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—Photo illustration by Sean Parsons

The Nuggets Head Overseas

Denver taps the international market to try and rebuild its roster.

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Chris Marlowe’s fluency confines itself to English. But when the situation calls for it, the play-by-play announcer for the Denver Nuggets can unleash a respectable “Nije u mojoj kuci!”—which translates to “Not in my house!” in Bosnian. That situation occurs when third-year Nugget Jusuf “the Bosnian Beast” Nurki? blocks an opposing player’s shot.

Linguistic studies have become a big part of Marlowe’s job description in recent years. “There are good, young international players spread throughout the league,” says Jonathan Tjarks, who covers the NBA for the Ringer, a sports and pop culture website, “but there’s nowhere where there’s near as high a concentration as in Denver.” The Nuggets’ first-round draft picks this past June included Jamal Murray of Canada and Juancho Hernangomez of Spain. The year before, the team chose Nikola Joki? of Serbia and Emmanuel Mudiay of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They join Nurki? and Italian Danilo Gallinari, Denver’s leading scorer a year ago, to form the core of the rebuilding Nuggets, who tip off the 2016-’17 season on October 26.

The Nuggets have tried to tap international talent before: In 2002, Denver selected Nikoloz Tskitishvili, but the Georgian averaged just three points per game in three seasons with the team. (In the NBA, “Tskitishvili” now means “huge bust.”) The Nuggets didn’t pick another foreign player in the first round until 2013, when current general manager Tim Connelly arrived. Connelly hired assistant general manager Arturas Karnisovas, a Lithuanian who played pro ball in Europe for 15 years before becoming an international scout for the Houston Rockets. Now he runs Denver’s foreign scouting program. An indication of how Karnisovas is viewed around the NBA: He was reportedly a finalist for the New Jersey Nets’ general manager gig this year.

Karnisovas says there isn’t a grand plan to turn the Nuggets into an NBA version of the United Nations; the team simply selects the best players available. “The only way for [the Nuggets] to get elite talent is to take chances on international players that other teams haven’t scouted as heavily,” Tjarks says. “It’s basically the model the [San Antonio] Spurs perfected.” The Spurs, by the way, have won five NBA titles since 1999. The Nuggets might be a few seasons away from contending for a championship, but both Joki? and Mudiay earned NBA all-rookie honors last year—proving the investments in foreign markets are already paying dividends.

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