January 13, 2015

DENVER (AP) The ''Bosnian Bear'' loves chocolate cheesecake with vanilla mousse almost as much as video games and horror films.

Some might say Jusuf Nurkic (pronounced you-SOOF nur-KITCH) is just a 6-foot-11, 280-pound kid at heart. Others would say he's really still a kid.

The Denver Nuggets decided to make the 20-year-old rookie their starting center by trading Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland last week for two protected first-round draft picks.

That's how much confidence they have in their bruiser from Bosnia-Herzegovina who's only been playing basketball for five years. He's averaging 6.9 points and 5.1 rebounds this season, numbers that may even get him invited to the Rising Stars Challenge for rookies and second-year players during All-Star weekend next month.

It certainly hasn't taken him long to pick up the game - or the English language. He understands what he's hearing just fine.

Except, of course, when coach Brian Shaw yells at him during practice. Only then does he act like he can't understand.

''He's clever,'' said Shaw, whose team rides a four-game win streak into a game Wednesday against Dallas. ''He'll try to use that `I don't understand' card when it's convenient for him to use it. He understands all right.

''That's the one thing about basketball - the things that you do on the court are universal. So there may be different words for different things in different languages, but a pick and roll is still a pick and roll, a post-up is still a post-up, a shot is a shot. In terms of that, there's no barrier. He has a good understanding, because he has such a high basketball IQ.''

His story of discovery is actually quite remarkable. Here's the condensed version: An agent saw a newspaper article on Nurkic's father, a big, burly policeman. The agent contacted the father to see if he by chance had a son, which he did - a teenager named Jusuf.

''He looked at me, and I was normal size, and he said, `That kid is going to be in the NBA,''' said Jusuf Nurkic, who was dubbed ''Bosnian Bear'' by the team early in the season but also likes ''Bosnian Beast'' as a nickname. ''We all just smiled, because it was crazy.''

After all, Nurkic didn't know a thing about the game. Even more, he couldn't shoot. But they found him a coach, who taught him how to shoot.

And then Nurkic grew. And grew.

He turned into a big man with nifty foot work who can effortlessly run the floor, which immediately attracted the Nuggets' attention. So much so that they acquired him on draft night, sending their 11th overall pick (Doug McDermott) to Chicago for Nurkic (No. 16) and guard Gary Harris (No. 19).

From the start, Nurkic's been as advertised - a bashing force inside with some finesse, too.

''We were lucky, because he's making us look smart. But he deserves all the credit,'' general manager Tim Connelly said. ''He doesn't want to just fit in. He wants to make a mark.''

Certainly receiving quite a few marks, too. He has a mean-looking red scar on the left side of his back courtesy of being scratched by a Toronto player last month. There are scratches all over his wrists and upper arms as well.

''Scratches everywhere, but I get no fouls,'' Nurkic said.

He is, after all, just a rookie.

Nurkic doesn't back down, either, getting under the skin recently of Memphis big man Marc Gasol as the two jawed at each other. Afterward, Gasol praised Nurkic's game, saying, ''he's going to be a real good player.''

That's a reason why the Nuggets traded Mozgov to the Cavs, to open up more playing time for Nurkic. And with JaVale McGee still sidelined by a strained lower left leg, the center spot is all his. That is, as long as he can stay out of foul trouble. He's averaging three a game.

To fight homesickness, Nurkic said he calls family and friends quite a bit, plays lots of ''NBA 2K15'' and goes to movies. Since he doesn't like to cook, he dines out quite often as well. His favorite restaurant is the Cheesecake Factory, where he typically orders the chocolate tuxedo cream cheesecake for dessert.

This month, his family is in town and he's playing tour guide when he's not on the court.

''It's great to have family here,'' Nurkic said. ''It feels like home.

''Everything is just going great, man. I'm helping my teammates and club win. That's a great feeling.''

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