Jusuf Nurkic – From DNPs In Denver To A Basketball Rebirth In Portland

Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Jusuf Nurkic made his Portland Trail Blazers debut on February 16, but the Rip City crowd has only been able to watch from afar. The team only made its return home post-All-Star Weekend Thursday night. So what did the new guy in town offer his new home crowd and a national T.V. audience?

An impressive stat line and a big win against a divisional rival.

Nurkic, officially the team’s starting center, recorded 18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, and five blocks in a 114-109 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nurkic joined elite company with his stat-stuffing, home-court debut, joining Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant as the third player to record 15-plus points, 10-plus rebounds, five-plus assists, and five-plus blocks in a game this year per, Trail Blazers PR.

Less than a month ago, Nurkic was recording DNPs. Now he’s providing jaw-dropping stat lines as a starter. It’s safe to say that we are witnessing a basketball rejuvenation right before our very eyes.

Just under two years ago, Nurkic was the next big thing in Denver. The 22-year-old Bosnian-Herzegovina native featured a skillset that’s valuable in a 7-foot, 280-pound center. He’s fearless, skilled, physical, yet nimble.

Nurkic was never one to back down from nobody, famously staring down both DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol. He’s an enforcer that stands up for his teammates and isn’t afraid to bump and bang in the paint.

Denver had exactly what it wanted in their 16th overall draft pick; a big, physical, young center who could develop into something really special. He was a promising prospect at the 5 for Denver, and the only thing that slowed him down was an injury.

Nurkic underwent surgery to repair a partially torn left patellar tendon on May 20, 2015. At the time, this didn’t change Denver’s future plans for Nurk. The Nuggets exercised their third-year team option on Nurkic’s rookie scale contract, which extended it through the 2016-2017 season.

Though he returned later that season, playing in his first game on January 2, 2016, there was a situation brewing in Denver. Serbian rookie Nikola Jokic had earned himself a healthy amount of playing time after wowing coach Malone with some eye-opening performances.

Nurkic was named the starting center for the Nuggets at the beginning of the 2016-2017 season, but it was short lived. Denver found itself in a frontcourt log jam, frequently rotating minutes between Nurkic, Jokic, and Kenneth Faried.

Furthermore, Nurkic and Malone had varying visions for the future. Nurkic was disgruntled with his lack of minutes.  Some clashing between the two led to Malone dropping Nurkic out of the regular rotation in Denver. Subsequently, Nurkic found himself a regular recipient of DNP-CDs.

During a December practice in Denver, Nurkic let his feelings known to the Harrison Wind of BSNDenver.com. “It’s tough. I’m 22 years-old, I’m not here to sit on the bench, I’m here to play basketball.”

The Trail Blazers kicked off the 2017 NBA trade deadline on February 12, sending away Mason Plumlee, Portland’s 2018 second-round draft pick, and cash considerations to Denver in exchange for Nurkic and Memphis’ 2017 first-round draft pick. This move was considered to be an equal trade among various NBA analysts including Ananth Pandian of CBS Sports, who gave both organizations a ‘B+’.

“This deal essentially takes the Blazers out of the playoff race and allows Denver to have the eighth seed. And while this is a step back for Portland after making the second round last season, with a sub .500 record, planning for the future now is the smart and savvy move,” mentioned Pandian in his trade analysis column.

So who exactly did the Trail Blazers get out of this trade? Will Nurkic develop into the player that Denver once expected? Should his rumored attitude be a point of concern for Rip City? By trading away Plumlee, are the Blazers organization waving the white flag for the 2017 postseason?

James Herbert of CBS Sports says that “any team acquiring him knows that he’s going to want minutes, touches, and an opportunity to grow.” That’s exactly what the Trail Blazers can offer him after a disappointing first half of the season. Thankfully for Nurkic, it sounds like everyone in the Trail Blazers organization is on the same page.

Despite posting 13 points and 8 rebounds in his debut for the Trail Blazers, Stotts remained humble about his new starting center. “He’s 22 years old. His game is not refined or defined yet.”

He’s not a long-term project like Lucas Nogueira of the Toronto Raptors or, fittingly enough, Jahlil Okafor of the Philadelphia 76ers, and his instant impact has proven that. Nurkic has all the tools to develop into the two-way interior presence that Portland has lacked for years. He just needs the right situation to get him there. Denver was not that.

Denver has a history of head coaches who aren’t exactly ‘player coaches’. George Karl’s rocky relationship with Carmelo Anthony, Brian Shaw’s disputes with Faried, and Malone calling out his entire team for having “no leadership” are just a few modest examples. It was no surprise to see that Malone and the Nuggets, once again, mishandled a situation, resulting in the loss of a skilled athlete.

Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts is exactly what Malone isn’t; a coach who thrives off of strong player-staff relationships. It’s widely known around the league that Stotts is a fun, approachable coach to play for. As an organization, Denver has failed to provide its players with a coach with whom it can share a mutual respect.

The arrival of Nurkic is a non-verbal end to Blazers’ search for a center. By trading away their starting 5, it’s very clear that they’ve put their faith in Nurkic’s future. It could be assumed that Portland does not intend on making any moves for another starter-talent center this summer, unless the move were to include Nurkic. There is no way Portland puts Nurkic in the same situation that Denver did.

It’s a smart decision by Neil Olshey to go after a young player with a high ceiling in a season that’s seemingly lost. There were many in Rip City who were heartbroken to see Plumlee’s Trail Blazer tenure come to an end, teammates included. However, from a business standpoint, this could be the move that helps Trail Blazers fans forget about all of those huge contracts that Olshey handed out less than a year ago.

While in Denver, it was said that Nurkic’s efforts had come and gone, which was surely a reflection of how he felt he was being treated by the organization.

“This is the first time after two years I am having fun.”

This positive state of mind is certainly showing on the court. He’s making highlight plays, posting career highs, and providing Rip City with some long-lost hope.

Through five games with the Trail Blazers, Nurkic is averaging 14.0 points (58.3% FG), 8.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 steals, and 1.8 blocks.

With his impressive Thursday night stat line, Nurkic became the first Trail Blazer to post 15+ points, 10+ rebounds, 5+ assists, and 5+ blocks since Cliff Robinson did it in 1992 per, Trail Blazers PR.

Breathe, Portland. Stay humble. Don’t go wild just yet.

While Nurk’s performances have been very convincing thus far, he’s still a raw talent. He was brought in by Olshey as a project piece to offer the Trail Blazers a dependable interior presence a year or two down the road.

Unfortunately, you can’t base the future of one’s career off of a couple great showings. This was supposed to be a half-year preparation for Nurkic as the Blazers look to bounce back for the 2017-2018 NBA season.

However, if these performances continue, if this truly is the basketball rejuvenation of Jusuf Nurkic; I’d plan on putting some cash aside for playoff tickets.

About Darby Marioth 12 Articles
Being that Darby was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, it would only be fitting that he would have a deep love for vibrant forests, rushing rivers, and NBA hardwood. He's been covering the Portland Trail Blazers since his junior year at Franklin High School, where he took a year of French language classes in order to meet Nicolas Batum. Over the last couple of years, Darby has had multiple Blazers-related articles syndicated by various local publishers. A rec league regular, Darby will proudly tell you about that one time he almost brought his team back from a 16-point deficit. If he had to compare his game to a former NBA player, he would tell you that his skill set is a mix of Jameer Nelson and Corey Maggette. Try to figure that one out. By day, Darby is a social media manager & PR representative. By night, he's a writer covering the NBA. You can keep up with Darby's Trail Blazers/NBA ramblings on Twitter (@DarbyMarioth).