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Video Breakdown: Jusuf Nurkic Still Struggling, but Showing Promise

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The Trail Blazers center keeps fighting injuries, trying to return to form on the court.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Jusuf Nurkic has experienced a rough run of injuries during his five years with the Portland Trail Blazers. From his unfortunate leg injury back in 2019 to his broken wrist this year—and a million little injuries in-between—we’ve seen far too little of Nurkic. He’s only played in 30 NBA games since 2019, which is just an incredibly unfortunate number.

It’s unfortunate because we’ve seen how good Nurkic can be. Before his leg injury, he had played his best (almost) full season ever, 79 games averaging career-highs in numerous stat categories, providing a dominating presence defensively. He showed glimpses of that again in the Orlando bubble in the Summer of 2020, putting up 17.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, and four assists in his eight regular season games. We still get to see it occasionally, but the problem is that they aren’t prolonged stretches; they’re just little flashes.

This year, Nurkic has come back from his last injury with mixed results, sometimes playing like the Nurk we know and love and sometimes coming up short. What has been good and what’s been bad about his last few outings? Let’s take a look.

(NOTE: All stats were recorded before Thursday’s game against the Utah Jazz.)

In his five games prior to Thursday, Nurk averaged 8.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists in about 19.6 minutes of action. All of those averages — except for the assist total — are just under what he’s averaged for this season overall. The season has been filled with some good moments, but his play has been inconsistent at best.

One of the most maddening things about Nurkic is that he isn’t a great finisher once he gets the ball in the paint or at the rim. On shots less than five feet from the rim, Nurkic is shooting only about 53%. On shots in the paint, he’s only about 46.2%. Those are not ideal numbers for a 7-foot-1, 270-pound beast who should be just dominating players inside.

The problem is that too often we see Nurkic depending on touch as opposed to power. He’s a big man who can throw down dunks with authority when needed, but too often we see him relying on baby hooks, layups, and any other assortment of shots that aren’t just dunking in a dude’s face.

These little hook shots have been especially unkind to him this year. He’s only 9-for-23 on hooks this year, a rate of about 39.1%. In his last five games he’s taken five hook shots and missed all of them. Here, he gets a pretty good look from about four feet out, one that he should make. But his touch just isn’t there on these kinds of shots.

Here’s another hook shot, this time against a much burlier opponent. Brook Lopez is very difficult to move defensively. He’s a brick wall down there, but Nurkic is in a decent position about three feet from the hoop. He has a good chance to score. But he rushes the shot instead and it rims out. More patience on the block would better suit Nurkic.

Here’s one more play against Milwaukee. I think he could go right at Middleton here and get a better shot than he does after stopping and looking for the pass. If he dribbles at Middleton, he has a chance at getting either a layup at the rim or a pass out to CJ McCollum. Nurk isn’t exactly a movement passer, but if he moves instead of stops, he creates more of a scoring chance then he does by stopping.

It’s tough to see Nurkic miss those layups and hook shots because we know he can do things like THIS. He just yams on poor Pat Connaughton, who is admittedly an easier dunking target than either Middleton or Lopez, but still. Plays like these remind us that Nurkic doesn’t need to just be all hook shots and weird passes.

Speaking of passing, I still like that dimension of his game. Sure, he’s had three games of three or more turnovers in his first five back, but when you watch the turnovers, sometimes it comes down to him either just trying stuff or getting used to his new teammate Norman Powell. And he’s developing something with Norman Powell.

Here’s what I mean. That’s not just the usual dribble handoff action we see plenty of already. It’s a play that perfectly takes advantage of Nurkic’s pinpoint passing and Powell’s ability to move off the ball. Gary Trent Jr. was great, but Powell has shown that he can do this kind of thing at all three levels. It’s a great sign that Nurk and Powell are already connecting like this.

Here’s another example, this time to a different guy. Nurkic gets the ball from the right wing and immediately homes in on what Damian Lillard is doing. Lillard cuts and Nurkic floats an easy pass to Lillard along the baseline. No one on the Blazers I think is as good as Nurkic at getting this little floaty pass to cutters, and this is just another example of him doing so.

What’s that? You’re pining for some Point Nurk action? Well here you go! This is actually something that I love mostly because of the defensive action (more on that in a bit), but it’s still fun to see Nurkic handle the ball down the court and deliver a good pass to a cutting McCollum. It just shows his comfort with the ball in his hands.

With that last play, it feels like an appropriate time to discuss Nurkic’s defense. He’s been tough inside (even if the block numbers don’t show it) and has shown more competence on that end than the other Blazers big men (which is a low bar to clear).

I wanted to show this play because of three reasons. First, it happened in the first minute of his return back, which is a very good way to start a game! Second, it’s pretty similar to the steal and assist beforehand to McCollum with the blitz and poke. Third, it shows a fun wrinkle to the Blazers defense, which can be summed up as Nurkic “going rogue”. That’s how Blazers coach Terry Stotts described it, at least.

Fast forward to 1:32 here in this highlight video and you’ll see Nurkic do the thing he does best defensively. Dwayne Bacon thinks he’s got an easy path to the hoop and shouldn’t have a problem getting by Derrick Jones Jr. But he dribbles right into Nurkic as he rises up and Nurk stymies him at the rim. Bacon never had a chance with Nurk in the paint.

Fast forward once again to 3:04 to see Blazers legend Moses Brown and another example of solid interior defense from Nurkic (you could watch this whole thing and find examples of it, honestly). Brown tries to take on Nurkic, which is a poor move on Brown’s part. Nurkic just has to stay solid, raise his hands, and let Brown take a tough shot. Nurk is pretty patient in these situations; he doesn’t swat because he doesn’t need to swat. Another great play from the Bosnian Beast.

Overall, there have been ups and downs with Nurkic. The ups of good passing, defense, and occasional dunks have been great. The downs of poor finishing and injury-plagued stretches have been brutal, the latter especially. The truth is that we never get to see fully what he’s capable of with this team because there’s always something in the way. A freak injury here, a missed game there, there’s always something.

Blazer fans deserve to see a healthy Jusuf Nurkic. The Blazers themselves deserve to have a healthy Nurk. But most importantly, Nurkic deserves to have an extended healthy stretch. Because when he’s healthy, there’s plenty of fun to be had in the Moda Center.