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Jusuf Nurkic Has Evolved in Portland This Season

The big man started the year playing one role and now is filling a bigger one.

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Portland Trail Blazers v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

After a rocky start to the 2021-2022 NBA season, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic is playing, in his eyes, the best basketball of his career. In a recent in-depth piece by The Athletic’s Jason Quick, Quick detailed how the Bosnian Beast has turned his play around and still believes he has a future in Portland, despite trade rumors.

In Quick’s piece, Head Coach Chauncey Billups said Nurkic’s recent superb play — the big man has averaged 17.5 points, 13.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists during the month of January — was caused by a “perfect storm.” A key component of this perfect storm, was a tense team meeting in November. At the meeting, Nurkic emphasized his commitment to the team and new coaching staff, but vented frustrations about his limited role and a lack of accountability from his teammates.

Said Billups: “What I clearly remember Nurk saying to everyone is that this is all fine and good, but it’s just words. We have to actually put actions to words. And he brought up that when we don’t, the game is not fun.”

It was a moment of leadership for Nurkic, but it also did two things: it allowed Nurkic to feel heard, and understood, and it told Billups that he maybe underestimated Nurkic and perhaps should empower him more.

This new “empowerment” from the coaching staff resulted in Billups analyzing Nurkic’s game and addressing changes that needed to be made. The first-year head coach instructed Nurkic to play with more power.

“I told him I don’t want that floater — we have enough guards who shoot floaters,” Billups said. “I told him I want him beastin’ … beastin’ all right? Boom, get down there and they can’t guard you. You are too big, too strong.”

Nurkic’s change to a more aggressive style of play coincided with another key change that factored into this “perfect storm”: The roster was tarnished by injuries and a COVID-19 outbreak, forcing the team to play through Nurkic more. As his usage increased, so did his numbers, leading to a much more content player.

“Before, they were trying to say ‘Be the best Nurk you can,’ but then I would have two shots at the half,” Nurkic said. “I was like, how? Fly? We had Dame, CJ, Norm … we have so many guards it’s like ‘Damn, how am I going to get a shot,’ right? So I just went and rebounded.”

When Nurkic’s play was floundering in the opening months of the season, outside chatter about trading him picked up, especially since he’s entering unrestricted free agency this summer. Now that he’s playing so well, there’s more speculation he could net the Blazers a valuable return on the market. However, Nurkic said he was assured by interim general manager Joe Cronin that the organization remains committed to him, although he took the promise with a grain of salt.

“Joe talked to me first, which was kind of nice,” Nurkic said. “When he took over, it was refreshing. He said, ‘You are here to stay. We are going to try and improve the team as much as possible and we are going to build around you, Dame and CJ, and hopefully, we find a way to do that.”

Nurkic has been around long enough to know nothing is certain in NBA business, so he isn’t banking on what Cronin told him as an assurance that he is untouchable in trade talks.

If it were up to Nurkic, he would stay in Portland for years to come.

He says his gut tells him he will not be traded in February, and in his heart, he wants to remain in Portland beyond this season. The way he sees it, there is unfinished business here on and off the court. He wants to help find solutions to Portland’s homelessness problem. He wants to aid the restaurant scene impacted by the pandemic. And he wants to be there to unveil the new basketball court he built at the Islamic Bosniaks Education and Cultural Center in Southeast Portland.

And mostly, he wants to continue playing with his close friend and pick-and-roll partner Damian Lillard. If he can do that in Portland, he says, the Blazers will be getting the best version of himself.

The Feb. 10 NBA trade deadline is 12 days away. Whether Nurkic is still in a Blazers uniform on Feb. 11 remains to be seen.