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Trail Blazers Mid-Season Center Review: Jusuf Nurkic is Darn Good

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The Bosnian Beast has been on a serious upswing and the Blazers are better for it.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

The Portland Trail Blazers crossed the halfway mark of the 2018-19 regular season this week. Their 26-17 record puts them fourth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference. It’s also four games better than they stood at the same time last season.

Before the Blazers head into the second half, we’re going to recap how their players have fared so far. Up now, the shining bright spot of the season: center Jusuf Nurkic.

Nurkic has turned in a dream season so far. This has less to do with production spikes than consistency. He turned in a historic 5x5 night against the Sacramento Kings. He put together a six-blocks performance against the Charlotte Hornets. Those things make Twitter highlights, but if they were the only story, there’s no story.

The Blazers have focused more on the interior this season than in years past. Instead of leaving each defender isolated, they’ve committed as a team to keeping the paint well-guarded. Nurkic is the anchor of that scheme. Instead of having to rotate to stop penetration from inadequately-guarded dribblers, instead of getting drawn into perimeter picks, he’s being asked to hold the lane as wing defenders come to help. His size and instincts make him adequate to the task, and he’s looked light years better on defense.

The Blazers are never going to be a post-up team with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum on the floor, but they have looked to get Nurkic involved in the offense as well. His field goal attempts per 36 minutes are down from 16.4 to 14.9, but his free throw attempts are up from 4.7 to 6.6. They’re getting him the ball where he can do damage and opponents are having to compensate. This requires defenses to guard another section of floor and keeps Nurkic happier to boot.

Nurk’s offensive damage isn’t confined to scoring. His assists per minute have skyrocketed from 2.5 to 3.9. Those numbers, along with the free throw numbers, may seem small, but each one indicates a possession where Nurkic matters as more than just a bail-out option. Not since the heyday of the Lillard-Nurkic high pick-and-roll (circa spring, 2017) has he filled such a key role on offense.

Add in solid screens and offensive rebounds (up from 3.3 to 4.6 per 36 minutes) and Nurkic becomes quite the weapon.

The crowning glory comes when you couple Nurkic’s Usage Percentage (which is down, meaning he’s actually using fewer of Portland’s possessions for himself, by percentage) and True Shooting Percentage (which has soared to a career-high .571). He’s getting fewer overt looks and doing far more with the ones he does get. On a team where volume has often masked quality, this is a dream come true.

Nurkic has given the Blazers runs, even sustained runs, before. He’s always slipped back to earth. There’s no guaranteed that won’t happen again. That’s not the point. So far, each surge has left the tide line a little higher than it was previously. Unless something goes seriously wrong, that’ll happen again here. That’s great news for the Trail Blazers, not just because they’re getting better return on the fixed cost of his contract, but because they need it.

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Celebrate Nurkic’s banner half-season by helping us send kids in need to see Portland’s upcoming game against the Brooklyn Nets on March 25th. Here’s how:

To donate tickets to kids for Blazer’s Edge Night against the Nets on 3/25/19:

Click this link or copy/paste into your address bar: https://rosequarter.com/groupnights/

Enter the Promo Code: BLAZERSEDGE

Go through the purchase process just as if you were buying tickets for yourself.

If you order through this link with this code, tickets will be automatically donated and designated at Will Call with your order. No need to do anything else, it’s just that easy!

If you run into difficulty or wish to donate more tickets than the online service will allow, contact our Ticket Representative, Alec Botts, at 503.963.3926.

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge / blazersub@gmail.com