If you’ve tried your best to keep up with everything related to the Portland Trail Blazers and the NBA restart this month, then you probably noticed some comments from Jusuf Nurkic on Sunday about his role on the team. Specifically, you may have noticed what he said about his passing, borrowing a phrase from former Nuggets teammate Nikola Jokic and Laker legend Magic Johnson.
“They say an assist makes two people happy,” Nurkic said. “So, that’s how I grow up.”
Nurkic’s assist numbers have increased since joining the Blazers. In Denver, Nurkic never had a season where he averaged more than 1.9 assists per game. During the 2018-19 season in Portland, he bumped that number up to 3.2 assists. It was good for seventh in the league among centers and it solidified him as a big man you can trust with the ball in his hands.
There’s a lot that the Blazers have missed with Nurkic out of the lineup: pick-and-roll proficiency, stellar defense, and plenty more. But one aspect of his game that will be greatly appreciated in his return is his vision and ability to distribute as a big man.
With Nurkic as the starting center last year, the offense ran like a well-oiled machine. The Blazers were third in points per 100 possessions at 114.7 points per game while boasting an offensive rating of 113.7, also good for third. The offense opened up for Portland, and it led to one of their best seasons in recent memory.
Nurkic had an assist percentage of almost 18% in the 2018-19 season. Among centers that played significant minutes and more than 50 games last season, that ranks comfortably in the top 15. He’s able to connect with teammates on a wide variety of pases.
I think of all the videos I’ve ever used in an article about Nurkic, this is by far my favorite. It shows just how the Blazers’ offense was fully unlocked with the Bosnian Beast on the floor. He floats a feathery pass to Al-Farouq Aminu cutting on the baseline (I wrote about a player who could benefit from that last week), lasers a cross-court pass to Damian Lillard for a three, and deftly places a perfect give-and-go bounce pass to Lillard, all in the first eight minutes of the game.
This video from Coach Daniel (I highly recommend his videos) puts on display just how diverse Nurkic’s passing repertoire has become. His ability to operate as a focal point in the offense has been key, as the video shows him slinging passes from a variety of spots. Whether it’s a pass to a cutter from the top of the key or making the perfect skip pass from the elbow to the corner, Nurkic rarely makes the wrong play.
Nurkic’s playmaking is a significant upgrade over who has started in his stead. Hassan Whiteside, while he has done other things just fine, has not helped the Blazers maintain the same production they got with Nurkic. They still have one of the best 10 offenses in the league (they’re ninth in points per 100 possessions and offensive rating), but the ball hasn’t moved as efficiently with Whiteside out there instead of Nurkic.
Whiteside has averaged 1.2 assists this season, with an assist percentage of 6.0%. The Blazers are dead last in assists, averaging just over 20 a game. Towards the beginning of the year, it was questionable whether or not they would even get up to 20. This isn’t all Whiteside’s fault; Portland’s style of offense doesn’t necessitate a bunch of assists and last year with Nurkic they only averaged 23 assists per game anyway. But the gap between Nurkic and Whiteside as passers is significant enough that reinserting Nurkic should instantly help keep the ball moving.
Whiteside’s turnovers don’t usually look like the video above. Most of his turnovers come from either lost balls or offensive fouls. But that’s partially because the Blazers don’t trust him as a facilitator like they do Nurkic. Whiteside struggles to make the easy pass to Lillard (which, to be fair, could really be more of a miscommunication than anything) while Nurkic is able to beautifully float balls to just the right spot. Nurkic has evolved into a playmaker that Whiteside simply will never be.
But this isn’t an article about the things that Whiteside can’t do; it’s about Nurkic and his ability to provide something that has been glaringly absent all season. The Bosnian Beast will surely be able to anchor Portland’s defense while setting the highest of screens for Lillard and McCollum on the other end, but the passing is the thing that I look forward to most. If Nurkic’s ability to see the floor is anywhere near what it was last year, then he’ll make a lot more than just two people happy with his assists.