During preseason, 2018, the Portland Trail Blazers have been consistent in their praise of three-pointers and their determination to generate more long opportunities for shooters. In 2018-19, “shooter” will cover nearly every player on the floor with decent aim, up to and including 7-foot center Jusuf Nurkic.
“I worked on stretching my game out. Knocking down threes. Making it harder for defenses to guard me.” is the basic trope we hear from NBA big men about things they worked on over the summer. It’s probably 100 percent true. However, for a lot of them, it never really materializes. For every Marc Gasol there’s a Dwight Howard (he’s said something along these lines every training camp going back to the 80’s I believe) or Andre Drummond...guys who play incredibly tight to the rim and don’t ever really get away from their comfort zones.
The question for the Trail Blazers: is Nurkic more like the former than the latter?
During the 2017-18 season Nurkic took a total of 135 shots between 15 and 24 feet. Which works out to roughly 1.7 shots per game in that range. He connected on 38 percent. Portland has a “throwback 5” who doesn’t have any reservations about letting a shot outside the paint loose and a coach in Terry Stotts who is totally fine with his big man stepping out for said shots. Three-point shooting isn’t a revolution, more like extending the trend.
Looking at Nurkic’s midrange shots from last year, more than half came from the 20-24 foot range (also known as “for the love of all that is Holy Nurk, take a %^&%*@! step back and make it a 3 at least” shot). If Nurkic is cognizant of his positioning, where his rather enormous feet are and/or the Blazers guards start their action slightly higher- there’s no reason to believe those long 2’s couldn’t turn into 3’s.
Now, I don’t expect Nurkic to abandon the “long two” shot entirely. (It’s a shot that unless you’ve been put through Daryl Morey’s brainwashi-eeerrrr “simulated experiences” - you just won’t even give it up. Go ahead, get your Rick Roll jokes in. You’ve earned it.) Now, should the majority of those long 2’s turn into 3’s? Yes. Absolutely. Please? I’m begging you. For my sanity, PLEASE! Ahem. As I was saying. With renewed focus and Nurkic feeling more comfortable, expecting him to take what equates to roughly a three per game, really shouldn’t be that far off.
Where things get a little weird is of course that the other half of those midrange shots came from the 10-15 foot range. Will that still be the spot that Nurkic settles into on the short roll? Will he instead opt to pop higher or drift further out, free throw line extended, to catch a pick and short roll/pop wing three? A lot of things could happen here and really, most of them are good.
I’m not advocating for Nurkic to park in the corner or to become a three-point specialist. Instead, he needs to make opposing bigs have to come above the free throw line and respect the three above the break...or roll out to the angles to stretch things out a bit further.
That level of respect opens up driving lanes for Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Evan Turner and Seth Curry just a bit further. Defenders are now a step slower to recover. The rotation is a few feet farther away. All of these things add up over the course of a quarter, game and a season. It’s entirely possible if Nurkic just steps out and knocks down between 1 and 1.8 threes per game at a rough 35-38 percent clip.
Blazers fans, if you’re looking for a wrinkle that really doesn’t require that much work to be effective, this is it.