It was hard to watch Portland Trail Blazers’ center Jusuf Nurkic struggle during the 2020-21 season. He reported to training camp late following the death of his grandmother in Bosnia. He injured his wrist during a season that was supposed to be his comeback from a devastating injury to his leg in 2019. In some ways, it is understandable that a new coach might enable Nurkic to turn over a new leaf, and according to Jason Quick of the Athletic, that is the primary goal of both Nurkic and Chauncey Billups, the Blazers’ new head coach. Nurkic stated that the hiring of Billups brought him something to look forward to.
“I felt like this is the chance I was hoping for,” Nurkic said.
At the end of last season, Nurkic did not feel good about where he was, especially as it related to his contract.
“I didn’t have a joy for basketball,” Nurkic said. “I didn’t know what the hell was going on, with all the drama and stuff.”
However, hiring Billups proved to be a turning point for Nurkic, as Billups wants to get more out of the Bosnian Beast.
When Nurkic arrived in Portland for his meeting with Billups, they talked for what he estimates was 45 minutes to an hour.
“Man-to-man,” Nurkic said, “a great conversation.”
Billups said he was upfront with Nurkic. He told him he meant every word he said about getting more out of him, and that the offense would feature more ball movement and more touches. But he also told him he needed him to be in shape, and that if he was tired, he would be coming out of the game.
Nurkic is recommitted to the Blazers.
“It’s not a question anymore whether I want to be here or not,” Nurkic said. “When the team hired Chauncey and I have a conversation with him and (assistant) Roy Rogers, there was no doubt. I’m 100 percent committed to Blazers.”
“To be honest with you, this is probably the best thing — other than Dame (Lillard) — to happen to me in my life,” Nurkic said.
Billups is looking forward to coaching Nurkic.
“I’m excited to coach Nurk, I really am,” Billups said. “This dude is uber-talented, man. I said what I said (in the press conference), and I do believe we are going to get the best version of him this year.”
“I’ve been on him about things I need from him,” Billups said. “I said, ‘Nurk, I know you are going to be a free agent, and I understand you have to have a great year. You need me for you to have a great year, and I need you for us to have a good year. We need each other, right?’
“I’m going to give him every opportunity to have a great year. Because if he has a great year, that means we are a pretty damn good team. Because he is a good player. But that means he has to be focused and be in shape. Because you are only going to play as many minutes as you are physically able. If you are out there tired, uh-uh, come on, gotta get you out. There are good players behind you.”
The struggles Nurkic faced at the beginning of last season? Gone. The Bosnian Beast says he is doing much better.
“I don’t think it was so much my shape; it was mentally. I was going through a lot,” Nurkic said. “People might not see, but I was going through a lot emotionally and family-wise, like everyone else. Sometimes when you go through a lot, people take it different ways.”
“To be honest, this is the first time I’m in control of my own destiny,” Nurkic said. “I love it. I actually love that I’m in a contract year. As you know, players in their contract year probably play their best basketball, period. So I’m excited. But even me being in a contract year hasn’t gotten me as fired up for basketball as much as Chauncey has. When he came, and the stuff he said, and the stuff he is trying to do here … I am beyond happy.”
For both Billups and Nurkic, trust is a huge part of the game.
“The biggest thing is not the plays; it’s how well we are going to be able to trust each other,” Billups said. “That’s a huge word for me, trust, and that’s on both sides of the ball. I think for the offense to have been as special last year as it was numbers-wise — even though they were last in the league in assists, last in pushing the ball after misses — is incredible.
“We have to move that ball. I think that makes us harder to guard, less predictable. We’ve put together a really good, deep team in my opinion, with role players who are pretty significant. So moving the ball is going to be a big deal.”
It’s true on defense as well.
“If you are going to help somebody, you have to have trust that somebody is going to help you,” Billups said. “That’s how our defense is going to be set up; it’s going to be a help defense. It’s not going to be one-on-one, Dame against Steph, they on an island and everybody sitting around watching. We are not going to play that type of defense. So now, we have to trust that, and that takes time. Especially coming from where they came from. Because from a numbers standpoint, there was not a lot of trust there defensively.”
Nurkic feels that he has his confidence back.
“Confidence is the biggest thing in the NBA. Every guy has talent in a certain way and is there for a reason,” Nurkic said. “I know how much I can bring, and I know how much I have wished I could have a chance. But now, I see in (Billups) that I can be more productive with more of a chance, more of a system around me.”
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