TREVISO, ITALY—As a shot-blocker, Michael Fusek’s timing is impeccable, impressive, perhaps even NBA-caliber. During his 2016-17 campaign with Spirou Charleroi in Belgium’s top league, Fusek swatted away 9.7 percent of opponents’ shots while he was on the floor. By comparison, Utah’s Rudy Gobert led the NBA with a block percentage of 6.4 percent this past season.
But as a prospect who hopes to someday compete on the same courts as Gobert, Fusek’s timing is off. If he were 18 or 19 years old, the NBA might salivate over the potential packed into his spindly frame, the fluidity with which he runs at 7’4”, the touch with which he tosses hook shots through twine.
But at 22—closer in age to a second-round senior than any of the college freshmen set to dominate the top of the 2017 NBA draft—Fusek is more project than prodigy, a gamble rather than a guarantee.
“The potential is smaller with every month,” says Kamil Rerabek, one of Fusek’s agents, “because the time is running and you cannot stop the age.”
Still, there was no missing him at Adidas Eurocamp last weekend. Last year, he was named the top center at the annual showcase in Treviso, Italy. This year, he was tabbed as the top defender while flashing a knack for passing that had a former NBA coach in attendance calling him “Magic Mike.”
“You cannot coach height,” one Western Conference scout based in Europe told Bleacher Report.
Fusek was already close to 6’9” at the age of 13 when Rerabek first found him in Gajary, a village of 3,000 people about a half-hour outside of the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. Fusek towered over his teammates, who in turn could have snapped his 130-pound body like a twig.
“You cannot do anything,” Rerabek says. “In that time, he cannot practice like the kids because his body was so different.”
Nor did young Michael have the mentality to make the most of his unusual physical gifts. He slacked off studying formulas in school and disregarded hook-shot lessons from his mother, a former professional basketball player in Slovakia. At the time, he didn’t see the value in either education.
“I was young and stupid,” Fusek admits now.
But he was tall enough and fluid enough on the court to merit an investment. Rerabek uprooted Fusek from Slovakia and brought him to the mining town of Ostrava in the Czech Republic, the same town that produced former Washington Wizards lottery pick Jan Vesely. During his two years there, Fusek was exposed to the power of basketball as a window to the world.
“I saw there was much more than just Slovakia,” Fusek says.
General managers across Europe were intrigued by the tree-sized Fusek, but nearly all lacked the courage to sign a teenager who couldn’t hold his ground against sturdier opponents.
“If you were a sane general manager, you would never bring in a kid that weighs 84 kilos [185 pounds] and measures 220 centimeters [about 7’2”],” says says Phillip Parun, another of Fusek’s agents
But Parun eventually found one: Jacque Stas, in Charleroi, Belgium. Fusek left the forests and castles of Central Europe for the Low Countries in the Northwest of the continent to pursue his hoop dreams.
For the first time in his life, Fusek, at 18, was living alone, in a country where his Slovakian was as foreign to those around him as their French and English were to him. He put in the work, pulling double duty with Charleroi’s junior and senior squads.
The team fed him shakes and bars packed with protein while he was on its premises, but his weight barely budged. Parun drove overnight from Prague to Charleroi to find out why. He arrived at Fusek’s apartment at two in the morning, where he rustled Michael from his slumber.
“What’s for dinner, Mike?” Parun asked.
He opened Fusek’s refrigerator. It was empty, save for a hard-boiled egg and some bread.
“So I threw the egg at him,” Parun recalls. “I said, ‘Listen, the GM put a lot of faith in you. We’re putting a lot of faith in you. Your parents have two jobs and you’re feeding yourself toast.’”
“It doesn’t work that way,” Parun told him. “If you don’t pack on some weight, some muscle, you’re never going to get through the first barrier to play basketball.”
Fusek needed more than just a stern talking-to. He had to learn how to feed himself, how to count calories, how to make a basic meal. At that point, even scrambled eggs were beyond his purview.
So was the work required to move on from Belgium, let alone find a home in the NBA. He would practice plenty in Charleroi, but needed to be prodded to put in time outside of team activities. Parun would call Fusek at six in the morning, just as he was arriving at his office in Prague, to get him going.
“Listen, only a prostitute makes money staying in bed,” Parun would tease. “It’s time to get to work.”
Parun tried something radical with Fusek. He pulled Michael out of Charleroi, where the pro club would continue to pay him, and shipped him to Washington, D.C., where he spent the winter and spring of 2015 studying the ins and outs of nutrition and physical training in the home of Blair O’Donovan, one of the lead trainers at Healthy Baller in Rockville, Maryland. The next year, Parun sent Fusek back to the United States for the same crash course.
The first time, he came back 28 pounds heavier. The second time, he added another 14 pounds to his frame.
This year, Fusek hired an American coach, Trevor Bing, to live with him—and stay on top of him—in Charleroi for two months.
“When I was doing something other than watching basketball, he was on me,” Fusek says. “But I think it was good.”
They would watch game film together, picking apart Fusek’s mistakes and studying the likes of Gobert, Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams and the Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan—all much bigger and stronger than Michael, but with skill sets he could emulate.
When the playoffs came, and Ivan Radenovic, Charleroi’s starting center, went down with an injury, Fusek was ready to contribute. He started twice during his team’s first-round, best-of-three series against Aalstar. Charleroi won both of those games to advance, including one in which Fusek tallied his first double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds, three blocks) as a pro in Belgium.
As much promise as Fusek showed, it wasn’t enough to keep him in Charleroi’s rotation. He played just 27 minutes during the team’s three-game sweep at the hands of Oostende in the second round.
The Michael Fusek of today is a far cry from the one who first arrived in Belgium three years ago. That empty fridge of his is now “beaming with vegetables, beaming with fruit, beaming with supplements,” Parun says. That shy kid who once hid from strangers behind his mother now boasts about his height and length dwarfing Dwight Howard’s and hopes to revive Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook in the NBA. That teenager who didn’t know how to eat and didn’t care for school now studies statistics, fixes computers and lectures his friends and associates on proper nutrition. That 20-something who didn’t know how to work now spends his holidays in the gym.
Fusek still has a long way to go before he reaches the NBA. His frame, while more filled out, isn’t quite ready for the physicality of the league’s frontcourts. He doesn’t yet have a reliable go-to move—much less a counter—to employ when the ball hits his hands in any spot other than right above the rim.
None of this is a mystery to Michael anymore. If knowing is half the battle, Fusek is ready to fight.
“I need a couple more kilos up and also some skills for sure,” Fusek says. “Two-to-three years, I can be there.”
Even if Fusek bulks up and hones his offensive game, there will be those around the Association who wonder whether a center of his stature can survive in a league that’s downsizing by the day.
“Look at what Steve Kerr did in the Finals,” one league source said.
Nonetheless, there is legitimate interest in Fusek within the NBA. He met with one team at Eurocamp and is scheduled to work out stateside for another before this year’s draft.
With any luck, he’ll hear his name called at some point in the second round and continue his basketball odyssey in the Gatorade League. There, he will be less an oddity than the object of NBA-caliber trainers and nutritionists looking to turn him into a rotation player.
It could be, then, that Fusek’s timing is finally spot-on.