Playing Jusuf Nurkic in the paint carries direct and indirect consequences for the Portland Trail Blazers. He’s not a threat to space the floor in a 5-out system, but instead can be found barreling down the lane in pick-and-roll, sucking defenders in from all sides to open passing lanes to three-point shooters on the perimeter. His relative slow-footedness defensively pushes his team toward a more traditional and conservative defensive scheme, but don’t confuse that with ineffective – the Trail Blazers have been phenomenal defensively whenever Nurkic mans the paint over the last few years. His acquisition and subsequent retention in last summer’s restricted free agency put Portland and head coach Terry Stotts in a bit of a bind in terms of how creative they can get on both ends of the floor, but when they stay within the confines of Nurkic’s skill set, they’re incredibly effective, to the tune of a +8.1 net rating when he’s in the lineup.
On top of his rim-rolling and rim protection, Nurkic’s rebounding perfectly complements his teammates and what Portland wants to do on both ends. The Trail Blazers have been an elite rebounding unit when Nurkic is on the floor throughout his Portland career, which gives the rest of their team carte blanche to focus on other areas of the game. Specifically, the Trail Blazers are much better in transition, both offensively and defensively, whenever Nurkic is on the floor, as compared to when he sat on the bench.
Portland is one of the slowest teams in the league, opting to lean heavily on their half-court offense to generate points. Despite his size and slow feet, Nurkic speeds up their offense in transition, though that effect has been more muted this year than it was the previous two. His ability to dominate the defensive glass leads to transition opportunities for the Trail Blazers, but it’s his energy running the floor and skill with the ball in his hands that transforms him from just another big rebounder to an all-around transition threat.
Nobody would ever confuse him with Giannis Antetokounmpo or Ben Simmons, but Nurkic’s ball handling and passing is well above average for his position and size. While most players his size don’t even attempt to dribble more than once in a row, especially in the open floor, Nurkic is perfectly happy to put the ball on the ground a few times and make a good decision once the defense collapses toward him, as he does in the second clip above.
Going the other direction, Portland is one of just three teams in the league who rank in the top ten in offensive rebounding and transition defense frequency. Again, some of this is attributable to Nurkic, who is a one-man wrecking crew on the offensive glass, which allows his teammates to get back in transition to stymy opponents. Transition offense and defense is more about volume than efficiency, as even the least-efficient teams in transition are better than the league’s best half-court offenses. For the reason, a team who can attack in transition often and stop their opponents from doing the same will have a lot of success. Portland doesn’t attack often, but they’re also one of the league’s best teams in preventing transition opportunities against them, even as they send Nurkic to the offensive glass on a lot of possessions. This has been a staple of the Terry Stotts era in Portland, as they’ve never ranked worse than 13th in overall transition frequency against nor in transition frequency against after live rebounds in his time with the Trail Blazers.
Nurkic’s ability to man the paint on both ends of the court has been a boon for Portland throughout his tenure with the club and will be the backbone of their impending playoff run this spring. He’s a strong rebounder, capable of leading a strong offensive rebounding unit nearly by himself, and cleans up well on the other end of the floor, which can help to ignite the infrequent Trail Blazers fast break. While these skills won’t get him as much publicity as his very solid rim protection and finishing in pick-and-roll situations, they’re just as useful to a team looking to take advantage of each and every skill their players have on their way to what they hope is a good showing in the postseason.