Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic will play his first game under his new four-year, $48 million contract against the Lakers on Thursday. Nurkic earned that deal with hard work, defensive acumen, and continued work through a turbulent 2017-18 campaign. Even after a strong start to his tenure in Portland, questions still linger from his disgruntled days in Denver. From attitude to injuries, the big fella left plenty of skeletons in the closet from his time with the Nuggets.
Simply put, should the Blazers be worried about a post-payday hangover from Nurkic?
Deciphering a player’s professional motivations is a fool’s errand. Instead, we have a clear blue print of the different situations Nurkic has endured in his NBA career. Here are the reasons why the Blazers should expect continued success from Nurkic.
Healthy and Happy
Nurkic’s playing weight and injury history have been well documented. After his debut season with the Nuggets, the big fella underwent surgery to repair a tear of his left patellar tendon. The ensuing recovery limited Nurkic to 32 games in the 2015-16 season. This injury is crucial to his tenure in Denver. Due to Nurkic’s absence, a fellow by the name of Nikola Jokic started 55 games at center (more on this later).
After landing with Portland halfway through the 2016-17 season, Nurkic was once again was bitten by the injury bug. Nurkic suffered a non-displaced leg fracture. His return from injury played out much differently in Portland. Despite drafting two big men in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, the Blazers had a clear role for Nurkic to return to. The 24-year-old center responded by significantly cutting his playing weight.
It wasn’t always pretty, but Nurkic enjoyed the healthiest season of his career in 2017-18. He played (and started) in 79 regular season games.
Along with injuries, Nurkic’s time in Denver was derailed by the emergence of Jokic. With a limited list of attractive options, the Nuggets attempted to play both big men at the same time. It didn’t take long for this pairing to come off the rails.
Both players were exposed away from the basket on defense, and the tandem struggled to score while operating in the same space on offense. Unfortunately for Nurkic, he became the odd man out. This resulted in an ugly situation, and it continued to escalate until Nurkic was traded to Portland.
Life with the Blazers has been much different for Nurkic. Coach Terry Stotts can be tough, but he set back the clock on his defensive scheme to suit his new center’s strengths. Offensively, it looks like Nurkic will get to experiment with open shots away from the paint this season.
Damian Lillard and Success
Perhaps the brightest beacon of hope is the comparative success that Nurkic has enjoyed with the Blazers over the Nuggets. The big fella tasted the postseason for the first time with Portland, and he has enjoyed statistical career-highs across the board. Like most things in life, success cures almost everything.
Along with team and individual success, Damian Lillard has taken an interest to mentoring his younger teammate. The biggest example of this is what Lillard shared with Jason Quick last season.
Lillard explained that his relationship with Nurkic is based on his previous experiences with the Blazers.
“It’s going to sound crazy,’’ Lillard said, “but it’s almost what I wish I had with LaMarcus.’’
For the first time in his career, Nurkic is under the tutelage of an established NBA star. Barring an unforeseen change, Lillard and Nurkic will continue to build their bond for years to come. Due to the stability of that relationship, it isn’t crazy to assume that Nurkic will continue to flourish in Portland.
—Steve / @SteveDHoops / BEdgeSteve@gmail.com