The Portland Blazers sit at 4th in the Western Conference standings, and have done so with largely the same roster as last season. While other teams have had more hype, the Blazers continue to quietly win games at a well above-average clip. They are powered, as they have been for a half decade now, by the superstar power of Damian Lillard, but have gotten help from other areas as well. Perhaps the second-best player on the Blazers this season has been 24 year old center Jusuf Nurkic, who has really come into his own on both ends of the court. The question is: does he deserve a place in the All-Star game?
First, let’s get the All-Star selection rules out of the way. There are 12 players from each conference, with four guards, six frontcourt players, and two wild cards. That means there are theoretically eight spots that Nurkic could fit into, but he’s going up against both wings and centers. Realistically, five centers at most will make the team, as LeBron James, Paul George, and Kevin Durant are locks as forwards. And that’s not even counting the possibility of other wings such as DeMar DeRozan, Danilo Gallinari, Luka Doncic and Tobias Harris getting in either. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s say four centers is a good number to make the team.
Now, here’s a statistical look at Nurkic compared to other centers who will get consideration for the contest.
Potential Western Conference All-Star Centers
Right away, one can see that Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis outpace everyone else in the group considerably. Jokic is having one of the best playmaking seasons ever from a big man while leading the second-best team in the Western Conference, while Davis is putting together monstrous numbers for the shallow Pelicans. Those two guys are absolute locks to get in, and the might even be close to locks to start at this point. That leaves just two places left.
The next guy in is probably Rudy Gobert. He’s the best defensive player of the group and is having an incredibly efficient season scoring the ball while also pulling down a ton of boards. The Jazz got off to a slow start, but have turned things around of late due to a lighter schedule, and Gobert has been the best player on their team all season. While he lags somewhat behind Jokic and Davis because he doesn’t play as large a role for his team offensively, and just is nowhere near those guys as a scorer, his impact is still massive. The spots for traditional big men is now down to just one…
And this is where it gets tricky! The case for Nurkic is that his advanced stats are phenomenal, painting him as around the same level as Towns, and ahead of Capela, Aldridge, and Adams. He’s also a better passer and playmaker than those other three guys, and less turnover-prone than Towns. Per 36 minutes, he’s also ahead of Aldridge and Adams as rebounders, and not far from Capela and Towns. That puts him right in the mix, possibly even as a slight favorite.
The case against Nurkic is that minutes played do matter. Those guys all play a lot more than Nurkic, which means that their teams by their very nature rely on them more, and they make more impact on a game to game basis than he does. Nurkic might be more impactful per 100 possessions, but that’s not how basketball is played, so his actual production lags somewhat behind the rest of the candidates. He’s also the least efficient scorer of the entire group, which is a blow for a guy who doesn’t score *that much* on a per game basis. Finally, while Towns is playing for a Timberwolves team that’s had some real struggles this season, he’s putting up pretty incredible numbers, and it will be difficult for voters to leave him off the ballot.
In the end, I think Jusuf Nurkic is having an All-Star caliber season. He probably won’t make the team, but that says more about the other players in the Western Conference than it does him. Jokic and Davis are legitimately MVP candidates halfway through the season, Gobert is a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year, and Towns is one of the most talented offensive centers to ever play the game. Nurkic has been excellent this year, and would have a really good case to make the All Star contest if he was in the Eastern Conference. Alas, he’s in the West, yet that shouldn’t take away from his play this year. He’s at the same level if not ahead of guys like Capela, Aldridge, and Adams, and that puts him in very good company indeed.