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Is Jusuf Nurkic a Franchise Building Block?

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Jusuf Nurkic, the Blazers’ starting center for the past year, is going to be a free agent this summer. Does he deserve to be a key part of the Blazers’ future going forward?

Utah Jazz v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Jusuf Nurkic reinvigorated the Portland Trail Blazers last season when he arrived from the Denver Nuggets right before the trade deadline. Interior defense, coupled with passing out of the post and from the top of the key, brought needed components to a Blazers team that was stagnant after a poor summer in free agency. After a year in Portland, it’s pretty well established that Nurkic is a good player-- he can score, he can pass, and while he’s not Dikembe Mutombo, he’s not a bad rim protector.The next question is simple: is he a franchise player worthy of a large contract in the summer of 2018?

The answer is complicated, but advanced stats would tend towards a “no” answer.

Teams sign players because of how good they have been, the enhancements they have added over the years, and the promise they show. When investing in a young player (Nurkic won’t turn 24 until August), past development and future promise become key components. Therein lies Portland’s issue. Nurkic is good, but there are real doubts that his game has improved much since entering the NBA nearly four years ago.

Let’s look at the basic stats first. Since Nurkic has played a lot more minutes per game in Portland than he did on the Nuggets, it’s more instructive to look at his stats per 36 minutes to see if he’s really been more productive. The numbers are inconclusive at best. Nurkic is scoring more per minute and is doing so at a higher efficiency than he was his first two years in the league, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing in the “positive” category. He’s bringing in the lowest number of rebounds in his career, dishing out the second fewest assists (without a corresponding drop in turnovers), and obtaining the least number of steals and blocks. Most of these drop-offs aren’t significant, but the lack of growth is still a cautionary sign.

The advanced stats don’t paint a prettier picture. If anything, they’re far grimmer. Going by simple offensive and defensive rating (on Basketball Reference), Nurkic has only been a positive player (offensive rating higher than defensive) once—in his 20 game stretch with Portland a season ago. This season, he’s been slightly less negative than in his seasons with Denver, yet is a negative nonetheless (99 offensive rating, 103 defensive). PER is a somewhat outdated stat, but it still does a decent job of portraying offensive prowess. Here, Nurkic is above average this season (17.4), though not much improved from prior seasons (14.8, 16, and 17.5 in order). His win shares per 48 minutes of 0.072 is below what a “good” NBA players should be (0.100), and is right around what it has been in previous years (again, outside of his Portland stint in 2016-2017). The same holds true for Box Plus Minus and VORP. ESPN’s proprietary stat, Real Plus Minus, has him at a 0.70 rating this season. This is “fine”, but mostly relative to 0.62 last season and -0.21 the year before. He posted a 2.33 his rookie season.

The one advanced stat that has Nurkic improving over time is NBA.com’s Net Rating, where he rates out as a modest positive this season after being a small negative his first 2.5 seasons. His Net Rating with the Blazers in 2016-2017 was a ludicrously high 9.6, which would have ranked him among the best in the NBA. Even so, all the stats indicate that Nurkic’s stretch with the Blazers last season is an aberration.

Right now Nurkic sums up to what he’s always been: a player who is decent by most advanced metrics, a bit better going by regular boxscore stats. Very few numbers suggest that Nurkic has made any real improvement in his almost four seasons in the NBA, or that he positively affects an NBA game more than he did when he first came into the NBA. That’s not good.

Some players develop later than others. Nurkic is still young enough to improve—maybe even significantly—going forward. But there’s not much evidence that a leap of any kind is pending. Jusuf Nurkic is likely going to be a perfectly average starting center under his next contract, but not a star. Attempts to pay Nurkic “franchise cornerstone” money would therefore be based on faith more than numbers.