The Denver Nuggets will host the Perth Wildcats in their first and only preseason game at the Pepsi Center on Friday night. Naturally, Torrey Craig—who spent some time in the NBL before being poached by the Nuggets—was the center of attention after Thursday’s practice.

Craig took an unusual path to the NBA. The hard-working forward entered the NBL with the hopes of refining and improving his still limited game. His eyes were set on the NBA, but he was not a player who could afford to skip any steps. Overseas basketball is often used as a stepping stone, or a stop-gap, for American players with bigger aspirations. Many players who spend time in other leagues are expected to make an eventual return to, or a splashy debut in the association.

That was not the case for Craig. His NBA debut was far from an inevitability. It was something he earned the hard way—something he fought, clawed and scratched for. His brief stint in the NBL helped to refine his game, but it also helped to define the type of player that he is becoming in the NBA. Craig is tough. Craig is physical. Craig is a product of Australian basketball.

“You know, in my experience, the one thing I know about Australian players, one word comes to mind: toughness,” Malone told reporters following Thursday’s practice. “(They’re) a tough group of guys. They’re never going to back down, so if you’re not ready to play, expect the worst.”

That’s a popular description of the brand of basketball that’s played in the NBL, and it also describes the reputation that Torrey Craig has garnered in his short time with the Nuggets.

“Torrey Craig played down there for a couple of years, and if you can have success in that league down there—that’s some grown ass men that play hard, play physical and if you can’t handle that, you’re not going to fly in that setting,” Malone explained. “And that’s one of the things that we liked about Torrey. He did what he did in a very competitive, very tough, very physical league.” 

It’s easy, and a fairly prevalent cop-out, to define less skilled role players as simply being “scrappy” or “hard workers.” But Craig agrees with Malone’s assessment of both Australian basketball and how it’s permeated his own game.

“Those guys over there, it is as physical as it it gets with a natural rugby background. Most of the guys grew up playing rugby so they are just naturally physical,” Craig told reporters on Thursday. “I learned that over there, as soon as I got over there, how physical it was. And it kind of translated back here.”

Again, this toughness might sound like a fall back description of a lesser league, filled with lesser players, but Craig stressed that it’s the real deal. When asked if the NBL is even more physical than the NBA, he didn’t hesitate:

“Yes, it is. It is a lot more physical, and they allow a lot more (contact) than the NBA. When I was over there, the training was physical, the games were physical, and it’s helped me here.”

Craig isn’t known for his ability to stretch the floor, nor does he grace highlight reels with jaw dropping handles or spectacular dunks. He’s here because of his grit, his toughness, and his never quit attitude. Some of that is clearly innate for the 27 year-old native of Columbia, South Carolina. But it’s something that he’s refined through experience. He’s turned that “cop out” description into his calling card, and it’s why he’s quickly become a favorite of coach Malone’s.

“There are certain leagues where, if a player can flourish in a certain league, then you have a good indication that’s going to translate into the NBA,” Malone said. “And again, Australian basketball, it’s like Australian league football, man. It’s physical and it’s not for the weak minded. If Torrey can do that, like he’s shown already, he can step in here and flourish.”

The Nuggets will have their collective toughness tested tomorrow night at the Pepsi Center when their game against Perth tips off at 7 pm MT.

You can watch (or listen) to Craig’s full conversation with the media on Thursday here: