Lost in the space between social media memes (shout out to CJ McCollum), the whirlwind media and training tour that Damian Lillard goes through, and the never-ending social media feeds, it’s easy to lose track of what any given Portland Trail Blazers player is up to during the summer. Things have been so unbelievably bizarre in 2018 that 7-foot, 270-pound Jusuf Nurkic has gone through the summer largely unnoticed beyond his new contract.
Heading into this season, I would argue that Nurkic is the most likely candidate for substantial growth and more than likely the most important to this season’s fortune.
While many maligned the start that Nurkic got off to last season, most notably the “stupid flip shot that never goes in” (I believe that’s the official nom de guerre for that particular shot) by the end of the year his offensive output nearly mirrored that of his previous season when “Nurk Fever” was in full effect. That’s a pretty decent rebound from a pretty sluggish start, yet there’s still a lot of room for improvement, particularly around the rim.
Nurkic is the one player on Portland’s roster who has demonstrated the capacity to finish inside through contact and with authority. It’s now time for him to deliver on that consistently. The flip shot can only stay as a last ditch effort. That’s the starting point. The other half of that coin is that he needs to dunk at least once per game (he had 61 last year).
So what would the improvement look like statistically? Let’s use last year as an example. In the 2017-18 season Nurkic attempted the 8th most shots at the rim among centers (515 FGAs) and converted at a shade under 61 percent. The best players in the league hover in the 67-69 percent range. Let’s say Nurkic gets the same attempts but falls just shy of the best and lands at 66 percent...respectable, I think most would agree. That’s 28 more field goals in a season. It doesn’t seem like much but it bumps his season average from 14.3 points per to 15 per contest. That’s with that singular change. Adjust that from “at the rim” to “within 5-feet” and you’re cooking with gas here.
A slight uptick in performance in one particular area would do wonders for Portland and Nurkic. It’s not a change in usage rate nor is it s deviation from the game plan- just a simple increase in production. That’s the kind of growth we should be seeing from Nurkic at this point. Refinement. Execution. Those are the kinds of leaps you should expect from a player whom many around the organization believe can be a 18 and 10 guy. With a few more tweaks and a cleaner slate at the free throw line, it’s very easy to see Nurkic be able to turn in a 16-to-17 points and 11 rebound season. It’s not a small ask by any means, but it’s Portland’s best and most likely developmental option heading into the season.
Nurkic is heading into his 5th season. He just turned 24 and he’s playing the game of basketball for his 10th year. Those are all milestones, particularly for a big man. It typically takes longer to learn how to play the NBA game as the center- that’s been true since at least my childhood- and this is usually when the fruits of that labor tend to bear.
For all of the potential that people see in Portland’s recent draft picks, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the potential that is on display nightly with Nurkic. Relatively new to the game but not viewed as entirely young, Nurkic is the player on Portland’s roster that is most likely to deliver on box score production while also having room for growth. That’s both awesome and terrifying at the same time.