Jusuf Nurkic has been fighting for respect, role, and playing time since the moment he entered the NBA as the 16th pick of the 2014 NBA Draft. During stops in Denver and Portland, his bull-like tendencies and uncompromising belief in himself have taken center stage. They continue to do so, according to Ben Golliver of SI.com who authored a Biblical-length biography of the Trail Blazers center today.
Golliver begins by exploring Nurkic’s near-mythical origin story, detailing his family life in native Bosnia. His approach to the United States was cautious, his determination to stick to his roots sure.
Nurkić, the Blazers’ 23-year-old starting center, doesn’t do regrets or apologies. He prefers to trust an unyielding approach forged during his whirlwind journey from anonymous Balkan teen to potential franchise building block.
“In Bosnia, with $1,000 per month you can live a great life. With $10,000 per month, you can be the king,” Nurkić told The Crossover during an extended interview at The Nines Hotel in Portland. “Every time I go home, I cry because nothing changes and everyone I know is stuck in the same position. So, it’s simple: I want to play. I know I should be starting. I know I can be an All-Star. If you ask me, no center in the league is better than me. If I don’t fight for myself, who is going to fight for me?”
The product of driven parents, a regimented system, and a precipitous growth spurt, Nurkic ended up signing with the Cedevita Zagreb of the Euroleague, where he promptly found his role unsatisfactory:
Cedevita provided his first brush with the politics of playing time. Coach Aleksandar Petrović, brother of Croatian legend Dražen Petrović, told Nurkić that he would back-up his veteran teammates. Rather than wait for an opportunity that might never come, Nurkić informed Petrović that he wanted out as soon as possible.
Cedevita loaned their center to another team, took him back when he prospered, and from there he entered the NBA draft. But he found the Cedevita saga repeated with the Nuggets, who favored Nikola Jokic as their starting center. Golliver quotes Nurkic:
“Mike Malone came to me with all this sweet talk, saying that I was going to be fine and that he couldn’t wait to see me back,” Nurkić recalled. “If you like somebody else, play them. But don’t come to my home and say that I’m going to be the starting center and then play someone else.”
That summer Nurkic committed to losing weight and received a promise from Malone.
After assessing his progress, the Nuggets promised Nurkić that he would get the chance to open the 2016-17 season as a starter. On opening night, Nurkić realized there was a catch.
“In the first game, I only played three quarters,” Nurkić said. “I had 23 points and 9 rebounds. I’m playing a good game, we’re winning and I’m not playing in the fourth quarter? From that point, I could kind of see that something was wrong.”
Nurkic exited Denver’s starting lineup mid-season and was famously traded to the Trail Blazers in February in exchange for center Mason Plumlee. His welcome from franchise cornerstone Damian Lillard was clear.
Blazers guard Damian Lillard greeted his new center with a simple message: “We don’t make excuses for anything. We don’t do that s--- here.”
Meanwhile Head Coach Terry Stotts kept an open mind:
“I didn’t have any preconceived notions about who he was,” Stotts said. “I tried to be fair and honest. I knew he was upset not playing, and I understand that. I was really impressed with his skillset, particularly his passing. He showed he was much more than a low-post player.”
But following another leg injury, Stotts’ approach remains measured.
“It was a great honeymoon for 25 games and things went really well for him and us,” Stotts said. “We can’t take that for granted. He helped us win games and that’s going to be the bottom line going forward. It’s not about numbers.”
Golliver’s article contains far, far more than can be chronicled here, up to and including a blow-by blow of Nurkic’s current struggles (“His effort level has regressed compared to last spring’s highwater marks—no great surprise—with foul trouble often a contributing factor.”) and the recent fourth-quarter fracas in Portland’s recent game against the Brooklyn Nets.
The piece is a must-read for all Nurkic or Trail Blazers fans.