Over the last few years, the Portland Trail Blazers have struggled to put a third piece next to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. While he might not quite be “Big Three” material yet, Jusuf Nurkic is quietly putting together the best season of his career to date.
After the luster of “Nurk Fever” wore off, Nurkic had an up and down season in 2017-18. He started the season slowly; taking inefficient shots in the post and struggling, or declining to, rotate on defense while guarding the pick-and-roll. Nurkic rallied and finished the season strong; averaging 14 points and nine rebounds a game; and picking up a nice four year/$48 million deal for his efforts.
If there was any question about Nurkic being satisfied after his payday, his play so far this season should have alleviated those concerns. Nurkic has increased his effectiveness nearly across the board; all while playing fewer minutes per night.
So far this season, Nurkic is averaging 15.4 points and 10.9 rebounds a night. After showing inconsistency from the field over the last 18 months, he’s shooting 53 percent from the floor. Heck he’s even hitting his free throws at an 80 percent clip. Perhaps most impressively, he’s grabbing more than four offensive rebounds a night. Giving your team four extra possessions a game can’t be understated, especially in today’s NBA.
Nurkic has increased his efficiency by limiting the scope of what he’s trying to do. When players try to do too much, they can lose track of what makes them effective. Despite adding a 3-point shot to his repertoire that he hasn’t seen much success with, Nurkic has narrowed the rest of his game down to finishing off the pick-and-roll and distributing off the pick-and-pop. It’s not glamorous, but it works, devastatingly so. Lillard has 40 assists to Nurkic this year. No other Blazer is in double figures, and only CJ McCollum has found Nurkic more than three times.
If Nurkic was merely performing at this level on the offensive side of the ball, that would be satisfactory, but Nurkic continues to be a solid, if under-appreciated, rim protector. It may be the vocal minority, but I take phone calls on The Last Quarter every week from fans that say Nurkic is soft and Portland needs a more physical rim protector. That’s certainly not what I’m seeing, and the stats bear that out.
Nurkic has a defensive rating of 102 this season, which is virtually identical to his 101 rating last season. When you factor in the scoring increase across the league, Nurkic is performing at least as well defensively as he did last year. For comparison, Anthony Davis’ defensive rating this season is 106. Joel Embiid sits at 104. Rudy Gobert has a 103. He may not be a flashy rim protector like the aforementioned players, but he uses his size to affect drives and is averaging more than a block a night.
Nurkic still has areas to improve upon. He takes too many chances when looking for cutters. Last night’s eight assist, one turnover performance against the Wizards non-withstanding, Nurkic struggles for stretches with his interior passing. He’s shown above average vision for a big man, he just needs to learn to make consistently good decisions. He’s still prone to picking up lazy fouls, though not at the rate he used to pick them up when he was pushing 300 pounds. Nurk can’t stay on the floor if he’s in foul trouble.
But looking at the totality of his performance this season shows that Nurkic has taken a clear step forward in his development. His per-36 numbers are through the roof, he’s defending, and he’s limiting mistakes by playing within himself. The Blazers may not have been able to add a third scorer to pair with Lillard and McCollum, but Nurkic has shown that he has the potential to at least fill that role until the right guy comes along, if not claim the title for himself.