Jusuf Nurkic doesn’t make sense. He has so many attributes that seemingly can’t fit into the same player. I don’t know what to make of him—it’s like someone took one of Russell Westbrook’s outfits and made it into a basketball player.
“Alright, that cut-up shirt is kinda cool, and I dig the high tops, but how did those floral-patterned, spandex bell bottoms make it into the ensemble?”
That’s how I felt while watching film of Nurkic. A lot of his play is intriguing but there are certain things that seem so absurdly out of place. If nothing else, he’s a player full of contradictions.
The Man Has Dancer’s Feet in Lead Shoes
Right off the bat, Nurkic is a very large man. Perhaps not as massive as his mythical father, but he’s certainly one of the largest humans in the NBA. Which is what makes his overall quickness seem impossible. You look at his top half and think “Young Robin Lopez” but then you look down and his feet are moving more like Tristan Thompson’s.
This is especially evident when he’s corralling the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. Denver was using a conservative scheme where the bigs dropped back in all the games I watched, but Nurkic had no problem keeping the ball in front. He even has the quickness to pick up a guard dribbling across the key and recover to rolling big man on the pass. Not very many bigs can cover both the ball and the big on the same play. Quite frankly, he gets to places he shouldn’t be able to at his size.
You watch him move, salivating over all the fast-twitch muscles in his legs, realize that’s a little creepy, and then get prepared to jump out of your seat as he shoots down the lane for a dunk. Only, Nurkic barely gets off the ground. All you’re left feeling is confused and a little disappointed. And not in a “the NBA is full of crazy athletes and my perspective is so skewed that I scoff at any vertical less than 40 inches” kind of way. It’s more like an “Uhh...I’m actually pretty sure I can jump higher than that.” I was so curious that I checked. Sure enough, my max vertical in high school was a few inches bigger than the 23 inches he recorded at the 2013 Eurocamp. (Yes, he’s quite literally twice my size, but c’mon and just let me have this one).
His lack of vertical explosiveness creates some real problems. Often, those lanes to the basket close and players have to finish over defenders. Nurkic struggles with that. If he can get to the rim cleanly or find an angle around a defender he’s golden. If all that space evaporates and he’s sandwiched between players, he’s forced to flip the ball up from a weird angle.
Those lead feet go a long way towards explaining his low shooting percentages. For all Nurkic’s physical gifts, he struggles to finish near the rim, shooting 56 percent within three feet over his career. That’s pretty pedestrian for a man of his size and it’s really his only path to becoming an efficient offensive player. He doesn’t have much of a jumper so any significant impact will have to come inside.
A Bruiser Who Keeps Losing Physical Battles
Nurkic loves to hit people. On several offensive rebounds, he hardly looked at the rim when I watched his game tape. He just eyed his defender, lowered his shoulder, and tried to push his way to the rim. Usually, he got close, turning a simple box-out into a 50-50 ball. This is also what exceptional rebounders like DeAndre Jordan and Tristan Thompson like to do. The difference is, those two guys usually win those 50-50 balls. Nurkic, nailed to the ground, doesn’t.
That’s not to say he’s a bad rebounder. Jusuf still ranks in the top 30, but his propensity to go straight to the bull rush doesn’t maximize his opportunities. Given his quickness, he’d be much better served to try and beat guys to a spot and control space, more like Ed Davis or Kevin Love. And that’s before factoring in all of the cheap fouls he picks up going for offensive boards.
Being physical but not effective would also be an apt description of Nurkic’s screen setting. When learning how to screen, wanting to get in people’s way is perhaps the first step, but it’s certainly not the last. Nurkic doesn’t grasp the nuances, timing, or positioning necessary to get his teammates open. That might be expected given his age and how late he started playing basketball. What’s not expected is how often he whiffs on screens completely. Multiple times Nurkic was so far out of position that he never made contact. Some of that falls on Denver’s inexperienced guards but it’s strange that someone so big and so physical would struggle to set a basic screen.
Veteran Feel, Rookie Pace
For all of Nurkic’s raw energy, he has a surprising feel for several parts of the game. His happy feet aren’t zero or one hundred like most rookies. He knows how to manage space on both the offensive and defensive end.
Pick-and-rolls require the big to make himself available. Sometimes that means diving to the rim as fast as humanly possible to catch defenders out of position. Sometimes that means sliding into a passing lane. Sometimes that means waiting for the guard to dribble away from the action to open up more space. Nurkic reads most of these situations. He’s in the 73rd percentile in Points per Possession as the Roll Man, according to stats.NBA.com. For perspective, Mason Plumlee was in the 23rd percentile. That’s a little overstated because it doesn’t take into account all the brilliant passes Plumlee made out to the perimeter but it’s striking nonetheless.
On defense, knowing where to be is often more important than physical gifts. Nurkic makes a number of rookie mistakes and can struggle to keep track of everything. However, when the play is right in front of him, he positions himself well. Multiple times, Nurkic navigated the weird space between helping corral the ball handler in a pick-and-roll and defending the roll man. He avoided committing to either player, prevented the guard from getting to the rim, and deflected or stole the pass. This ability to manage multiple responsibilities is something Portland has been sorely missing since the departure of LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez.
Nurkic seems to be a natural pick-and-roll defender, although his numbers have been inconsistent with small sample sizes. Last year, he ranked in the 75th percentile defending the Roll Man. This year, he’s down to the 23rd percentile. That’s a major drop, but because of injuries and a lack of playing time, he defended less than 30 possessions both years. Play type data wasn’t published for his rookie season so we don’t have much to go on statistically.
But the stats do support his reputation as a plus rim protector. Nylon Calculus used to estimate how many points a player saved by the contesting shots at the rim. Nurkic ranked 14th in Adjusted Points Saved per 36 minutes, bumping elbows with Robin Lopez. He might not be elite but that was an incredible start for a rookie.
He also knows how to get into a player’s space when they go up for a shot. This can often be more effective than contesting with length from a distance. Unless someone has pterodactyl arms like Anthony Davis or Rudy Gobert, it can be fairly easy to ignore a hand. It’s much harder to focus when a 280-pound man is crowding you.
That increases the risk of fouling but Nurkic seems fairly adept at avoiding shooting fouls. He cut his foul rate by about half since his rookie year and does well to maintain verticality. He doesn’t jump or block many shots but his mere presence seems to deter people from attacking the basket. When you’re that big, you don’t really need to jump to contest a shot.
Most of his fouls were silly in the games I watched. He’ll reach when he doesn’t need to or bull rush for a rebound he has no chance of getting. If he can cut these down, he should have no problem staying on the court.
That assumes he doesn’t get disqualified with purely offensive fouls. You’d think that would be a safe assumption but not so much with the Bosnian Beast. Once he has the ball in his hands, all that timing and feel flies out the window. He’ll rush shots from odd angles. He’ll try to thread passes that aren’t there. Too often he barrels ahead rather than waiting a beat for defenders to clear. All of this leads to lots of offensive fouls and unforced mistakes.
A Scorer at Heart, An Enforcer By Training
This entire profile screams “Blue Collar Big Man” who does the dirty work that’s so important to winning. These types of players rarely get the ball, still play hard on defense, and generally sacrifice their own stats for the good of the team.
But Nurkic seems to love his back-to-the-basket game. Over 30 percent of his possessions have been post-ups the last two seasons, an absolutely huge number. For reference, Nurkic is one of three players posting up more frequently than LaMarcus Aldridge this season. That’s a major problem because he’s currently scoring in the 13th percentile in an already inefficient category.
Nurkic can’t figure out what speed he wants to go, undermining his post-up game. He’ll either go too fast and rush his shot or go too slow and let the defense get set. Either way, the result is typically either an out of control layup, a steal, or an offensive foul. To be fair, he’s shown flashes and his back-to-the-basket game was supposed to be a strength coming into the league. When he can get all the way to the rim or spin for a quick drop-step he looks impressive. But against NBA-caliber centers who are of similar size, those opportunities are few and far between.
Cutting down on these plays will be one of the first things to look for in the Grand Jusuf Experiment of 2017. His Usage Percentage of 22.5 puts him in the top 15 for centers this year and, frankly, it’s been a disaster. On/Off numbers are noisy but Nurkic’s are pretty eye popping. Denver goes from being the second best offense in the league to dead-last when Jusuf plays. In the modern NBA, it’s simply impossible to eat up valuable possessions with low-efficiency post-ups.
The Contradictions Fit
A man of many contradictions may have found a home on a roster with so many conflicting pieces. Luckily for both sides, a lot of those rough edges fit together.
For Nurkic, he needs more space in the lane so he won’t be forced to finish over defenders. He also needs to focus on the little things and put his post-up game on the back burner. Some All-Star guards that could get him easy shots wouldn’t hurt either. The Blazers can offer all those things.
Portland needs a large, physical presence near the rim. They also need a center who can contain ball handlers in space while their guards struggle to get over screens. On offense, they want someone who can thrive in the pick-and-roll and score down low if defenses try to switch. But they don’t want someone who’s going to pout if they don’t get enough post touches. If that sounds like a more agile, more dynamic Robin Lopez, I’d say you’re right. That’s exactly what Nurkic could be.
Right now, Jusuf seems more like Sideshow Bob. He’s shown flashes of brilliance but many of his decisions appear selfish and too much of his game feels like walking into a rake. There’s a lot contact, but Nurkic is the one that ends up disoriented. Accepting and thriving in a role that’s not the focal point of an offense will be the key to his success in Portland.
Whether he makes that leap or not is anyone’s guess but it’s important to note the numerous red flags. Nurkic took the league by storm but he hasn’t improved much since then. His fouls are down and his shooting has improved slightly but he’s still terrible from the post and largely took a step back this year. The defensive potential will always be there but he hasn’t had a significant impact on that end of the floor over the last two seasons. He also suffered a serious knee injury, took twice as long to come back as predicted, and struggled to get back in shape. This season, he got outplayed, pouted his way onto the bench, and then checked out completely.
In probability, there’s a concept called “expected value.” Essentially, you weigh a certain outcome by multiplying its value with the probability of it coming true. If Nurkic reaches his ceiling, his value will be high, especially for this team. He has an exceptional mixture of abilities that fits with the rest of the roster. However, given his baggage and the lack of progress over the past three years, the probability of that outcome is low. As a result, the expected value of this acquisition has to be low as well. The Nurkic pick-up is the definition of a flyer.
But that’s the beauty of sports. We all root for things that have a very low chance of happening, just to be there for those moments when it all comes together. Here’s hoping the Bosnian Beast can find his powers in Portland and surprise us all.