By Brady Klopfer
A quick glance at the centers in the NBA tells you everything you need to know about the trajectory of the league. Three-pointers have become the norm, even for the giants of the game. Triple-threats, jab steps and crossovers are nearly as prevalent for 5s as for wings.
Yet, as the league evolves and moves in one direction, a few players firmly grip the hands of the clock and attempt to rewind time. Enter Jusuf Nurkic, a throwback to the halcyon days of big men, when shoulders and butts were more valuable tools than fingertips; when weight was a more relevant measurement than vertical jumps were.
The league is changing, but Nurkic wants no part of it. The question isn’t whether the game will grow around him; the question is whether he can still carve a path towards efficacy.
Nurkic will only be 23 when the season starts, but he’ll already be playing his fourth year in the league. And as he enters the final year of his initial contract, it’s time for Nurkic and the Portland Trail Blazers to see how much modern talent exists in his 280-pound frame. That there is talent cannot be debated – there’s a reason the Denver Nuggets opened the season starting Nurkic alongside budding superstar Nikola Jokic, and, when the tandem fizzled, sent Jokic to the bench first.
Despite that talent, Denver essentially paid to get rid of Nurkic, shopping him and a first-round pick to the Pacific Northwest in exchange for a second-rounder and Mason Plumlee, a free agent they’ve shown no interest in re-signing. And yet there are myriad reasons for Portland to be enthused about their shiny new toy as they enter the 2017-18 season. Nurkic played only 20 games with the Blazers to finish out the year, but the returns were exhilarating for Portland: 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.3 steals per game, despite playing fewer than 30 minutes a night.
Portland’s personnel and Terry Stotts’ usage helped extract the talent Nurkic always had. With the Blazers’ fiery backcourt being far more active than Denver’s spot-up shooters, Nurkic suddenly had cutters galore, and he took advantage: after averaging 3.6 assists per 100 possessions to start the year, the Bosnian Beast averaged 5.4 once he switched pastures. Nurkic and CJ McCollum ran two-man games with aplomb over the final weeks, building a rapport Portland fans should be giddy to see in action come October.
Unlike his former teammate Jokic, Nurkic is not a playmaker. He’s not comfortable holding the ball for long stretches of time, directing the offense, or initiating sets. But while he won’t create, he is a stellar passer; give him the ball in the post, at the elbow, or on the baseline, then cut back door, and he’ll find you. For all of McCollum and Damian Lillard’s isolation prowess, both players move off ball relentlessly, and the pairing highlighted Nurkic’s passing precision and creativity.
It’s not just the passing Nurkic put on display with his active new backcourt. Nurkic used his semi-truck shoulders and tree trunk legs as the weapons they are in Portland, tirelessly setting screens to free his teammates. In Denver last year, Nurkic averaged all of 1.9 screen assists per game. Fast forward to his time in Portland and he had a whopping 5.2 screen assists per game, a mark that ranked fourth in the league over that period.
While Nurkic, Stotts and the Portland backcourt deserve credit for these improvements, there’s another potential cause, and one that’s less laudable: effort. Dating back to his pre-NBA days, Nurkic has a reputation for sulking and letting off the accelerator when things aren’t going his way. His performances were notably worse when in a reserve role, and once Denver assessed Jokic as their future, Nurkic did the impossible for a man of his stature: he became invisible.
With a fresh start in Portland, Nurkic’s energy and effort were maxed out and the results were spectacular. It’s fair, however, to question whether that effort will remain over the full course of a season, with all the ebbs and flows involved.
Of course, there are other warning signs as well: Nurkic’s pick and roll defense is atrocious, and his on-ball, post-up D is disappointing for a man his size. Yet despite that, Nurkic led the Blazers in defensive rating by a large margin, though 20-game sample size sirens are blaring as those words are typed. His free throw percentage is poor and has diminished every year in the league.
Yet Nurkic has also shown an ability to adjust, adapt and grow with great speed. His true-shooting percentage leaped from .474 his first two years, to .528 last year (including .545 in Portland). His ability to convert in the pick and roll has grown to a strength and his defensive awareness is markedly improved.
As he enters the year, it’s hard not to wonder what player Jusuf Nurkic is. Is he the ultra-talented, physically-imposing specimen with a bevy of post moves and passes, elite screens, and quality defense, willing to do the nitty-gritty work that doesn’t show up on SportsCenter highlights? Or is he the defensive liability who only exerts energy when it’s convenient and has a measly 20-game sample size of being an above average player?
We’ll find out this year. The center position may be evolving, but one beast from Bosnia is hell bent on turning back the clock and excelling the old-fashioned way.