It was somewhat poetic that Jusuf Nurkić — a player whose tenure with the Portland Trail Blazers could be running low on time — was asked not once, but twice about his future with the franchise during his brief, seven-minute, end-of-season availability presser.
A low-post lynchpin for the Blazers over the last seven seasons, the Portland center pieced together another Nurkić-type season in 2022-23. Over a 52-game campaign, Nurkic’s tape offered a little bit of everything. There were occasional acts of brilliance, Shaqtin-a-Fool-type gaffes, moments in which he looked like one of the NBA’s most dominant forces, and others in which you wondered if you were watching a real basketball game. That’s the Nurkić experience. Here’s a look at how his numbers looked this past season:
Per Game Stats:
— 13.3 points per game
— 9.1 rebounds per game
— 2.9 assists per game
— 0.8 blocks per game
— 51.9 percent from the field
— 36.1 percent from three-point range (2.3 attempts / game)
— 66.1 percent from the free throw line
— 58.9 true shooting percentage (career-high)
— 7.4 shots contested per game at the rim (No. 11 in the NBA)
— -0.3 on-court plus-minus; +5.2 on-off swing
This past season marked the fourth consecutive campaign in which Nurkić failed to play at least 60-plus games — he’s played in 49.3 percent of a possible 310 games over the last four seasons — though some of this isn’t necessarily his fault, given the Blazers’ late-March “tanks” over the last two seasons. Nonetheless, that availability is likely to be a key talking point as both sides evaluate their situations heading into next season.
Few players are as divisive in the “Keep or Yeet” category than Nurkić is, yet even his biggest skeptics have to admit that it was difficult not to notice when the 6-foot-11, 290-pound giant didn’t suit up. As we did with Damian Lillard’s season review, there are a few statistics to drive that point home. For instance:
Per Basketball Reference, when Nurkić was on the floor, the Blazers’ total rebound rate was 50.8 percent, a figure that would’ve ranked No. 9 in the Association. Without him, that number flattened to just 47.1 percent — a figure that ranks No. 29 out of 30 teams. Without him in tow, Portland gave up long rebounds and had long faces to show for it.
Portland, fittingly in a limbo, seemed to be wondering how low they could go in terms of size on this year’s roster; among their regular, competitive rotation, Nurkić was the only player above 6-foot-9. For all of his flaws, he did find ways to utilize that size effectively in spurts.
We previously noted it in the deep dive on Nurkić from February; alongside being one of the NBA’s premier rebounders, he was also among its best pick-and-roll screeners. One of those beneficiaries, Anfernee Simons, went as far as to trumpet him as “one of the best screeners, if not the best screener in the NBA.” In that article are some examples of his work in the 5-Out, Delay offense, the Pistol, “21 Series,” among others.
Nurkić’s game can be pilloried in other ways, but from this standpoint, the numbers back up the eye test and intuition. He ranked in the 96th percentile in screen assists on BBallIndex’s tracking, and from Opening Day until Feb. 1 — when injuries really took over — he ranked No. 8 in screen assists (206) and No. 7 points generated off of those screens (509), highlighting both his know-how in using his size and in the chemistry that he’s built with Lillard and Simons.
That size advantage didn’t always yield positive results for Nurkić. As previously noted, that tendency to miss “bunnies” was common enough that teammates had to offer words of encouragement (see: the Blazers-Nets game on Nov. 17). And, the statistics surrounding his rim scoring from February didn’t get much better; he shot 62.5 percent in the restricted area, a number that ranked 39th out of 40 centers to take at least 200+ shots from that area.
In terms of a “most improved statistic,” look no further than Nurkic’s growth as a three-point shooter. After hitting only 32 three-pointers over his first eight seasons, the Bosnian Big — with credit to Chauncey Billups — expanded his game, hitting 43-of-119 for a 36.1 percentage clip. He’d become a respected above-the-break shooter to the point that harder closeouts had become a part of the scouting report.
The injury bug dealt him everything from a recurring calf injury to knee and adductor injuries, and even a bout with the flu that left him throwing up at halftime. Injuries sapped that confidence and rhythm, it appeared, once Nurkić returned on Mar. 8, to the point that he passed up on shots he would once upon a time shoot. After that time frame, he shot just 47.8 from the free throw line (on 23 attempts) and just 21.1 percent from three-point range (on 19 attempts) before ultimately being shut down for the season.
During his media availability, Nurkić was relatively candid in what he wanted to see added to the Blazers’ 2023-24 roster, as it related to those injuries and depth as a whole, with this interesting comment:
“I mean we all know we all grow as people. Like, in this league, you have to have veterans to win the games. As much as I love young people and stories, I think, at any stage, you have to have veterans to be able to play games when you’re down people, when you’re having (bad) luck with injuries, I think, down the league, when you look at the history, there’s not a lot of young teams who won championships. I think that’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to have experienced guys.”
One area in which there’s likely to be points of contention are on the defensive end. Nurkić remained one of the NBA’s better interior rim protectors; the 44.5 percent of shots he contested at the rim put him in the 95th percentile. Here’s one personal favorite example, in which he matches blossoming Cavaliers star Evan Mobley step-for-step, using his leverage to force three consecutive misses.
He also showed the ability to help “quarterback” the Blazers’ often-used zone defense from the interior, 2.9-ing in the paint and staying attached to a nearby defender.
It’s when he was asked to defend outside the paint, a chore tasked to essentially every big on occasion in today’s perimeter-oriented NBA, that more of the bloopers and lowlights came about. See a few examples here of his defense against Myles Turner from the Dec. 4 game or his “defensive effort” — note the quotation marks — against Scottie Barnes from Jan. 8. The results weren’t great.
Of course, that isn’t entirely fair to Nurkić. On occasion, the Blazers’ guards offered up traffic cone-like efforts defensively, which forced the Blazers big into situations like this. Here, Denver runs a simple baseline give-and-go with Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokić, and all it takes is a simple pump fake for Simons to give up on the play, forcing Nurkić into a 2-on-1 handicap match, so to speak:
The greatest question of all, though, ultimately remains: has Nurkić reached that said “crossroads” with the Blazers’ organization. Do they get younger at the center position in the 2023 NBA Draft? The 28-year-old’s contract — which as we noted makes him the No. 15-highest paid center and 90th highest-paid player league wide — will need to be considered.
Casey Holdahl, the Blazers’ NBA.com beat reporter, noted on a recent episode of The Briefcase, Episode 37 that the assumption of Nurkić’s days being over are “overblown,” which likely certainly helps his case.
In any case, the Blazers will be at a crossroads themselves, tasked with deciding if they want to “run it back” with their long standing core, or if they want to start fresh. And fittingly, just as it is on-court, No. 27 figures to be right in the middle of that decision as the countdown to the 2023-24 season begins.