Late last week, NBA.com released their list of six names to watch in the 2017-18 Kia Most Improved Player race.
Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic was among the players named to the list and, barring the unexpected (injury, trade, etc), I believe the award is Bosnian Beast’s to lose.
Though Blazer fans are very familiar at this point with Nurkic’s impact to Portland’s roster during the 20 games he played with the team — 15 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and a 14-6 record — the national spotlight still didn’t shine very brightly on Portland or Nurkic during their end-of-season run. To many, Nurkic is still a guy who, averaged 10 points per game on the aggregate, pouted his way out of Denver, and played better once he was moved.
And on its face, that’s an accurate line of thinking, but it doesn’t reflect the reality of how well Nurkic played, how much better he made a (frankly) bad Blazers team, and how realistic it is to see continued improvement out of the Blazers’ big man.
Nurkic’s performance wasn’t a fluke. Everything that he did well on the court — pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop, passing, shot-blocking, rebounding, taking advantage of put-backs and broken plays — is inherent in his game and easily replicable. Nurkic combines immense size with a feel for the game and is able to make an impact not just in the stat-sheet, but in more subtle ways as well.
That’s not to say that Nurkic is a perfect player. He has struggled with his free throw shooting, he rushes his post moves, and he has gotten in foul trouble far too often thus far in his career. So while there’s a chance that he continues to struggle in these realms and maintains his Portland averages, or even regresses somewhat, the case for an even better performance next season is a much stronger one to make.
The first point is that big men take time to develop. Nurkic is only turning 23 next week. For comparison he’s younger than Joel Embiid, and only a year and a half older than Karl-Anthony Towns and Myles Turner. While it’s generally accepted that NBA players are usually primed to break out in their third season, Nurkic is just entering his fourth year in the league and has played 159 games in his career; almost exactly two seasons worth of basketball.
Of course, not all of the time that he missed over the last two seasons was due to Mike Malone sitting him on the bench while he was healthy (though there was plenty of that going on). Nurkic has been injury prone throughout his career; most notably with a partially torn patellar tendon that required surgery after his rookie year and caused him to miss offseason workouts and the first 33 games of the season. And, of course, after his stellar 20 game run with the Blazers, Nurkic suffered a fractured fibula and was shut down for the rest of the regular season.
This is why I’m so thrilled to see Nurkic working so hard this offseason. If you’ve been following Nurk on social media, or our own David McKay (where I found this before and after comparison), the results of his offseason workouts are immediately visible and striking.
This is good news not only for removing some of the stress of playing NBA basketball off of his lower body while improving his, shall we say,less than stellar conditioning, but also indicates that his leg has fully healed and he is motivated and ready to work this year.
And make no mistake, Nurkic is going be motivated this year. Currently making $2.9 million in the last year of his rookie deal, Nurkic is poised to earn a massive payday if he is able to replicate or improve upon last season’s performance with the Blazers.
Some other names were mentioned by NBA.com as having a shot at winning the award, such as Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brandon Ingram, Kristaps Porzingis, and Myles Turner.
While there are reasonable cases to be made for each of these players. Giannis, who won the award last season, Towns, and Porzingis all averaged between 18 and 25 points per game, while pulling in between 7 and 12 rebounds. Those are tough numbers to build on.
Don’t get me wrong, each of the three is all but guaranteed to show improvement, but voters traditionally don’t reward players that are already considered to be good to great scorers, with an averaging of the last 10 MIP seasons showing a scoring jump from 13.2 to 20.3 points per game.
In fact, just once over the last 10 years has a player won MIP while averaging at least 17 points per game the in the season before; Danny Granger saw his scoring average jump from 19.6 to 25.8 point per game when he won in 2009.
The only other player on the list that has a real, legitimate shot at the award is Turner. Already poised to break out after last season, Paul George’s departure and the team’s commitment to development leaves the door wide open for Turner to get his shots. Make no mistake, Turner has a bright future ahead of him, but I look at the roster make up and I wonder if there won’t be challenges with the team sharing the ball and putting Turner in a position to succeed. Nurkic has no such problem in Portland, where he had a usage rate of nearly 26 percent despite not being in shape and learning the team’s offense on the fly.
Nurkic is healthy, motivated, and looks to be in the best shape of his career as he enters the 2017-18. I’m not a betting man, but my money is on Nurkic to be the NBA’s Most Improved Player this season, with good reason.