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How Jusuf Nurkic Screens Transform the Trail Blazers Offense

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One little play run slightly differently opens up all kinds of options.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Portland Trail Blazers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question has to do with a lost art: setting screens. If you have a Portland Trail Blazers question, send it to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll do our best to answer!

Dear Dave,

Michael Holton stated on Courtside last night (3/20) that the success of Dame's and Nurk's pick and roll is based on the quality of the pick. He's right, of course. Question (with zero intent on dumping on the recently departed): Could you please differentiate between Plumlee's PNR with Dame with that of Nurkic?

Thank you,

Taylor in FL

Yes indeed. For the last few years the Blazers’ offense has resembled a bar at closing time: quality picks few and far between. Now that Jusuf Nurkić has arrived it’s more like the lint trap on a guitar player’s dryer. Picks everywhere, just grab one!

It’s easy to see what makes Nurkić’s pick-setting special. He’s BIG. “But Dave,” you say, “aren’t all NBA players big?” Yes. A tree is a tree. You don’t want to run into any of them. But when you’re running through a grove of willows you can dodge and weave past the trunks. When you smack into a tree in an old-growth forest, you know it. Nurkić is an old-growth center. Defenders either hit him and stick or they have to go way around. In the lightning-quick world of the NBA, that “way around” gives a guard the half-second edge he needs to make a play.

Nurkić’s size allows dribblers to use the screen more effectively. Ideally the ball-handler wants to get close to the pick-setter. This leaves the defender no space to get in between the pick and the dribble. Instead of dodging around the front side of the screen, the defender gets rubbed off, forced to choose between trailing the ball-handler over the top, swinging around under the screen, or switching defensive assignments with the big man guarding the center. Having to make those decisions slows down the defense and introduces room for miscommunication or error.

With Mason Plumlee and all skinnier centers, it’s harder to tell where the rub-off point is going to be. Mobile centers are usually antsy. They’re effective when they move, not when they stand still. They don’t want to hang with the screen because they make their money rolling down the lane or popping out for the jumper. Half the time the guard heads for a screen that’s not solid and doesn’t last long. The defender finds daylight, slides around the pick, and it’s as if the whole thing never happened.

When Nurkić sets a screen you can see it coming. He’s a wide target. He’s not going to get bumped off his spot and he’s not going to move quickly. That tree is PLANTED. This makes the margin for error comparatively huge.

But that’s not all. Nurkić demands attention and presents options rolling down the lane that Plumlee just didn’t. Plumlee could finish at the rim but only if he could catch and immediately dunk it. If you got in front of him at all you could seriously impact his chances of scoring. Newton’s Second Law of Physics (force equals mass times acceleration) explains why getting in front of Nurk is a bad idea. Chances are you won’t impact his shot as much as his body impacts you. If you do impede his progress, he’s still got a spin move. The defense has to stay in front of him and slow his roll from the start, not letting him get a head of steam. The resulting single-coverage leaves the dribbler in a better position to score.

If all else fails, a rolling Nurkić is always good for the offensive rebound. Getting in front of his rebounding opportunity is hard for the same reason stopping his roll is. How do you divert a freight train?

For all these reasons Nurkić and Lillard barreling down the lane is one of the scarier sights in the NBA right now. With Lillard and Plumlee you’d shade over towards Damian every time and let Plumlee kill you if he could. With Nurkić on board you pick your poison and pray.

We’ll leave you with a video example that shows the subtle difference a prominent, powerful screen-setter can make. I’m not going to do the cheesy thing, showing a successful pick with Nurkić and an unsuccessful one with Plumlee. Both of these plays resulted in scoring opportunities for Damian Lillard. Neither one of them shows the perfect screen either in setting or utilization. But even on a casual, run-of-the-mill play, watch the difference.

Here’s Lillard running off a Plumlee screen:

This isn’t bad. Even though there’s room to go over the pick the defender makes slight contact with Plumlee. Lillard gets free. But notice where the defending center is waiting.

When Lillard comes off the screen he’s facing a man in his driving lane. The center doesn’t have to worry about Plumlee at all; he’s not even in his area code. Damian’s only choice is to pull up for the jumper. He does and gets fouled to boot. Good enough.

But watch what happens when Nurkić sets a similar screen.

Now, let’s face it. The defender blew it there. He’s on the wrong side of Nurkić entirely. But even if he weren’t, look how close he’s staying to Nurk compared to Plumlee’s defender.

Even if the center were exactly in place, right by Nurkić, the defenders have a devil of a choice. Should the center slide over to trap Lillard? Then Nurkić would be free to roll. Instead he stayed with Nurkić, but that little bit of hip contact on the screen was already enough to free Lillard for the one-on-one score. The defense had already lost the battle as soon the minute Nurkić planted his feet. The opposite was true in the Plumlee example. Unless Damian hit that three (or got fouled) Portland was out of luck.

And speaking of positioning, look at the spacing difference in Portland’s offense between the first picture and the second. With the Plumlee screen they’ve already got two players under the rim. (Not sure if that’s the best—or even intentional—spacing, but we’ll go with it.) Since the roll isn’t going to be a credible threat they need to draw defenders inside, away from Lillard’s jump shot. They also need offensive rebounders down there in case he misses. But the middle is gummed up and there’s no real option for Damian but to shoot. Look how wide the floor is spaced on the Nurkić screen. Any defender who tries to stop Lillard will be leaving a shooter wide open at the arc.

In short, Michael Holton was on the money. Jusuf Nurkić has made a big difference in Portland’s screen game. Over time that’s going to make a difference in the offense too. It may not show up on a given play, but over the course of thousands of sets during a season, it’ll show up. Getting forced into one or two options is never as effective as having four or five good ones. The difference in those options is Nurkić and his screening ability.

Remember to keep those questions coming to blazersub@gmail.com!

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard