How Jusuf Nurkic Has Revitalized the Trail Blazers’ Present and Future

Barely a half season removed from emerging as basketball’s newest upstart, the Portland Trail Blazers were suddenly at a standstill. A summer spent rewarding role players with big-money deals on the free agent market had failed to sustain the momentum that Terry Stotts’ team established with an eye-opening 2015–16 campaign. Were those darling Blazers a one-year wonder? The first four months of this season certainly supported that depressing affirmative.

Portland was 23–31 on February 12, lagging close behind the Denver Nuggets in the surprisingly substandard race for eighth place in the Western Conference. Making matters worse, the Blazers had little to show for the hundreds of millions Neil Olshey committed to Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Mo Harkless, and Meyers Leonard in July. This team wasn’t only playing poorly, but enthusiasm about its long-term prospects for playoff success had all but completely evaporated. Capped-out rosters with scant possibility for home-grown improvement can only climb so high.

It was always naive to assume that Olshey, one of the league’s most effective wheelers and dealers, saw Portland as a finished product after its summer spending spree. Retaining talent now, of course, is the only foolproof means to getting something out of it later — via on-court impact or an eventual trade. The Blazers might have been cash-strapped, but future flexibility isn’t solely represented by cap space, especially for a franchise that fully understands its invariable place in the free-agency pecking order.

Still, it was unclear as the All-Star break approached how Portland would eventually jumpstart its way to longstanding legitimacy — and the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic didn’t do much at first to alter that perception.

That such a reality could ever come to pass seemed impossible two years ago, as the Bosnian Beast established himself as a foundation of the Denver Nuggets’ rebuilding process. But injuries can’t be anticipated, and neither can the meteoric rise of an anonymous second-round pick. Michael Malone’s decision to pair Nurkic alongside Nikola Jokîc at the season’s outset made sense; talent wins, and employing an all-Eastern Europe frontcourt ensured Denver’s most gifted players would see the floor. Initially prioritizing Nurkic over Jokîc once their partnership failed, though, was always an indefensible choice by Malone.

Weeks later, the Nuggets’ gaffe became the Blazers’ gain.

Conventional wisdom was that Portland might take a step back for the season’s remainder after replacing an entrenched starter with a 22 year old who didn’t get off the bench in two of his last three games with his former team. It’s not like Mason Plumlee isn’t a helpful player, either. Many were skeptical of the Blazers’ post-trade playoff hopes specifically because Nurkic would struggle adjusting to Plumlee’s place in Stotts’ intricate offensive system, a notion that reminds just how forgotten the former All-Rookie selection was during his final weeks in the Mile High City.

To be fair, Nurkic certainly isn’t Plumlee’s equal as an athlete, which might be the biggest reason why it was hard to imagine him helping Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum initiate offense from the perimeter. There aren’t that many 7’0, 280-pounders who are comfortable with the ball in space. Most playmaking bigs look a lot more like Plumlee than Nurkic.

But Portland wasn’t fooled by its new center’s old-school physical profile. “He is a skill player, and he’s only 22, with a lot of room to improve,” Stotts told the Associated Press two days before Nurkic made his Blazers debut.

Less than a month later, Nurkic was already showing team-first proficiency in the Portland offense that put concerns over Plumlee’s absence to rest.

The Blazers love to use Nurkic as a passer from the post.
His chemistry with CJ McCollum came easy.
This is the type of pass Nurkic loves to make – for better or worse.

But Nurkic isn’t only hitting cutters and running basic dribble hand-offs within the Portland offense. He’s been finding teammates through tight passing windows during unscripted situations, too.

These two make basketball harmony.
Nurkic is always looking for creases in the defense.

Nurkic isn’t quite an all-court playmaker like his former Nuggets teammate. There are limits to his ability in that regard that don’t apply to Jokic and other virtuosos that often manifest themselves in reckless, avoidable turnovers — both as a passer and finisher. Nurkic has committed at least three giveaways in 10 of his 12 games with Portland, and is one of just seven bigs in the league whose turnover rate sits above 19 percent.

Possession-killing mistakes like these take place on a nightly basis, often two or three times over.

Regardless, the Blazers will live with them — for now, at least — because of the layered positives Nurkic otherwise brings to the table. He’s averaged 4.8 screen assists per game since heading northwest, the league’s fifth-highest mark over that timeframe, one owed to his massive frame and shrewd sense of timing and angles as much as the shot-making exploits of Lillard and McCollum. Nurkic has soft hands and is nimble in closed quarters, attributes that make him a threatening pick-and-roll scorer despite a lack of vertical explosion and perimeter shooting range.

Note the time and score in that last clip, by the way. Portland needs every win it can get to catch surging Denver over the season’s final month of play, yet Stotts felt confident putting the ball in his new player’s hands coming out of a timeout with a game on the line. Why? Nurkic not only has the talent and tenacity necessary to thrive under competitive duress, but also shares chemistry with his teammates that belies his brief time playing for the Blazers — realities reflected by the team’s improved post-All-Star play.

Portland’s net rating with Nurkic in the fold is basically break even, a 2.1 point uptick on its pre-trade number and one that includes Tuesday’s blowout loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Blazers are scoring at a top-10 rate and boast a scorching true shooting percentage of 58.3 over that timeframe, efficiency increases that fly in the face of a higher turnover rate and significantly fewer potential assists per game. A possible means of that juxtaposition: the integration of a big man whose dynamism both lends itself to errors and creates more opportunities for his team’s star backcourt.

Nurkic presents a similar give and take on the other side of the ball, which is ultimately where his influence could loom largest to Portland. Offense was never going to be an issue for a team led by Lillard and McCollum; defense is what some maintain will be that star tandem’s long-term undoing, and Plumlee definitely wasn’t the back-line defender who would help prevent that prediction from coming true. He’s still a substandard paint protector despite livewire run-jump athleticism. At 27 years old, it stands to reason Plumlee won’t ever grow into the defender an inevitably limited team like the Blazers requires.

That’s not to say Nurkic will, either. He’s doesn’t have the lift or burst to be an elite rim-protector, and must negate a career-long penchant for unnecessary fouls before coming anywhere close to his defensive peak. Nurkic made strides in the latter department before being traded, but is averaging 4.8 fouls per 36 minutes with Portland, an unsustainable amount for a full-time starter — especially one so important to his team’s defensive performance.

Nurkic’s 106.o post-trade defensive rating is the second-lowest among Blazers regulars, and his off-court defensive rating of 114.3 is a team-high. Opponents are shooting 46.3 percent at the rim against him over the past few weeks, a top-10 mark indicative of his innate defensive feel. The Blazers’ ultra-conservative scheme calls for the helper to drop on ball screens while the primary defender recovers over the top. Nurkic most often manages the delicate balancing act of guarding both roller and ball handler well.

Forcing DeMarcus Cousins into a contested, off-hand finish isn’t a total loss. Process over results, the trope goes. And considering other bucket-stopping plays Nurkic has made in Portland, that’s a definitely shot with which Stotts can live.

Make no mistake: All-Defensive honors aren’t in Nurkic’s future. Slithery guards go right by him after turning the corner around a pick if he’s an inch out of position; he’s overanxious in the post; and he’s average on the defensive glass at best.

Nevertheless, Nurkic clearly has the tools — including crazy quick hands for a player his size — to be a plus defender. How many centers in the league can make a multi-effort play like this?

Think the Blazers are happy they nabbed Nurkic at the deadline instead of Jahlil Okafor?

That’s what Nurkic’s career with the Blazers might come down to more than anything else: engagement. He wasn’t always in shape or fully committed in Denver, problems that could be attributed to playing for a team that already had a superior center in-house. More telling of any potential attitude issues going forward is that a first-round pick followed him to Portland. The league as a whole, evidently, wasn’t very high on Nurkic leading up to the trade deadline.

Honeymoon phase notwithstanding, it’s safe to assume competing teams are regretting that indifference now. Nurkic won’t ever be a superstar. The Blazers have been surprisingly reluctant to dump him the ball on the block thus far, he’s yet to make real progress as a mid-range shooter, and length bothers him in the paint. Open layups can be had by opponents if he’s a split second late reacting defensively. Nurkic’s ceiling, basically, is certainly lower than his 28-point, 20-rebound, 8-assist, 6-block performance against the Philadelphia 76ers last week suggests.

Portland is 7–5 with him in the lineup and playing better on both sides of the ball, though, and Olshey is free of the obligation to overpay Plumlee in free agency this summer. Don’t forget about that extra first-rounder, either. Bottom line: Nurkic’s acquisition is already paying dividends, and is liable to continue doing so for years down the road. Not bad for a guy who couldn’t get on the floor a month ago.

“Nurkic fever,” Stotts recently told The Oregonian. “Why not?”

*Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com/stats and basketball-reference.com