Depending on the conversation, there may not be a player on the Portland Trail Blazers roster more divisive among the fanbase than Jusuf Nurkic. Save for Anfernee Simons, few, if any players were more intertwined in trade discussions more often than No. 27.
Even with all of his flaws — many of which we will get into here — few players’ presences (or lack thereof) feel as noticeable as Nurkic’s is. In some ways, he’s in an unenviable position, being the only player above 6-foot-9 playing meaningful minutes on Portland’s roster, something that Chauncey Billups has discussed as a flaw in Portland’s lineup construction.
One question that always feels worth asking: from a contractual standpoint, how closely has Nurkic gotten to fulfilling his end of the bargain? The days of pegging him as a potential All-Star are over, though he’s paid as an average big — not elite, yet not incompetent — and in some ways, this is exactly what he’s provided.
For instance: Spotrac lists him as the No. 15 highest-paid center, fourth-highest-paid Blazer, and the 90th highest-paid player in the NBA.
If you were putting together a ranking of 2022-23 centers, Nurkic would be somewhere in that middle range within the 11-to-20 spectrum; if you were ranking this year’s most impactful Blazers, you’d likely go: Lillard, Grant, Simons, then Nurkic; if you were listing out a top-100 in today’s NBA — as Sports Illustrated’s writers did prior to the season, ranking the Blazers center at No. 98 — Nurkic would be somewhere on the bubble in that Top 100 or better. Therefore, is it safe to say they’ve gotten what they paid for?
Putting all of Nurkic’s strengths, weaknesses and quirks together makes for one of the most entertaining players to watch across the NBA’s spectrum, though sometimes not for all of the right reasons. As always, here are a few things that stood out to one observer:
No. 1: Ant’s Intuition:
Mere moments after putting together a career-high performance on Dec. 3 against the Utah Jazz, Anfernee Simons was quick to count his blessings. In acknowledging some of the reasons for that 45-point game — including the Jazz’s insistence with not stepping up to the level of his screens — Simons offered an interesting thought when asked about Nurkic’s role in it:
“Nurk is one of the best screeners, if not the best screener in the NBA. So, we’re very happy to have him. He just affects the game in so many ways, so we appreciate him for getting us open, and we return the favor by getting it to him in the post.”
The “player compliments teammate” quotes are often to be taken with two grains of salt. Though, for Nurkic, a player sometimes categorized as not being elite in any one thing among centers, it remains a standout part of his game in 2022-23.
Despite their ability to score in an assortment of different situations, it isn’t an anomaly that Damian Lillard and Simons are perennially among the NBA’s best in both pick-and-roll PPP (points per possession) and frequency. Using what I like to call “nightclub bouncer strength,” Nurkic utilizes his size exceptionally well on drag screens, that “21 Series” with the sideline-based Pistol sets and in pick-and-rolls. Normally, defenders at least attempt to get a “rearview pursuit” — when the player being screened attempts to at least get a contest from behind or at the shoulder of the shooter — but with Nurkic’s mass and success rate on “connecting” those screens, it’s often a fruitless task. To provide a few examples:
As Hulk Hogan might (almost) say: resistible force meets immovable object. There’s a rightfully-justified discussion to be had Nurkic’s shortcomings. He does miss a hair too many open layups; there are concerns about him in drop coverage; his post-ups aren’t as efficient as they could be to explain the volume. But, he is No. 6 in screen assists and No. 3 in screen assists points generated. A critical tenet of the Blazers’ offense, he’s certainly had a hand — and a 290-pound frame at that — in pushing Portland’s offense to respectability.
No. 2: Do Nurkic’s positives outweigh his flaws?
The Feb. 9 trade deadline is now two weeks into the rearview mirror, though it isn’t particularly difficult to recall how often fans, and experts alike, entertained the idea of the Blazers moving on from their center of the last seven years.
From a personal perspective, it made some sense, given that Portland seemed to play at a more effective clip when they played at a faster clip, something non-conducive with Nurkic in a lead role. This much you can live with; ask even the loudest Nurkic detractors if they would’ve taken his production in the 2019 Western Conference Finals, and they’re likely to vouch for him. Having a player capable of slowing the pace down with a sometimes-reliable source of offense or the potential to create an inside-out game is key, even for his faults.
What’s perhaps unforgivable is how often Nurkic misses “bunnies” right at the rim or makes head scratching decisions that undermine the considerable work he did prior to, such as this play here:
It’s interesting: in the clip above showcasing that missed shot against Nic Claxton, Portland’s broadcasting crew provided some dialogue on his teammates getting on him for that shot. Lamar Hurd noted that Lillard told him, “Come on man. You’re good enough to make that shot.” Not to mention stories regarding Chauncey Billups “barking” at him, chiding him for not knowing the play when everyone else did.
Objectivity is key, and Nurkic’s case deserves consideration. A recurring calf injury likely hasn’t made life in much easier; the anecdotes of Nurkic throwing up at halftime in the locker room also come to mind, highlighting the oft-forgotten human aspect to analyzing these players.
Still, numbers are numbers at the end of the day, and they don’t always paint Nurkic out to be the feared interior presence that one would assume. Of the 25 centers to take at least 200 shots in the restricted area, Nurkic’s field goal percentage (63.0) ranks dead last. In the non-restricted area, he ranks No. 23 out of 25.
Yet, even so, Nurkic ranks No. 1 in post-up frequency despite being in the 42nd percentile. The 0.91 PPP ranks No. 20 out of 25 players with at least 100 post-ups.
Thus, it leads to one central question: do you feed him more? Less? The Blazers are 7-7 when they feed him heavily (a usage rate over 25.0 percent), and they’re 7-4 when he scores 20+ points. But, they’re 7-10 when he plays 30+ minutes. Does any of that matter? Personally, they appeared at their best using his presence to create those inside-out opportunities, or the high-lows with Grant earlier this year, or in the two-man game with Lillard instead.
Jusuf Nurkic is now No. 1 in the NBA in post-up possessions (52). Lots of that has to do w/ his usage vs. Phoenix.— Marlow Ferguson Jr. (@meloferg) November 8, 2022
Sort of an old-school vibe, w/ Portland using Nurkic and Grant on high-low passes + using their post-ups to go inside-out.
Led to some solid looks. pic.twitter.com/3CkPdIkYwi
There are also some issues — the great offenses often exploit it — with energy and foot speed in some defensive pick-and-roll coverages as seen here. Evaluating him as a whole, the days of buying stock in his top-shelf center potential are over. But, when the switch is flipped and he’s on his game, few bigs impact the game to the degree that he can. It’s just a matter of getting him there.
No. 3: Have we learned anything new about Nurkic in 2022-23?
The writing was on the wall for this to be one of Jusuf Nurkic’s more productive seasons. Given his play with Bosnia and Herzegovina, he had the built-in “he’s already in shape” card working in his favor.
If there’s one key avenue that we’ve seen Nurkic add to his game — and credit to him for continuing to try and at least diversify and modernize his play — it’s that his 3-point touch is at a career-high rate in 2022-23.
After connecting on just 32 3-point attempts over his first eight seasons, Nurkic’s new magic number is 39; he’s hit 39 3-pointers thus far at a 39 percent clip, something that The Athletic’s Jason Quick said helped to open the Blazers’ playbook. This adjustment has fueled arguably his career’s most efficient season (59.8 TS%).
The majority of the 3-pointers have come above the break, such as in this example against the Hornets on Dec. 26, a game in which Nurkic had (arguably) his finest two-way performance of the season.
The success rate on his triples, volume be darned, got to a point in which you could tell defenders were beginning to respect it. Remember how hard Mason Plumlee’s closeout was on Nurkic’s corner 3-point fake during that game? It’s certainly cooled off considerably; since Jan. 1, he’s hitting just 29.5 percent on 2.9 attempts nightly. But for a brief time, defenses had to think twice when deciding when to “stunt” or closeout when that wasn’t the case before.
He’s also hitting exactly half of his shots from 16-feet out to the 3-point line, and this marks his second-best season from that 3-to-10 foot range.
Of course, it’d be irresponsible to not bring up some of the defensive traits that we’ve seen permeate across Nurkic’s film in this season alone.
There are examples here of Nurkic just being completely unwilling to follow defenders out along the perimeter and defend shots, as shown here and here:
Scottie Barnes had 22 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals & 2 blocks in 29 minutes today against Portland.— Keerthika Uthayakumar (@keerthikau) January 9, 2023
His 25th career 20-point game, the most by a Raptor aged 21 or younger since DeMar DeRozan. pic.twitter.com/uNhnytykND
It’s all fun, games and a good laugh when players clank those shots off the side of the backboard as Davis did there. It’s an entirely different one when players exploit it with shootaround-type wide-open looks, as players such as Scottie Barnes and Myles Turner have gotten.
Some of it could be scheme, but a lot of it also boils down to effort, explaining why Billups has elected to close some games with Drew Eubanks. Reports suggest that the Bosnian center is nearly at full strength and ready to perform; here’s to hoping he’s able to regain that mojo. As always, whether his future is in Portland or elsewhere, every game can be deemed an audition.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- Nurkic is having one of his more dominant defensive rebounding seasons, though the caveat is that it’s also come with his second-lowest offensive rebounding rate of his career; playing along the perimeter more often will do that to you.
- For all of the talk about how inefficient Nurkic’s post-ups can sometimes be, opponents on the flip side defenses have been smart enough not to test him on those post-ups — either that or they’re just aware of the benefit of other shot types against this Blazers defense. As a whole, they’ve attempted just 19 post-up shots on him this year, hitting just eight of them for a 42.1 percent success rate.
- As is always the case, Nurkic still fouls a tad bit too much.. The 3.6 fouls per game are the fourth-most in the NBA. Of the 208 players to log at least 1,000 minutes, Nurkic’s foul rate per 36 ranks sixth-highest. (Our old friend Zach Collins ranks No. 1).
- One pro-Nurkic statistic: the Blazers rank as one of the NBA’s worst box-out teams, though Nurkic individually ranks as one of the best. In that seven-game stretch in which he was out with a calf injury, leaving the Blazers shorthanded, Portland got outrebounded 298-257, including a 55-27 demolishing on Feb. 6 against Milwaukee. With Nurkic off the floor, opponents also are hitting 56.4 percent of 2-pointers, compared to 53.7 percent when he is.