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Nurkic’s efficiency has improved. But not in the way you think.

The Bosnian Beast has been taking and making more free throws this year, compensating for a continued inability to finish close to the basket.

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

Jusuf Nurkic has been really darn good this year for the Portland Trail Blazers. Especially in the month of January, where he’s averaged 17.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 3.6 assists in 28 minutes per game.

Nurkic’s improved effectiveness for the Blazers has been a revelation — he was knocked last season for struggling to finish plays and being a generally inefficient player. But this year his efficiency has improved; Nurkic’s true shooting percentage has jumped from a measly 52.8 last year to 56.8 this season.

Given the perception around Nurkic’s improved play, it might be surprising for Blazers fans to learn that the Bosnian Beast’s effective field goal percentage has only barely increased from 50.5 to 51.2.

Nurkic is taking and making more free throws

The difference, of course, is that TS% accounts for free throws while eFG% does not and Nurkic is taking and making far more free throws this season than last season. His free throw rate has jumped from .287 to .431 and he’s shooting a career high 74 percent from the line after converting on only 63 percent last season.

Here’s a tl;dr table of the last three paragraphs:

It’s hard to overstate how important the free throws have been to Nurkic’s success. He remains No. 32 out of 40 among centers for TS% and No. 35 out of 40 for eFG%, but his FTr is No. 11.

Nurkic still struggles around the hoop

Nurkic remains low in the shooting efficiency categories primarily because he still struggles around the rim compared to other NBA centers. He takes 67 percent of his shots within five feet of the hoop but only converts on 58.9 percent — basically identical to his percentage last season and beating out only Tristan Thompson and Andre Drummond among notable players this season.

Some of this may be an apples and oranges comparison as Nurkic is expected to created his own looks frequently while other players, such as Clint Capela, rarely shoot unless the defense has already doubled a teammate. Nurkic will never catch guys like that in shooting percentage around the rim. But Nurkic also trails several other players who average far more post-ups per game, so it’s not completely outlandish to expect that he continue to improve his shooting.

In short, Nurkic certainly has improved this season. He has been able to beat able-bodied big man defenders like Capela in the post semi-frequently and absolutely feasted on smaller player mismatches. The improved confidence and technique has forced opponents to foul him more often to prevent easy buckets, but when Nurkic isn’t being fouled his shooting hasn’t really improved.

If some of those non-foul misses around the rim turn into makes, without sacrificing his high free throw rate, he will justifiably move into the All-Star conversation. Blazers fans should be ecstatic there’s still so much room for growth.

Could Nurkic play more minutes per game?

A final note: Nurkic is No. 15 in minutes per game among centers, behind several other large-bodied players (e.g. Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond, Nikola Jokic).

If Nurkic can get up to close to the 31 minutes per game that Jokic plays, without risking injuries, it would be a massive boost for the Blazers. This is a big if, but the Blazers have one of the best injury track records in the NBA over the last several seasons and Nurkic has been very healthy over the last two seasons. Portland is clearly monitoring his minutes closely, as evidenced by his low minutes totals against the Bulls and Knicks in easy victories, so it will be interesting to see how they handle his workload going forward.