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Is This the Year Jusuf Nurkic Hits His All-Star Goal?

It’s unlikely that Blazers head coach Chauncey Billups showed all his cards in the preseason opener. But it is clear that he intends to make Jusuf Nurkic one of his aces in 2021-22.

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Despite struggling to stay healthy over the course of his career, Portland Trail Blazers big Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t been shy about putting his aspirations out into the open. Over a 12-month span, the Bosnian center has broached desires to become both a first-time All-Star, as well as the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Historically, those ambitions have been easy to swat away, and you wouldn’t have needed Rudy Gobert’s 7-foot-9 wingspan to do it. One look at the defensive principles of the Blazers’ No. 29-ranked defense of the past regime, Nurkic’s spot on Portland’s offensive pecking order, and the competition ahead of him would have rendered those goals exciting and worthy of creating a dialogue but also lofty and likely unattainable.

Which makes Monday night’s preseason game against Golden State all the more intriguing. Reasonably, all eyes were locked onto the Blazers’ new defensive scheme and pick-and-roll level positioning. But how about how often the Blazers used Nurkic — a player whose usage rate has dropped in each of his last four seasons in Portland — played a matter-of-fact role in their offensive creation?

As an illustration, here’s an overview of the Blazers’ first 15 offensive possessions, and Nurkic’s role in each:

  • (1) a “Horns” set into a Nurkic-McCollum dribble handoff that forces three switches.
  • (2) a Nurkic-Lillard top of the key handoff in which Lillard scores, thanks to a bone-crunching screen.
  • (3) a well-timed Norman Powell cut on an out-of-bounds play.
  • (4) a poorly-placed Powell pass, looking for Nurkic on a deep seal.
  • (5) a Nurkic-to-McCollum, back-to-Nurkic on the short roll for Nurkic’s first score.
  • (6) 10 seconds later, Nurkic drops in a nifty dish on a McCollum backdoor cut for a wide-open (missed) layup.
  • (7) the ever-familiar, short roll with Nurkic and Lillard; the entire Warriors’ defense collapses on Nurkic’s drive, and he dishes to the right corner to McCollum for a wide-open (and missed) 3-point attempt.

* catches breath*

  • (8) McCollum takes two defenders with him to the right corner and dishes to a trailing Nurkic for a wide-open (and missed) 3-point attempt.
  • (9) Nurkic establishes deep positioning on the fast break, lugs around with Looney in the paint, but gets stripped.
  • (10) McCollum attacks the rim against Wiggins on a missed layup.
  • (11) a sloppy possession that ends in Robert Covington juggling a fall away, contested 3-pointer.
  • (12) McCollum penetrates down the middle, commands two blue jerseys, and dishes to Nurkic for a dunk.
  • (13) A “see the rim, shoot it” 3-point attempt from Powell with just four seconds elapsed from the play clock.
  • (14) A two-man game on the right sidelines with “Nurk and Norm,” in which they leverage the defense with a pick-and-pop, Nurkic lining the seams for a 3-point make.
  • (15) Nassir Little creates through a drive-and-kick, forcing Bradley’s nail help for a wide open 3-point make for Covington.

This is no mathematician speaking, but seeing Nurkic play a defined role in roughly 70 percent — 10 or 11 of their first 15 possessions — was a welcome sight given the promises and expectations of both the players and the coaching staff. Last season, Nurkic ranked No. 17 among bigs in touches, and just No. 36 in paint touches, a surprising development considering his spacing. One preseason game in, the Blazers’ staff looked focused on changing that.

Put in a child’s illustration, it was almost reminiscent of your little league or high school coach saying a shot wasn’t to be taken until the ball had been swung around at least five times. The early returns are that Nurkic holds some sort of priority on this Blazers’ offense under Billups, and he still found time to showcase his role — arguably the most important role — in the Blazers’ new pick-and-roll scheme.

Of course, it’s unwise to get overly excited considering that this was a preseason game in which the Blazers still hemorrhaged 121 points. Against one’s better judgment, it’s worth noting that this part of the season, the preseason, is ripe for overreaction. When the Blazers fall behind by 20 on a random night in December, or drop three out of four and are in need of a win, will this still be a tenet in their philosophy? Will they still be singing this same tune? Or will it revert to the proven comforts of hero ball from their All-Star caliber backcourt? This isn’t the first time they’ve had a coach make that sort of declaration about a new scheme or focus.

Nurkic was public about his frustrations this past offseason, and to a degree, it’s understandable. On Monday, his usage rate — or estimated percentage of plays a player uses while on-court — was 25.4 percent.

In 2020-21, when his usage rate surpassed that number, the Blazers were a whopping 11-0. And over his full five-year span with Portland, they’ve gone 70-26 when that happens. Over an 82-game span, that rounds out to 60 wins.

That thought stood out above anything else, personally, during Monday’s game. In a football sense, a team’s first 15 plays are generally scripted, designed sets to manufacture rhythm. It felt more natural in this sense. And having a more unpredictable mix of both Lillard and McCollum’s best and Nurkic’s best? One could say could say that Portland’s No. 2 ranked offensive rating in NBA history has an even higher ceiling.

Of course, on the flip side, there’s the threat of the stagnation that could come with it on certain possessions. As our very own Dave Deckard noted, the offense, on occasion, “gummed up” when Nurkic had the ball, and there were occasions where he slogged around and generated turnovers. But in a nutshell, he looked like a player threatening to overtake his past versions.

Nurkic still has hands full with some of the competition, including Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns — another player seeking to benefit from a defensive pick-and-roll change — Rudy Gobert, Deandre Ayton, and Zion Williamson, among others.

But if he’s used in a similar manner this season as he was on Monday, is it difficult to imagine him matching their impact competitively?

As Lamar Hurd would say on a Stephen Curry 3-point foul attempt … “Not this year.