Jusuf Nurkic Has Been Exactly What the Portland Trail Blazers Needed
Coming into his third NBA season, big things were expected of Jusuf Nurkic in Denver. With or without Nikola Jokic at his side, the 22-year-old was set to get consistent playing time and produce from the center position.
Five games in, Nurkic looked like a player capable of leading the Nuggets down low. He was averaging a double-double -- 15.2 points and 10.6 rebounds -- with 9 blocks across more than 137 minutes (27.5 per game). The team was 2-3 with only one loss of more than three points, but that somehow pushed Nurkic to a backup role for all but a few games going forward.
In 45 games and 29 starts with Denver, the seven-footer averaged just 8.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 0.8 blocks in 17.9 minutes. Meanwhile, Jokic took over at center and blossomed into an NBA star.
Nurkic was then sent to the Portland Trail Blazers in a player-for-player swap involving Mason Plumlee. At the time, it was perceived as a win-win for both sides. It's safe to say that it's been confirmed since, but after last night's game between the two teams, it's now plain to see the Blazers have obtained the better end of the deal.
In the Blazers' 122-113 home win against the Bosnian's former team, Nurkic got sweet revenge in the form of 33 points, 16 rebounds and 3 blocks in 33-plus minutes. In doing so, Portland leapfrogged Denver for the 8 seed in the West, which could prove to be the deciding factor with just eight games remaining on the regular season schedule.
Beyond the revenge narrative and the game's playoff ramifications, though, this individual performance was simply a microcosm of Nurkic's stint with the Blazers thus far.
A lot of Nurkic' Nuggets career was a matter of opportunity and the lack thereof. Since arriving in Portland, however, it's been all about seizing opportunity.
|Nurkic||% GP > 25 Mins||MPG||USG%|
Not only has he played more than 11 minutes per game through 19 contests, but Nurkic has seen the floor for more than 25 minutes in 13 games. That's six more than his total with the Nuggets in 26 more opportunities.
On a similar note, despite the presence of both Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Nurk has seen an increase in his usage with the Portland offense. He now uses over a quarter of his team's possessions while on the floor. With Lillard and McCollum on the bench, Nurkic has a team-high usage of 38.9%, according to NBAwowy.com. Albeit, that's in a sample size of just four minutes but it tells you where he is in Portland's pecking order.
This giant window of opportunity has done everything to allow Nurkic to refine his game and discover where he fits in best with the Blazers.
Fine-Tuning to Fit
From his time with Denver, we knew Nurkic could produce. When he played 25 minutes or more this season, the result was 15.1 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. Even when we take his averages over 36 minutes, we see pretty similar production.
Nurkic has had this level of productivity inside of him all along -- it's just taken the right situation for it to emerge. He has even increased his numbers across the board, most notably in points and assists, where we see differences of 2.6 and 1.5, respectively.
We can attribute this to the big man's increased efficiency.
|Nurkic||Player Efficiency Rating||Win Shares||Win Shares/48|
On the offensive end, Nurkic has gone from an offensive rating of 98 points per 100 possessions with the Nuggets to 106 with the Trail Blazers. His field goal percentage has increased by a mere 0.7%, but that doesn't account for his new and improved free throw game.
Something had to be wrong psychologically in Denver, because Nurk's 49.6% from the line was more than 10% below his career average of 59.9%. Since the trade, he's back to being an adequate free-throw shooter, at 65.6%.
But it's not all about shooting percentage -- a newfound aggressiveness has helped him to get easy buckets at the charity stripe. His free throw attempt rate -- the number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt -- has gone from .379 to .409 and his percentage of total points via free throws has gone from 15.9% to 20.6%.
He's turned over a new leaf on defense as well. In 19 games with Portland, Nurkic has held opponents to a defensive rating of 104 points per 100 possessions and has provided 0.9 defensive win shares in that time, which is shockingly better in comparison to his Denver numbers (109 defensive rating and 0.8 defensive win shares in 26 more games).
Blazing A Playoff Trail
Whether it's been Nurkic's presence, the combination of he and Lillard's recent play or the team as a whole, the Blazers have been much better since the trade. Upon taking the floor as a Blazer for the first time back on February 15th, the Blazers are 13-6 and have a net rating of 4.6 over the span of those 19 games. That, according to NBA.com, ranks sixth in the NBA off the strength of a 110.4 offensive rating, which rates fifth in the league since mid-February.
They're now a game ahead of the Nuggets and have an 83.7% chance of making the playoffs, according to our numbers. If they do make the playoffs, they owe a large thanks to the newest member of their team -- oh, and a thank you card to the Nuggets.