Jusuf Nurkic is expected to man the center position for the Portland Trail Blazers for years to come, health and contract permitting. Portland has no such security at power forward where a cast of thousands, most mediocre, have tried to cement themselves and fallen short. That’s the conundrum the author of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag question wants to solve.
From this list of five players, who is the best fit playing with Jusuf Nurkic, and who plays his backup?
Noah Vonleh finished the year in the driver’s seat and one would presume he’ll get the first look this season. Playing alongside Nurkic last year upped Vonleh’s rebounding and scoring efficiency. Nurk holding down the middle inside (or at least more of the middle than Mason Plumlee was able to) should allow Vonleh’s mobility to come to the fore on defense. There’s nothing to dislike about the Nurkic-Vonleh pairing, except that even an improved Vonleh is south of mediocre. He has not shown reliability in any single facet of his game outside of rebounding...the most replaceable aspect in a forward’s repertoire. He still has time to prove himself—his rookie-scale contract doesn’t end until the summer of 2019—but until his face-up jumper falls with consistency and volume, Vonleh’s claim to the position will remain shaky.
Ed Davis has been valuable for the Blazers when healthy. His rebounding is a strong as Vonleh’s. He doesn’t have the same range or athleticism, but he’s s steady, cheap veteran. Two items argue against him being Nurkic’s long-term partner. His contract expires next year and should be easy to trade, reducing Portland’s salary debt. He’s also wedded to the paint, crowding up the floor in spots where Nurkic is effective. Nurk can play farther out, but he’ll lose his magic if he’s pinned to the perimeter. Nor does Davis’ defender have to respect the outside threat, allowing him to dive down low against Nurk even if Davis remains outside. Davis is a good player, just not the greatest fit for Nurkic. He’ll likely come off the bench.
Meyers Leonard has an outside game to pair with Nurkic. 56% of his shot attempts last year came from beyond the arc, 72% from 16 feet and out, only 9% from within 3 feet of the rim. But Leonard’s shooting percentages are bronzed “blah”. He prefers straight-away and angle threes over shots from the corner. The Blazers like their forwards shooting from the side. If they’re going to fire away from the top, they’ll probably do it with higher-percentage guards. Plus Leonard is worse than Vonleh on defense (and Vonleh’s not great to begin with). Meyers would probably make a better backup center teamed with Davis than a starting forward paired with Nurkic.
That just leaves rookies Zach Collins and Caleb Swanigan. Expectations in their first season should remain muted, but over the long haul they may be the likeliest candidates to pair with the Bosnian Beast. They’ll have the longest, most affordable audition. Swanigan is already comfortable with the face-up jumper and Collins is expected to get there. Both can score inside and rebound when necessary. The Blazers forecast Collins as a good defender as well. Neither one has played a single game yet; they could bust. But if you’re going to bet money on a permanent power forward alongside Nurkic and you’re eliminating the possibility of trading for one, punch the ticket for this year’s draft picks. They’re too versatile to ignore. If they haven’t proved anything, at least they haven’t disproved anything either.
Keep those Mailbag questions coming to firstname.lastname@example.org!
—Dave @blazersedge / @davedeckard / email@example.com