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Brad Rock: Kyrylo Fesenko forced to mature in a hurry

Published: Thursday, April 22 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah Jazz players Carlos Boozer, left, and C.J. Miles joke around at the start of practice Wednesday.  The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City.  (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Utah Jazz players Carlos Boozer, left, and C.J. Miles joke around at the start of practice Wednesday. The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — It's right beneath the surface, itching to break out. Kyrylo Fesenko is only pretending to be a grown-up.

Inside, a 9-year-old kid is shouting.

A reporter asks him if he's more serious, now that he's a starter.

"I would be serious anyway," he says soberly, "even if I was sitting behind the bench."

But when a follow-up question arises about his growth since joining the Jazz three years ago, he replies, "All day on Sunday, Kyle (Korver) was telling me, like, 'Fes, keep listening to the mellow music, don't get too hyped, don't show any emotions.' "

His smile widens, his eyes laugh.

"I don't think I make like more than five jokes that day," he says of Monday's Game 2 win. "That's not usual for me."

Wesley Matthews, right, kids around with C.J. Miles, center, as reporters interview Miles at practice Wednesday. The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City.  (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Wesley Matthews, right, kids around with C.J. Miles, center, as reporters interview Miles at practice Wednesday. The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

Someone reminds him he's already cracked at least one joke.

"It's not a game day," Fes fires back.

With the absence of Mehmet Okur, who ruptured his Achilles' tendon in Game 1 of the playoffs, Fesenko has suddenly been pushed into the spotlight. He is a refreshing change on a team that prides itself in its no-nonsense approach. He once arrived for summer camp with his hair bleached blond, telling teammates the look "is hot in Ukraine."

He admitted during last year's playoffs in Los Angeles that if he knew Jennifer Aniston was in the crowd, he'd sneak a peak.

"I would do it, I'd be really happy if I see Jennifer Aniston," he said. "I watch her (on TV), like, 25 seasons."

Thus on Wednesday, Fesenko is drawing a crowd of media. They want to know of his conditioning, his attitude, his latest joke. Teammates saunter by, chuckling at his newfound celebrity.

Jazz player Kyle Korver shoots free throws during warm-ups at practice while team massage therapist Doug Birrell watches Wednesday. The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City.  (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Jazz player Kyle Korver shoots free throws during warm-ups at practice while team massage therapist Doug Birrell watches Wednesday. The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

Someone asks if he has a quota on jokes, nowadays.

"It's always been unlimited," he says, "but I think I'll set it at 100, 200 jokes."

While Fesenko's sense of humor entertains, it and his work ethic have sometimes annoyed coach Jerry Sloan, who is long on work adages and short on gag lines. All-Star point guard Deron Williams isn't exactly a candidate for a late-night monologue, either.

Seriousness has been a Jazz theme for decades. John Stockton and Karl Malone could be funny, but seldom showed it. Sloan has spent the last three years squeezing the foolishness from — and improving the work ethic in — his young center.

"Bottom line is sometimes when we work him a little bit, I think he thinks it's punishment, rather than trying to help him," says Sloan. "It's not punishment. We're just trying to make him a better player."

Jazz player Kyle Korver talks with reporters Wednesday. The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City.  (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Jazz player Kyle Korver talks with reporters Wednesday. The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

Fesenko's role became a lot more prominent once he replaced Okur in the lineup. He produced a four-point, two-rebound night in Game 2 against Denver, his first-ever playoff start. But his biggest contribution was defensively. He played 20 minutes and helped limit Nuggets center Nene to 18 points and five rebounds.

He made his only two shot attempts, both first-half dunks.

It wasn't a dominating performance, but he did hold his ground.

"Like everybody tells me — especially D-Will — 10 times before the game, 'If you catch the ball in the paint, dunk it; don't try to go for the fade-away shot, layup or anything else. Just dunk it,' " he says.

Korver, Williams and ex-player Matt Harpring all consulted him on focusing this week.

Jazz center Kyrylo Fesenko talks with reporters during practice Wednesday. The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City.  (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News) Jazz center Kyrylo Fesenko talks with reporters during practice Wednesday. The Jazz and Denver Nuggets are tied 1-1 in their best-of-seven series in the first round of the NBA Western playoff series. Game 3 is Friday in Salt Lake City. (Stuart Johnson, Deseret News)

Says Korver: "He just has to calm himself down sometimes; you know, Fes gets pretty excited in life. I just told him to try to mellow out a little bit and listen to some calmer music or something, not that European disco stuff that he pounds in his ears all the time."

But nobody is more interested in turning the affable Fesenko into an attack dog than Sloan.

Which raises the question: Has Sloan been harder on him since he became a starter?

Long pause.

Says Fesenko, trying not to laugh: "Next question."

e-mail: rock@desnews.com

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