Mavericks vs. Nuggets preview: Evan Fournier finding his groove with rare opportunity

Alec Burks gets creative in trying to slow down Evan Fournier. - USA TODAY Sports

Right back at it, the Nuggets are in action tonight at the Pepsi Center.

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2012/2013 NBA Regular Season: Game 76
Dallas Mavericks (2002 - Pres)
vs
Denver Nuggets (2009 - Pres)
36-38 (14-23 on the road)
1-0 DEN
51-24 (33-3 at home)
April 4th, 2013 - 7 PM (MT)
Pepsi Center - Denver, CO
Altitude / 950 AM / 104.3 FM The Fan
Probable Starters
Mike James PG Andre Miller
O.J. Mayo SG Andre Iguodala
Shawn Marion SF Danilo Gallinari
Dirk Nowitzki PF Kenneth Faried
Chris Kaman C Kosta Koufos
Notes
Mavs Moneyball Blogs Denver Stiffs
Rodrigue Beaubois (out) Injuries Ty Lawson, Julyan Stone (out)
The Mavs are 30-45 all-time in Denver Stat The all-time series is owned by Dallas: 78-71



For Nuggets fans this is shaping up to be a season to remember; for Mavericks fans - it could be a season to forget. Dirk Nowitzki has only appeared in 45 of the team's 74 games to date, due to off-season surgery in October of 2012 and the team is in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season.

But while this has been a fun season for Nuggets fans, a coach's work is never done.

"I'm not sure it's fun," said George Karl. "The amount of misery has been minimalized with this basketball team and it has been fun from the standpoint that they're probably as coach-able a bunch of guys that I've been around. They're young; they're hungry to learn. Everything's kind of got a win-win-win philosophy to it."

And right now the hot topic is rookie Evan Fournier. It has been Andre Miller holding down the starting job in Ty Lawson's absence, but Fournier has allowed Karl to get back to managing Miller's minutes. Against the 76ers, Kings, and Hornets - Miller played over 34 minutes in each game. With Fournier able to earn Karl's trust as a backup, Miller's minutes have decreased to 27 minutes in each of Denver's last two games (both wins).

Fournier played 21 minutes against the Nets and again against the Jazz, but he's not just a body out there. He scored a team-high 19 points against Brooklyn and put up 18 points in Utah. He's shooting 13-18 (2-5 from deep) and is a perfect 9-9 from the foul line.

"We didn't really make a big deal out of [the Nets game] as coaches," said Nuggets assistant coach Melvin Hunt. "We wanted to give him his due, but we expected him to play well."

The expectations have been set in practices and before-and-after practice.

"It didn't come out of nowhere, it came from his work," said Hunt. "You guys know. The people who come and watch us practice, he's the last guy in the gym. There are only two guys on our team that can wear [assistant coach] John Welch out, as far as over-working him, that's Evan and Timofey [Mozgov]. Evan will work out four times a day, five times a day.

"Put it like this, the Brooklyn game - we saw the fruit and it was obvious from the roots from the things he's planted," said Hunt. "He's working on his game, he's watching tape, and he's asking questions during the games. That's just the tip of the iceberg. He's invested in his game."

Fans, bloggers, and writers didn't know a whole lot about Fournier's game before he came to Colorado. He did workout for the Nuggets (at the Pepsi Center) back before the draft, but he was still an unknown to many. But as is the case with the front office, coaching staff, and scouts - they did their homework.

"The first thing I noticed about him," said Hunt. "When I saw him in Italy - I said, ‘Wow, this kid has got great feet.' Not good, he's got great feet. He didn't know where to put his hands, legally, in our game and that he'll learn. I saw that raw ability to put his feet in the right place. I told Coach Karl, eventually he'll know where to put his hands - that's the nuance of our game - but being able to put your feet in the right spot makes a big difference."

Fournier is not your typical rookie. He was playing in the French League before entering the NBA draft and was twice named the league's Most Improved Player in 2011 and 2012 - before the age of 20. The knock on Fournier was that he didn't put up a great percentage from three-point range (only 27% from deep in his last season in France).

"That's the one thing about being an NBA player, you get a lot of time to work on your shot," said Hunt. "If you want to get better at shooting, you can. His shot wasn't broken. He didn't have to unlearn anything. At 19 years-old everything's new. With him, in a couple years he's going to be a really good shooter. And he's a good shooter now. He has confidence, he knows how to get the shot - he's the Gallo in that regard, and that's just because of his work."

The work Fournier is putting in has people like me wondering what he could do with even more time on the court. On a team that is so deep, it's a chore to find minutes for even nine or 10 guys. But there is no doubt that Fournier is a player with a lot of promise.

"He is the ideal fit for our team and he fits in because of his versatility," said Hunt. "He gets here, he's a 6'7" guard that can handle the basketball fairly well, shoot the basketball fairly well, he can pass the basketball fairly well, can defend his position, he runs the floor, he's a pretty good athlete, and that's kind of the picture of our team."

Fournier and the Nuggets are proving that basketball is still the ultimate team game.

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I asked both Karl and Hunt about any possible language barriers that might have affected any communication with Fournier and if the communication has been better as the season has progressed. I still remember the first press interview Fournier gave, in June of 2012, and how he was a touch uncomfortable speaking in English.

George Karl:

"Sometimes I think he misses some stuff, but it's a higher level than most international players. I think from the very beginning he understood English, now he feels like he can communicate in English at a high level. His focus and intensity to be a good player is off the charts."

Melvin Hunt:

"A couple things have helped him. One, he's thirsty for knowledge as far as the language and [second] Patrick Mutombo - he speaks French. Pat and he converse and Pat, a lot of times, is the go-between for us, which gives [Evan] a little more comfort. And he just asks - from the masseuse, to security, to the cooks - he'll just ask, ‘What does that mean?' His inquiring about things has really helped him and he's comfortable. Evan has gotten comfortable around his new environment as a 20 year-old. He knows to ask more questions. He can remember when we use a slang word, he can reference it from a month ago."

Nate_Timmons on Twitter
ntimmons73@yahoo.com

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