For the first three years of his NBA career with the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic demonstrated an offensive game typical of bulky seven-footers. His portfolio included backing down opponents on the block and using drop-steps to gain critical space in the paint. This style of play helped a sputtering, center-free offense expand beyond starting guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, propelling Portland to the playoffs in 2016-17.
With the dawn of the 2017-18 season, Portland’s offense has developed a new wrinkle centering on their big man. Through 13 games, Nurkic is taking (and making) more mid-range shots than ever before. It’s uncharted territory for him, but it could pay big dividends for the team down the road.
A Natural Bruiser Evolves
At 7-feet, 280 pounds, Nurkic’s home in the paint is secure. He puts physicality and footwork to use, getting open around the bucket. Since entering the NBA, almost 53 percent of his field goal attempts have come within three feet of the rim. Another 33.8 percent have come from 3-10 feet. That totals to a striking 86.8 percent of all his two-point attempts within 10 feet of the hoop.
Nurkic’s tendency to operate in (or near) the paint is on every team’s scouting report. Opponents crowd the paint from either side, aiming to make Nurk’s job more difficult. This season we’ve seen Nurkic respond by moving a little beyond the friendly confines of the painted area and finding success.
Making More Out of the Mid-Range
13 games into the 2017-18 season, Nurk is attempting the lowest percentage of shots from 0-3 feet (42.4 percent) and 3-10 feet (27.7 percent) in his career. His attempts from 10-16 feet (9.6 percent) and 16-22 feet (18.1 percent) are correspondingly higher. He’s not just taking more mid-range shots, he’s making more, too.
On attempts from 10-16 feet, Nurkic is shooting 35.3 percent. For comparison, he shot exactly zero percent from that area during his 20 games with Portland last year. He’s also shooting a career-high 50 percent on two-point attempts beyond 16 feet.
Here’s a heat map of Nurkic’s shots this season, courtesy of NBAsavant.com:
Notice the lack of success in the mid-range on last season’s map:
The Benefits of Extended Range
Banging inside on every offensive play takes energy and causes stress. Reducing interior attempts eases strain on Nurkic’s body and stamina. This is welcome for a player who sustained a leg fracture last year and a torn left patellar tendon with the Nuggets. Letting Nurkic operate out of the mid-range preserves energy for late-game situations. The difference between fully-active and worn-out Nurk is profound, particularly when the Blazers need him as a defensive anchor.
Nurkic developing into a real mid-range threat would force defenses to honor him, opening up the lane for guard drives or dunks off of now-credible pump-fakes. A consistent shot could prove lethal in screen scenarios as well. If he can get himself to a respectable level in the mid-range, pick-and-pops—like we see with Meyers Leonard from three—become a new wrinkle in already intricate Portland offense. Nurk would no longer be just a threat as the roller in pick-and-rolls either, providing a dependable outlet if defenses collapse on a driving Blazer.
Nurkic can also put adept passing to use from the elbows. Sometimes he’ll try wrap-around interior passes to backdoor cutters, only to see them swallowed by a wall of defenders. A spread out floor and better angles would convert turnovers into dimes.
Looking to The Future
Caleb Swanigan has recently joined Nurkic in the frontcourt. The rookie is known for his own mid-range game and passing potential. If the pairing lasts, an offense featuring two huge men scoring from the paint and mid-range, coupled with ball-movement, cutting, and rebounding dominance, would present a dangerous matchup for any opponent.
All shooting percentages courtesy of Basketball-Reference’s shooting location data.