2018-2019 Portland Trail Blazers Roster Preview – Jusuf Nurkic

The year was 2017. THEY were once again sleeping on the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers ended up with 48 wins and the third seed in the brutal Western Conference, shutting down critics and keyboard warriors alike. Until…

Jrue Holiday happened.

The Blazers went on to drop the series in 0-4 fashion, but the bad news was just beginning.

The offseason was just as bleh as the first round of the playoffs.

Now we’re just weeks away with more questions than answers as it pertains to the 2018-19 edition of Rip City Season. Jared Wright and Bryant Knox of Oregon Sports News are back with their in-depth Portland Trail Blazers 2017-18 Season Previews for each player.

Today, we take a look at the Bosnian Beast who got caught in the money crunch of the 2018 free-agency period, Jusuf Nurkic.


2017-18 Recap

Games MPG PPG RPG BPG FG% FT% PER WS Total Minutes
79 26.4 14.3 9 1.4 50% 63% 19.2 4.7 2088


While Nurk didn’t keep up the torrid pace he set in the final 20 games of the 2016-17 season, after he was traded to Portland, he actually didn’t regress as much as people feared. He went from averaging a 15-10 with 51% shooting to averaging a 14-9 with 50% shooting, and his Player Efficiency Rating dropped only two points. Given that the 2017-18 season had quadruple the sample size of 2016-17, Nurkic did a solid job keeping his production fairly consistent.

Two things stood out to me when delving into Nurkic’s stats: the total minutes he played and his liking for feasting close to the rim. If you’ll recall last year’s preview on him (and you probably wouldn’t, since you can count the number of times I put finger to keys for OSN on one hand during last season), one of my chief worries was his injury history in Denver. Knowing the Blazers’ checkered past with big men and injuries, it was perhaps natural to worry about our current center’s knees, ankles, and feet.

For the 2017-18 season, at least, those worries were put to rest. Even at a light-for-a-starter 26 minutes per game, playing 79 games allowed the Beast to exceed 2K minutes played for the first time in his NBA career. His consistency and fourth-quarter usefulness may come and go at a maddening rate, but at least he was relatively healthy. That’s a victory in itself, even if the Bosnian Bear “slimmed down” to a mere 280 pounds.

And about his size: turns out that most of the time, it doesn’t matter if you look like a drunken polar bear skating on ice when defending quick guards (and big men, hi Anthony Davis) in space, if you’re tall and wide, you will be a force at the rim when you want to be. At an even seven feet tall, Nurk used his size pretty well when he got over his inconsistent spells and deference to Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.

Nurkic shot almost 59% from five feet or less from the basket last season, according to NBA.com. It’s not the most impressive number for a man his size, but it’s better than many I’ve seen before. Out of his 480 made field goals in 2017-18, 340 were from five feet or less. That’s 71% of his field goals. What dragged his percentage down from 59% to what it is in the table above is his horrific 58-152 line from five to nine feet, a putrid 38%.

He may suck at post moves, but the Beastly One sure did learn garbage cleanup and opportunism from the dearly departed Ed Davis. (Enjoy Brooklyn, Ed. Even on your cheap-for-an-NBA-player salary, you’re one of the very, very, very few that can actually afford to livein Brooklyn.)

On defense, Nurkic learned the Robin Lopez Strategy. He hung back deep in the paint, surrendering midrange jumpers and floaters to drivers who inevitably got past Lillard, McCollum, Shabazz Napier, or Pat Connaughton. Although those shots could be classified as somewhat open most of the time, because Nurk lacks the speed to contest after digging down into the key, those shots are the least efficient shots in basketball; head coach Terry Stotts has lived with teams taking those shots for over six years now.

As for those poor fools who challenged Nurkic at the rim, they either got a hard foul from a small polar bear (seriously, go see the polar bears we got in the Oregon Zoo. They’re called the world’s largest land predator for a very obvious reason), were able to knock in a tough layup, got their shot altered or blocked, or in the case of LeBron James, treated him to a sick poster dunk.

Overall, his defense at the rim was a positive, the occasional dunk notwithstanding. According to NBA.com, the league as a whole shot 62% at the rim. When Nurk defended the rim, which was about half the Blazers’ defensive possessions, players shot an average of 53% against him. I don’t know about you, but that, plus the fact that the Blazers sported the eighth-best defensive rating in the 2017-18 regular season, tells me that Jusuf Nurkic did his job, and did it pretty well last year.

Except in the playoffs. But he’s far, far from the only Blazer that struggled against Davis and Co.


What He Brings to the Table

We talked about some of the stuff Nurkic does for the Blazers, but what your average Blazermaniac might not know about Nurk is that he’s a very good passer for a big man. This ability is on display maybe once or twice a game, and everyone shares some of the blame for underutilizing a method of gaining eight or 10 easy points a game—and after a season of watching Lillard and McCollum dribble or run around screens for 20 seconds before launching long threes, any way you can get an easy dunk or a trip to the foul line is a way that needs to be traveled more.

The structure of the Blazers’ offense, the ball-dominance of the two lead guards, the tendency of almost everyone else to stand around when not setting picks or dribbling, and Nurk himself feeling the need to make a play towards the rim when he does get the ball: all these factors are a part of why after averaging 3.2 assists per game for Portland in 2016-17, he averaged 1.8 APG last season. True, Lillard does make an occasional cut to the rim, and Maurice Harkless is an active cutter (the Nurkic-Harkless give and go is one of my three favorite Blazer-related things on the court, along with CJ’s automatic baseline 16-footer and Dame bombing from 30 feet out), but everyone else stands around on the outside, trying to space the floor and often failing because they’re streaky shooters the defense doesn’t respect, and no one in their right mind is leaving CJ McCollum, aka Midget Reggie Miller, open from three.

I do wish they would feature some more post passing, if only to add another wrinkle to the offense. Taking some work off the overburdened shoulders of Dame and CJ would be an added bonus.

Another thing Nurk can do sneaky-well is shoot from long range; he shot 41% from 20-24 feet in 2017-18, per NBA.com. Despite his mediocre free-throw shooting (and the widespread acceptance that that is a very reliable indicator of a player’s ability to shoot a basketball), the Bosnian big man can shoot an outside jumper every now and then, much like another Eastern European center that roamed the Rip City hardwood.

There are things Nurkic can do well that are taken advantage of, and things he can do, and should try to do more often, that can add another dimension to what Portland can do on offense. An offense can be run through him for stretches, maybe a few minutes at a time. Using him as a glorified garbage man and miscast post scorer doesn’t do his skill set justice, though the Beast’s own bouts of inconsistency and immaturity admittedly have quite a bit to do with that.


What to Expect in 2018-19

It has to be mentioned that after a long summer of negotiations, rumors that he’d take the qualifying offer (meaning that he could enter unrestrictedfree agency next year, as opposed to being a restrictedfree agent after last season), and watching the free-agent market for centers dry up like a witch’s teat, Nurkic signed a very reasonable, team-friendly contract. The terms were four years for $48 million, with the last year of that deal being partially guaranteed; if Portland wants to cut bait with the Bosnian in 2021, they’d be on the hook for only $4 million.

There aren’t many people that would be salty about making $48 million, but Nurkic is one of those that could be. Considering that Evan Turner signed a $75 million contract in 2016 despite being a very distant fourth in the Blazers’ pecking order (and even that changes at times), and that bench warmer Meyers Leonard will be making just a million dollars less than Nurkic, the damn starter, and that at the best of times the Beast is a volatile personality that Stotts and Lillard have to constantly keep track of, and…well…

I’m not saying that Jusuf Nurkic is a bad guy, or that he’s a surefire candidate to sulk about money. He can blame the market and the Player’s Association more than he can blame Paul Allen and Neil Olshey. But, knowing that basketball players are typically obsessed with money, that money is a marker of status in the NBA, and knowing that Nurkic has more mood swings than a pubescent girl, it would not surprise me if his quality of play took a dip this season, and that the reason why would be connected to this past summer.

Put succinctly: I hope that Jusuf Nurkic will play well this upcoming season. I would not trust Jusuf Nurkic to play well this upcoming season. The negatives about him pile up too high for a cynical jerk like me to do so.

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About Jared Wright 70 Articles
Jared Wright is a Portland Trail Blazers writer for Oregon Sports News, though he also writes about other stuff when the mood takes him. He also apparently enjoys talking about himself in the third person. He lives in Southeast Portland.