On his way home from Sunday night's game, Kyrylo Fesenko admitted that he reminisced with his driver Russ Ridge, whose family helps care for Fesenko in Utah, about the rocky road he'd traveled during three seasons with the Jazz.
He arrived as a 7-foot-1, 300-pound second-round draft pick in 2007, joking about getting his driver license and buying a $3,000 car in case he crashed it. Then he struggled to adapt to life in the U.S. as a rookie, with pizza boxes piling up in his apartment.
He returned from Ukraine for summer-league play after his first NBA season with bleached blond hair, then proceeded to go scoreless with seven turnovers in his first game. He spent parts of two seasons in the NBA Development League with the Utah Flash.
At the end of last season, Fesenko drew Jazz coach Jerry Sloan's ire with posts on his Facebook page. He skipped summer league only to leave the Ukrainian national team. Not even a month ago, he was out of favor and out of the rotation.
"It's actually really funny to go through that," Fesenko said Monday. "We were laughing on some stuff. It's really cool. It's nice. I did a lot of job but I have even bigger way to go."
It took losing Mehmet Okur to a ruptured left Achilles tendon in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series against Denver, but the Jazz finally have started to see some return on their nearly $3 million investment in Fesenko these past three years.
"I think it was only a concern that he worked hard," Jazz general manager Kevin O'Connor said, "and to his credit, this year he's done a much better job of that."
By NBA standards, Fesenko's production has exceeded his $870,000 salary. The Jazz are 3-0 since Fesenko stepped in to replace Okur in the starting lineup and the 23-year-old center has made a name for himself in this playoff series.
Not only has Fesenko averaged 5.0 points and 3.0 rebounds, but he's done more than simply buy minutes for the Jazz to rest Carlos Boozer and Paul Millsap, Sloan's stated goal when he turned to Fesenko.
"I think for those three games he kind of change everybody's perspective about him because he didn't play much during the season," Andrei Kirilenko said. "Unfortunately, Memo is injured, but Fes got time and he really showed that he can be valuable for the team."
As far as Fesenko still has to go, Sloan has seen the improvement and development from past seasons to now. "His concentration is better," Sloan said. "He's a little bit more understanding of what we're trying to do rather than think this is a circus."
Fesenko's happy-go-lucky nature has not gone over well with Sloan at times. He left Fesenko on the inactive list for a game at the L.A. Clippers in February after Fesenko failed to take the early bus to Staples Center to work out beforehand.
After Fesenko was sick for two games last month, Sloan was pointedly critical of his lost opportunities this season. There's no telling how much Fesenko would have played had Okur not been injured, but he was given a chance first out of necessity.
"On-the-job training's probably good for him," Sloan said, adding, "We can want him to do something all we want, but he has to be the guy that learns how to do it and stay after it and stay focused on what we're doing."
The timing couldn't be better for Fesenko, who is heading into free agency this summer.
"Definitely everybody is watching; it's the playoffs," Fesenko said. "But I'm trying not to think too much about it."
O'Connor said the possibility of Fesenko driving up his price was his furthest concern: "I hope he goes crazy in the playoffs and we figure out a way to win the fourth game." The Jazz will look to close out Denver in Wednesday's Game 5.
Whether the Jazz want to continue to commit to developing Fesenko remains to be seen, but Sloan compared Fesenko's situation to that of C.J. Miles, who was drafted out of high school and struggled at the start of his career.
The Jazz ended up matching a four-year, $14.8 million offer sheet from Oklahoma City to keep Miles. Sloan stays out of the salary-cap particulars involving his players, but said of Fesenko, "I'm sure the organization would like to have him back."
Fesenko enjoyed a breakthrough in Game 4, when he was forced into the game for the final 5:33 after Millsap fouled out. The Nuggets could have opted to intentionally foul Fesenko but didn't and he converted two free throws with 2:03 left in no small milestone.
He was especially delighted when Denver's Carmelo Anthony mentioned him by name during his postgame news conference, expressing disbelief at what a difference-maker Fesenko had been.
"Another P.R. [mention] for me, that's good," Fesenko joked.
Deron Williams offered more praise Monday, saying, "We're a different team with Fes in there, I think defensively, especially. He can guard those bigger guys a little bit better, push them around, make them tired."
"He just alters a lot of shots that come in the lane," Williams added. "Whether he blocks them or not, they're thinking about Fes in the lane when they're coming down. He just gives us a different look."
Fesenko still is far from a finished product, but his game has grown more refined. Even so, Fesenko cited everything from getting in better shape to staying out of foul trouble to becoming a consistent free-throw shooter as areas for improvement.
There is some satisfaction, though, with what he's done in these playoffs. "Finally, the whole job that I've been doing over the three years start paying off," Fesenko said. "I was waiting for that moment and kind of hope that I'm ready."