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Future is now: Nuggets big man Jusuf Nurkic opening eyes

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After showing what he could do with more NBA playing time, Nuggets rookie center Jusuf Nurkic is opening eyes around the NBA and even more importantly on the Denver Nuggets.

Jusuf Nurkic is a rising star
Jusuf Nurkic is a rising star
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

The first time I met Denver Nuggets rookie center Jusuf Nurkic was during training camp in October of 2014.

I say I "met" the Bosnian in the loosest term possible. The rookie cut an impressive figure just because of his size and stature. BIG, is the best way to put it. You've seen the famous photo of his father with the pint of beer. Juka (his actual nickname) isn't quite that large but he is imposing nonetheless. While he was imposing, you could tell that he was a bit overwhelmed by his surroundings.

One other (first sight) observation was that Nurkic is very much a kid. 19 years old when he was drafted (now 20), and he looked AND acted like it despite his size. Talking about playing Kobe Bryant on NBA 2k in very broken English, and his brief career in professional basketball in Europe (he only started playing in the last 5 years). He had the look of someone who had some dreams about playing in the NBA, and couldn't quite believe that he had made it not only in the League but across the Atlantic to the United States.

In his first professional game (against the Los Angeles Lakers in the preseason), Juka showed how much of a kid he was by playing the most nervous-looking game I've ever seen. He was playing against his hero Kobe and rushed every shot and looked like a guy who was playing above his station. It wasn't pretty but it was completely understandable. Culture shock combined with youth combined with hero worship. I think everyone can be forgiven in those situations.

As the preseason wore on, Nurkic became more and more confident. He had and impressive 16 point outing against the Chicago Bulls in the preseason (abusing Taj Gibson) and seemed, at the very least, to be settling in to his new surroundings. My eyes were truly "opened" however, the very first practice of the regular season. The Nuggets had Juka playing along side JaVale McGee as power forward. I saw what had been hinted at by people around the Nuggets since the draft. He is a VERY smart basketball player. The below video is what I took at that practice.

Notice how Juka manages to be aware of his surroundings, make the right pass, and ask for the ball at the top of the circle. Confident. The entry feed to Wilson Chandler in the last clip was very rare for a big man to do. There's a reason, I suppose, that people have begun comparing him to Marc Gasol (more on that later).

As it was, Juka didn't receive much playing time at the beginning of the season. Often scuffled to the bench behind J.J. Hickson. Not that it matters much anymore, because as it inevitably seems to be the case ... injuries forced the hand of coach Brian Shaw and the last three games a very interesting scenario has emerged.

Jusuf Nurkic is becoming a rookie force to remember and in my mind, and in the minds of many Nuggets fans deserves consideration for the Rising Stars Challenge at All Star Weekend in New York. In the last three games, (two of which came against Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol on back to back nights) Nurkic has opened up the world to his potential.

Los Angeles Lakers 12-30-14: 16 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, 2 blocked shots
Chicago Bulls 1-1-15: 10 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocked shots
Memphis Grizzlies 1-3-15: 11 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals, 5 blocked shots

In the Memphis game he had a +/- of +29 in 21 minutes and committed ZERO fouls (fouling frequently has been a primary reason Juka hadn't received much playing time). He also displayed a stunning offensive move that I had not seen in the 4 months I've been watching Nurkic, a floater. Here is his highlights (blocks) from the Grizzlies game:

That, along with getting in a little trash talking action to Marc Gasol has maybe, slightly, changed the perception of the Nuggets in the NBA. Particularly the front office featuring General Manager Tim Connelly and international scout Rafal Juc. The draft day trade of the 11th pick and Doug McDermott to the Chicago Bulls for the 16th (Juka) and 19th (Gary Harris) pick is looking pretty good with the benefit of hindsight.

However, it's not just me who has noticed what Juka has been able to do. Here is what Andrew Feinstein had to say about the Bosnian big man:

I love Jusuf Nurkic. He's officially my favorite Denver Nugget for the 2014-15 season (not a lot to choose from, but still ...). Nurkic has great hands, great footwork and great energy, all three of which are contributing to his thus far successful rookie campaign. An NBA executive taught me many years ago that you always want players you need to "dial down, not dial up" and Nurkic certainly fits into the "need to dial down" category as he plays with the attitude and edginess our soft Nuggets desperately need. When the Nuggets drafted Nurkic 16th overall I was hoping we landed a 16 / 9 guy for years to come and he seems very capable of getting there. And perhaps sooner than later.

And from Nate Timmons:

When Juka is on the court, I can't take my eyes off of him. I want to see every movement, every box out, every post move, every defensive post play, I want to see it all! Honestly, he's a joy to watch and plays with a passion that any fan can get behind. As I've said before, hearing that he cried after the Lakers pre-season game was a good sign in my view. I want players on "my" team that are crazy about winning. It looks like Tim Connelly and his crew made a sneaky good draft pick that will benefit the Nuggets for years to come. And it's becoming apparent that Nurkic is a potential franchise building block.

As Andy points out, Juka's footwork and hands are fairly incredible for his age. Mostly, however, his basketball "instinct" (not quite Basketball IQ ... yet) is what sets him apart from other big men I've seen. He is an incredibly instinctual player who has shown a remarkable ability to adapt. He wants to learn, and as we saw against Grizzlies ... he has a bit of a cocky edge. Haven't seen that around these parts since J.R. Smith was swept out of town.

Where will this lead? Well, that is anybody's guess. It's safe to say that Nurkic's impact ... largely due to injuries ... has benefited the Nuggets in ways we are just now learning. However high his ceiling, the fact remains that he has demonstrated with consistent minutes a tremendous growth that even the most wide-eyed of Nuggets prognosticators could NOT have predicted.

Juka deserves to be in the Rising Stars game. This much is clear. It's up to Nuggets fans now to champion the cause.