Kosta Koufos gives Nuggets consistency in the middle

Denver center enjoying best season of four-year NBA career
by Aaron Lopez

With whopping snowdrifts and bone-rattling wind chills, Midwest winters can be generously described as harsh.

For Denver Nuggets center Kosta Koufos, neither rain nor sleet nor snow could keep him from taking a study break to shoot a few baskets in his driveway while growing up in Canton, Ohio.

Call it the basketball player’s creed.

“I’d be in the driveway working out in the snow,” Koufos said. “My mom used to scream at me, saying ‘You’re going to get sick!’ ”

Cerebral by nature, Koufos was 7-feet tall by the time he entered high school and often sought solace on the basketball court to alleviate the stress of a schedule that included several advanced-placement courses.

“Growing up, every kid’s dream is to be a professional athlete,” he said. “At the same time, I wanted to get an education and do well in school. It was an outlet. Whenever I felt stressed out, I’d go work out. That’s why I always come in late to the gym and just shoot. It’s the only thing that de-stresses me.”

Nearly six years removed from his high school graduation, Koufos retains the routine and work ethic that helped him reach the NBA.

He often returns to Pepsi Center in the evenings to lift weights or work out on the practice court. The hard work paid dividends in training camp when he emerged as the team’s starting center.

“I think he’s done a great job of understanding what we want and he what brings it to the table,” Denver coach George Karl said. “Going into the season, I didn’t know what the big-man picture was going to be. I think he’s earned it and he’s played his way into that. I think he continually gets a little bit better.”

As the season reached the midway point, Koufos is averaging career-highs in points (8.1), rebounds (6.4) and blocked shots (1.52), but you would never know his impact on the team’s success by talking to him.

Koufos, one of the nicest people in professional sports, does not want to make headlines with his words. He often apologizes to the media after giving pat answers in an interview, but he need not apologize for his effectiveness on the court.

Throughout the season, Koufos has been Denver’s leader in plus-minus. More often than not, the Nuggets tend to outscore the opposition when he is on the floor.

“Being solid sometimes is more effective than putting up big numbers,” teammate Andre Iguodala said.

Case in point: In an early season game against the New Orleans Hornets, Koufos had a modest four points and four rebounds, but he blocked five shots and helped the Nuggets outscore the Hornets by 34 points when he was on the court.

Though he deflects credit for the lopsided numbers, Koufos is someone who can appreciate statistics.

He left college at the Ohio State University after his freshman year, but is taking online courses in pursuit of an associate’s degree in business.

“It’s something I wanted to do,” he said. “The person I’m going to end up marrying, she’s going to be educated, too. I want to be able to tell my children that education is very important, very vital to have in life.”

Koufos, whose dad was a doctor and whose mom was a high school guidance counselor, began his NBA education with the Utah Jazz in 2008.

He averaged 4.7 points and 2.9 rebounds as a rookie, and then made his first playoff appearance during Utah’s first-round series against the Nuggets in 2010. Though Koufos played limited minutes in the postseason, his poise caught Karl’s attention.

“He wasn’t afraid of the game,” Karl said. “He had courage. He didn’t play with frozen eyes.”

Koufos’ poise can be attributed to preparedness.

He consistently is among the last players off the court after practice – a trend that Nuggets teammate Corey Brewer noticed when the two played together in Minnesota during the 2010-11 season.

“Even in Minnesota, when he wasn’t getting playing time, he just worked on his game and he got better and better,” Brewer said. “I’m happy for him to be starting now … He’s a great guy to have on the court because you don’t have to worry about him messing up.”

In addition to paying attention to detail in practice, Koufos stays mentally prepared by exercising his mind.

He reads a lot of books and stays up to date on current events ranging from the economy in Greece to politics in the United States. Though born in Ohio, he holds dual citizenship.

“He knows what’s going on in Greece, he knows what’s going on here in our country,” Karl said. “He seems to have an awareness of the social scene, the political scene a little bit more than most players.”

Even when Koufos is in the news, he tends to fly under the radar. He signed a multiyear contract extension with the Nuggets last spring, but the announcement was overshadowed by teammate Danilo Gallinari’s extension that same day.

That was perfectly fine with Koufos, who simply went about the business of getting better.

“He’s come here and really worked hard on his game,” Karl said. “I think he loves it here, and I think we’ve gotten a bargain in how he’s come on and played at a high level for us.”