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Trail Blazers Center Jusuf Nurkic is a Pretty Decent Rim Defender

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Jusuf Nurkic is a reliable defender, just how good is he down deep?

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

When Jusuf Nurkic first came to the Trail Blazers, there was a lot of talk about how he was the rim-protecting center that Portland needed. While everyone else was overcome with Nurk fever, I remained immune, having been inoculated over the years by premature hype and out-sized expectations. I wanted to wait until a season had passed before deciding if Jusuf Nurkic was the rim protecting center we’ve been waiting for.

The Jusuf Nurkic-for-Mason Plumlee trade meant the Blazers finally had the personnel to leave just one big man under the basket to patrol the lane. While the eye test indicated that the Bosnian Beast is an effective protector, I wanted to close the loop and make sure the numbers backed it up. Lets step through the evidence to see just how good Jusuf Nurkic’s rim protection was last season and if he has lived up to the hype.

Defended shots within six feet

According to stats.nba.com, Jusuf Nurkic defended about 6.6 shots per game within 6 feet of the rim last season. These 6.6 shots were 51% of the shots that he defended. Other centers who defended a similar number of shots per game include Marc Gasol (6.6), Anthony Davis (6.5) and Joel Embiid (6.5).

Nurkic’s Defended Field Goal percentage (DFG%) on shots within 6 feet was 53.8% which was the same rate that players were able to hit their shots against Golden State’s David West and similar to Javale McGee (53.7%) and Miami’s Hassan Whiteside (53.7%).

His differential rate (DIFF)--the difference between how shooters shoot on average vs how they shot against him--was -8.2. Put another way, within 6 feet of the basket, players shot about 8 percent worse against Jusuf Nurkic than they did on average. That differential is 20th out of all centers who played 41 or more games last season. For reference, Al Horford’s differential was -8.6 and Steven Adams’ was -7.7.

Pre-and-post All-Star numbers reveal a marked improvement in Nurkic’s DFG% DIFF throughout the season. Before the break, opponents were shooting 56.6% against him (we’re still talking within 6 feet) which ranked 40th among centers who had played more than half of the games. Not great.

After the break, opponents shot only 47.9% in that range, good enough to be the fifth best center among those who played half of the remaining games. He was third among centers who defended at least 6 attempts per game behind only Anthony Davis and Steven Adams.

Defense within three feet

We’re trying to figure out how well he protects the rim, so lets get in a little closer and find out how opponents shoot even closer to the hoop. For this we turn to nbawowy.com to find out how opponents shoot with and without Nurkic on the floor.

Here we have a table showing how often and how accurately teams attempted shots and dunks when Nurkic is on the floor and when he is off. Not as useful as a play-by-play description of each Nurkic defensive stop, rather an overall picture of how teams succeed near the basket when he is in the game. Remember that we know he is within 6 feet of the rim just over 50% of the time.

Jusuf Nurkic On-Off Opponent Shooting, Less than 3 feet

Jusuf Nurkic Total Attempts within 3 feet % of Opponent Attempts Opponent FG% Total Dunk Attempts % of Overall Attempts Dunk FG%
Jusuf Nurkic Total Attempts within 3 feet % of Opponent Attempts Opponent FG% Total Dunk Attempts % of Overall Attempts Dunk FG%
On 1004 27.2 63.8 134 3.6 82.1
Off 845 26.8 65.6 114 3.6 85.1

From this we can see that opponents attempt slightly more (.4%) field goals within 3 feet while Nurkic is in but they shoot a bit worse. Opponents don’t seem to alter their game plan near the rim when Nurkic is on the floor but they do shoot worse when he is there to defend.

For context, compare Nurkic to Defensive Player of the year Rudy Gobert.

Rudy Gobert On-Off Opponent Shooting, Less than 3 feet

Rudy Gobert Total Attempts within 3 feet % of Opponent Attempts Opponent FG% Total Dunk Attempts % of Overall Attempts Dunk FG%
Rudy Gobert Total Attempts within 3 feet % of Opponent Attempts Opponent FG% Total Dunk Attempts % of Overall Attempts Dunk FG%
On 773 24.8 66.8 141 4.5 88.7
Off 1063 29.6 68.8 195 5.4 92.8

Teams take almost 5% fewer shots within 3 feet when Gobert is in the game. Opponent FG% in both categories dipped. Teams seem to change their schemes--either on purpose of out of necessity, I’m not sure which-- when Gobert is in. It’s worth noting that opponents shot a higher percentage of their shots close to the rim when Nurkic was in but their shooting percentage was worse in these situations.

We can also see the same improvement within 3 feet that we did within 6 feet. Opponents shot 65.4% before the All Star Break and only 60.8% post. I find it curious that the percentage of shot attempts and dunks taken while Nurkic went in actually went up after the All Star break. However, opponents FG% in both cases took a steep dive.

Jusuf Nurkic Pre-and-Post All Star Break Opponent Shooting within 3 feet

Jusuf Nurkic (ON numbers) Total Attempts within 3 feet % of Opponent Attempts Opponent FG% Total Dunk Attempts % of Overall Attempts Dunk FG%
Jusuf Nurkic (ON numbers) Total Attempts within 3 feet % of Opponent Attempts Opponent FG% Total Dunk Attempts % of Overall Attempts Dunk FG%
Pre All Star 657 25.6 65.4 78 3 87.2
Post All Star 347 30.9 60.8 56 5 75

At this point it does not appear that Nurkic’s presence scared teams away from the rim as the season progressed, however, Nurkic did get better at guarding the rim overall.

This overview of Nurkic’s defensive impact close to the rim backs up the assertion that he is, indeed, a rim protector. It’s not a fevered dream.

What do you think, has Nurkic peeked at rim protection? Can he get better? If he gets better, how much will that help the team? Let us know in the comments below.