' offense?
"I think he has really picked up our philosophy," Iske said. "He has really embraced it and picked it up probably better than anyone else."
Koufos' case for being the team's starting center is greatly improved by accepting his role in the team's offense and excelling at it. And while starting for the Nuggets would be a nice reward, it is not something Koufos appears to be concerned about.
"I feel very confident in whatever role I'm given on the Nuggets," Koufos said. "I've produced with the time I have been given. I just want to be here, wherever coach puts me, I just want to work hard and help the team win games."
But it is a definite possibility that the starting center on opening night in Philadelphia could be Koufos.
"I think it's possible. Coach (Karl) basically told most of the team that everything is up for grabs," Iske said. "I think Kosta deserves that opportunity, we'll see where it goes from there. Nothing is a given going forward, but he definitely deserves to get a chance to start."
One thing Karl and his staff definitely have going for them? The hammer of playing time. With three young and capable seven-footers vying for run on the court, the competition in training camp has been fierce. Many see the 24 year-old JaVale McGee, he of the freakish athletic ability, as the center with the most promise and the high contract ($44 million) to warrant strong performance. The 26 year-old Timofey Mozgov is in a contract year ($3.14 million expiring contract) and needs a strong season coming off his Bronze medal at the London Olympic games. And the 23 year-old Koufos is entering the first year of his three-year contract extension ($9 million with only $6.5 million fully guaranteed) and is out to prove that his game has seriously improved. But as the three battle it out for minutes, they remain committed teammates and a prideful unit.
"It's fun, it's exciting, and I love it," said Koufos about the big man competition. "It's very competitive every day in practice and you got to stay on your toes. We always work together and always build each other up. We have confidence among ourselves and we've all shown we can play in this league. It's great to have three seven footers that can produce on the same team."
Being a competitor, Koufos knows that in order to see more minutes that he has to elevate his level of play. His focus this season is on the defensive end. That should come as no surprise as Karl and Iske have both expressed the Nuggets intent to become a better defensive team this season.
"My mindset this year is more defensive - getting rebounds and blocking shots. Be around the basket (on offense) and whenever I get the hand-off just finish around the rim," said Koufos. "After practice I take a lot of jump shots. I'm a really good shooter as well, but my role here is to play in the post, set screens, and rebound."
With a slew of wings and a point guard who likes to score the ball, it can be difficult being a Nuggets big man. While other teams run their offense through their big guys, teams like Memphis with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and Philadelphia with Andrew Bynum come to mind, the Nuggets centers must take a different approach to their roles with the team.
"In our offense we love to get our bigs underneath the defense down low. Trying to get lost behind their men as they (the defender) help up and Kosta has been really good at working on that," said Iske. "He has always been a good rebounder, per-minute, every place he has been. A lot of this is just him personally putting in the effort."
But even with the limited offensive game-planning for the big men, the Nuggets coaching staff has noticed the upgrades to Koufos' game.
"His left hand is better, his low post is better, he's running the floor more consistently, and he's defending the basket and the paint better. I think he had a great off-season and really tried to work on every aspect of his game and it has shown up," said Iske.
The Nuggets have high-expectations for the first time in a long time. Experts have been picking the team to win anywhere from 51-59 games this season. Denver fans have become accustomed to success and 50-win seasons, but when you consider that since moving to the NBA in 1976 the Nuggets high-win mark is 54 (1987-88 and 2008-09) then you start to see what a 59-win season could mean for this team.
With players being here for large portions of the summer, these Nuggets are out to show that the lofty expectations can be achieved through hard-work and dedication to their craft. We should not be surprised to be surprised by the Nuggets this season. Players like Koufos have been working for their opportunity to shine.
"I just want to take everything to the next level and I just feel great," said Koufos.
Koufos averaged 5.5 points, 5.4 rebounds , and 0.9 blocks for the Nuggets in the 2011-12 season in only 16.5 minutes per game and in 48 of the team's 66 regular season games.
Iske began working with the Nuggets on the ground level, serving as an intern in the scouting department for the 1999-00 season. From there he worked as the team's video coordinator and scouting coordinator, began advanced scouting in 2004, and was promoted to assistant coach in 2008. He also scouted the CBA and D-League during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 seasons.
A graduate of Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora (CO), Iske has volunteered as a coach in the school's high school and junior high basketball programs. He also served as an assistant coach for basketball and baseball at Bishop Seabury Academy in Lawrence, Kan. and helped start the Kansas Angels summer high school basketball program in 1997 - where he was the primary fund raiser and assistant coach in '97-98.
Iske graduated from the University of Kansas in 1999 with a degree in sports management. He currently resides in Denver.
Nate's July 2, 2012 feature piece: The Transformation of the Nuggets' Jordan Hamilton
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