In early 2019, we saw the emergence of a bear. A Bosnian Bear. A basketball-playing, center-devouring Bosnian Bear.
Jusuf Nurkic was playing the best ball of his life as the big man for the Portland Trail Blazers at this time. His defense was sturdy, his free-throw shooting had improved tremendously, his two-man game with Damian Lillard had reached mind-meld status, and his outlook was looking rosy at a mere 24 years of age.
Then, one night in March, that all went up in smoke as his leg snapped and fractured.
How He Did Last Year
After an up-and-down first full year with the franchise in 2017-18, Nurk got a new contract (which is VERY team-friendly at a flat $12 million per year with a partially guaranteed final season) and a significant raise from his rookie salary. In years past, once a guy got paid, he usually let his foot off the gas and coasted—after all, what are they going to do, fire him? NBA players got a bad rap partly for this reason.
Thankfully, Nurkic isn’t wired like that. After getting paid, he didn’t slack off or pout about getting underpaid (Nurk went into free agency at a really unfortunate time). He went out to the court and had a career year.
I’d tell you how many career highs the Beast set, but I honestly lost count at around 30; the only stat he didn’t eclipse was Total Minutes, and that was only because his leg crumpled like a beer can smashed on a frat boy’s forehead with 10 games to go last season. He mastered the pick-and-roll with Lillard on a scale rarely seen throughout the Association—the only combo I would have called better than Dame-Nurk was Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.
Nurk still had a tendency to show off his touch more than he should, but as the year went on—and as Lillard continued to attack him—the Bear remembered that he was seven feet tall and 275 pounds, and that very few men as large as he is can move like he does. Powerful slams went down more often, and more centers fouled him rather than let him go up with the ball, which led to more free throws. He shot over five per game and made them at a 77% clip, besting his previous career high by 14 percentage points.
Portland was always going to like a guy like Nurkic for producing at that level right after a new contract, but our love affair with him truly blossomed after he broke his leg. He showed up to playoff games—often arriving fashionably late—to thunderous ovations. He made himself visible and a part of things. A billboard sprung up near I-5 close to the Moda Center saying in both Bosnian and English that Portland loved him.
Overall, it was a highly successful season for Nurkic–until the aforementioned crumpling of his leg. And that’s why this next question is impossible to answer….
What He Brings to the Table
…Because no one really knows. Nurkic’s injury is similar to what Paul George suffered a few summers ago, and he came back for the final six games of the following regular season looking like a shadow of himself. (PG didn’t fully recover until he went to Oklahoma City.)
Nurk’s forecast has him returning after the All-Star break in February, which would make it 11 months after his fracture. It’ll be longer than George, who returned a mere nine months after his devastating break, but Nurk is taller and much heavier than George. There’s a chance that whatever mobility he had may be impacted for years, or even gone for good.
The Blazers know perfectly well that even if Nurkic can return to peak 2019 form, it won’t happen this season or maybe the next. That’s why they traded for Hassan Whiteside. They want Nurk to ease his way back into playing basketball at an NBA level this season, then give his starting role back to him in 2020-21.
That timeline unfortunately coincides with the prime years of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum; it’ll be very difficult for the Blazers to both be patient with Nurkic as he eases himself back into the grind and maximize the peak years of their superstar point guard and his sidekick.
What to Expect in 2019-20
Honestly, no one should expect much. It’s not about this year for Nurkic, but the next—which creates interesting tension as the Blazers are on the lower tier of contenders for the NBA title this season. The success of this season from the center position will depend more on Whiteside than Nurkic.
I’ll tell you what I want to see from Nurkic this season, however: a little progress, a few impact plays in the minutes he does get, tolerance for Whiteside’s inevitable moments of idiocy.
The most important thing of all is a clean bill of health, and that’s what I want for him most of all.