Jusuf Nurkic Is The Van Helsing The Portland Trail Blazers Needed

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1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a film of two halves. For its first half, Dracula is an average piece of horror cinema. It’s got some handsome visuals, a decent score, and some good acting to go along with some very poor acting (pick an accent, Keanu Reeves!). For a good 30 minutes, Dracula is an adequate vampire flick. Until, that is, Anthony Hopkins enters the movie as famed vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing. As soon as Hopkins joins the party, bringing with him a much-needed dose of humor and liveliness, Dracula instantly becomes a more enjoyable movie, rising levels above anything that had come before it.

Just watch him chew the scenery, literally, in this clip.

Likewise, for about two-thirds of the Portland Trail Blazers’ season, the team was average at best if not downright pitiful. The team was boring to watch and always let you down in close games. We watched as the Blazers laid one egg after another, fans counting lottery balls with each successive loss. Then the trade deadline happened and along came Jusuf Nurkic.

Immediately, the Blazers have become a more entertaining product.

Nurkic has helped the Blazers improve their appallingly bad Keanu-tries-an-accent-like defense while giving them a reliable third option on offense. It’s the most unexpected twist on what has been, to this point, a most disappointing season. Nurkic is the Blazers’ version of Hopkins’ Van Helsing, a boost of unforeseen energy and a relief that this season may be worth watching to the end.

What’s most surprising about Nurkic is how he has elevated the defense. With Nurkic in the lineup, the Blazers have a 99.9 defensive rating, a far cry from their standard bottom-of-the-league effort.

Take last night’s nail-biting victory against the Philadelphia 76ers where Nurkic set career highs of six blocks and 20 rebounds as proof he is raising the bar for the Blazers on the defensive end. Nurkic also had the key defensive stop in overtime to help secure last night’s thrilling win.

On the other end of the floor, Nurkic is averaging 15 points a game for the Blazers, nearly double what he averaged for the Denver Nuggets. He is also averaging four assists and 1.5 steals. Thursday night, he earned more career highs with 28 points and eight assists, to go along with two steals. Even more mind boggling, Nurkic is shooting 74 percent from the free-throw line, up from his average of 50 percent. To top it all off, Nurkic is also making clutch baskets.

Nurkic fever is a real thing.

Nurkic is the scene stealer the Blazers desperately needed.

After an offseason of free agent misses and overpaying for role-players, General Manager Neil Olshey may have finally scored a win. It remains to be seen, however, if this is just a honeymoon phase for Nurkic. Surely, some of these spikes in Nurkic’s offense, like his sudden deadeye from the free throw line, is just a temporary escalation in production caused by exposure to decent coffee and better microbrews. Or, is it?

Nurkic is only 22 years old, so it is entirely possible that what we are witnessing is just a glimpse of what he is capable of performing night in and night out. Hopefully, Portland can nurture and grow Nurkic’s skills in a way that Denver could not. If they can, the Blazers could be walking away with the one of the biggest steals in recent franchise memory. Much to his credit, Nurkic has already made us forget about that one guy we traded him for.

The Blazers have been a different team all-together since the All-Star break. Damian Lillard looks well rested and is playing his best ball since the beginning of the season. CJ McCollum continues his surge to the league’s elite, and Al-Farouq Aminu is once again Portland’s best defender with a habit of scoring in streaks. So, Nurkic can’t take all the responsibility for the Blazers’ recent uptick in quality of play, but he has certainly helped change the outlook of the team, for this season and beyond.

Just as Hopkins elevated Dracula, so too is Nurkic elevating the Blazers’ watchability. For the first time this season, the Blazers are an exciting, fun group on the basketball court. Nurkic is a welcome breath of fresh air, a true big man with a soft touch the team has not seen since the days of Arvydas Sabonis. Portland’s recent win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, in which they won a rare close game, was the most fun I had watching a Blazers game all season. At least it was until Thursday’s win against the Sixers. In just two games, the Blazers have become must-see TV again.

Only a few weeks ago, fans in Rip City were counting down the clock to draft night. Now, the Blazers have a legitimate shot at the eighth seed in the playoffs, an enticing scenario with the Golden State Warriors struggling without the injured Kevin Durant, leaving the door open for a potential matchup against LaMarcus Aldridge and the San Antonio Spurs.

Whatever happens, playoffs or lottery, the Blazers will be a fascinating team to watch for the remainder of the season with Nurkic a big reason why. When disappointment was weighing heavily on the Blazers, Nurkic entered the locker room and proclaimed, “We have all become God’s madmen!” And then he slayed three hipsters. Not really, but you get the idea.

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About Author

John Stupak is a senior writer for Oregon Sports News since 2014. John has followed Oregon sports for nearly 30 years. He is a life-long Portland Trail Blazers fan and has had the privilege of covering the Portland Thorns of the NWSL. Along with everything sports, he is fan of movies and of quality television (sorry CBS) in his spare time. John has a beautiful wife, Amanda, along with one soccer-loving, intelligent, and artistic daughter. John is an electrical tech designer by day and a writer by nights and weekends. You can follow John and all his musings on Twitter (@Stupak77).

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