The education of Maryland freshman Michal Cekovsky is a daily grind that includes five hours of learning English in the classroom and two more hours with a tutor in study hall at night.
“It’s a lot,” Cekovsky said with a laugh at Tuesday's team media day.
In between, there is basketball.
While the 20-year-old freshman from Slovakia is far ahead of where former Terps star Alex Len was at a similar stage in terms of his comfort level with a new language and new surroundings, Cekovsky is much like Len in trying to figure out how to keep pace with the speed and physicality of the American game.
“It’s a little bit faster than what I played in Europe. Game is really like up and down, up and down. That’s the hardest thing on the court,” Cekovsky said. "I’m still playing my game."
Asked about his goals for his first year at Maryland, Cekovsky said he wants to put weight on and get stronger.
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon is trying not to have too many comparisons made between Cekovsky and Len. The one advantage Cekovsky has is that he will be eligible to start the season with the team, while Len sat out the first 10 games after being sanctioned by the NCAA for his previous relationship with a pro team in his native Ukraine.
“They’re both similar in that their confidence level is a little shaky with their English, but Checko is way ahead of Alex,” Turgeon said Tuesday. “Alex said, ‘Gatorade and chicken wings' when he got here. Checko, you can have a conversation with. So he’s much further along.
“Alex was 18, Checko is 20. It’s a big difference. Physically, Alex was 218 [pounds], Checko is 237. They’re not the same player. Checko has a chance to be great. You knew the first time you worked Alex out he was going to be a lottery pick.”
In his first interview with the local media, Cekovsky called learning the language “my big problem” but seemed to be comfortable talking to reporters in a small group. Cekovsky said he tries to communicate with his parents back home “every day” but the six-hour time difference makes it difficult.
“I have school in the morning and I finish at 3, and my mom is going to the bed when I finish school so I don’t have much time to talk with her,” Cekovsky said. “It’s a little bit tough, but I feel like everyone in Maryland basketball is trying to help me. This is my second family now.”
Cekovsky, who played two years at a high school in Serbia before spending last year at a basketball academy in the Canary Islands, said that after "being alone for three years" the support system he has at Maryland makes it "a little bit easier, but it's still tough [being in a foreign country]."
Further along from an offensive standpoint than Len was as a freshman, Cekovsky will need to improve defensively to join sophomore center Damonte Dodd as a rim-protector, and he'll need to prove he can get out and guard on the perimeter when the Terps take on more mobile big men.
Cekovsky showed some potential when he blocked a dunk attempt by Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter Jr., a 6-10, 250-pound power forward, during Friday's 10-minute Maryland Madness scrimmage.
“Alex was more of a big-time defender, that’s really where he made his mark here – defense and rebounding,” Turgeon said of Len. “Checko’s coming in that area, but he’s nowhere near where Alex was in terms of blocking shot. But he can do other things a little bit better.”
Cekovsky said he patterned his game more off Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki, but that Len’s growth in the two seasons he spent at Maryland was the “big reason” he chose to give up a chance to play professionally in Europe after being recruited by Terps assistant Dustin Clark.
“I see how hard he worked,” Cekovsky said of Len, who was picked fifth overall by the Phoenix Suns after his sophomore season. “How he was when he came here, after two years, there was a big difference. I say to myself, ‘I want to do this.’”
Speaking of Nowitzki, Cekovsky said, “I love how he play. He can score from 3-point, he can score in the paint, everywhere. I want to be kind of player like him.”
An NBA general manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said after Cekovsky signed with Maryland that he would not be surprised to see Cekovky get to the NBA as quickly as Len. “He might not be as good defensively, but he’s way ahead of where Len was in terms of offense,” the GM said.
Those who have seen Cekovsky play since he joined the team for summer workouts in June have marveled over his feel for the game, for his ability to put the ball on the floor and for his ability to pass out of double-teams and, most impressively, off the dribble.
“I think it’s a big part of my game,” Cekovsky said. “When I get ball in low post, I try to find someone who can score, like at the 3-point line, and we’ve got really good shooters, so it’s really good for me.”
Like Len, Cekovsky is getting more comfortable with the language by watching American movies with English subtitles.
“I try to learn grammar and the accents, I think it’s really helpful,” he said.
His favorite movie?
“Inception,” he said.