The Revitalization of Jusuf Nurkic

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The Bosnian big man is putting the league on notice with his recent play in Portland.

When the Portland Trail Blazers traded Mason Plumlee to the Denver Nuggets ten days before the trade deadline in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick, many expected the pick to be the real return in the trade. After all, Nurkic had spent the first half of the season stewing on the Nuggets bench playing less than 18 minutes per game.

After a promising rookie season where Nurkic averaged per-36 minute numbers of 13.9 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game, he struggled to stay healthy during the 2015–16 season and was passed by Nikola Jokic in the rotation this season (and rightly so).

However, since joining the Blazers, Nurkic’s role has expanded and so have his contributions to a now surging Portland team. In his 20 games with Portland, Nurkic is playing 30 minutes per game and averaging:

  • 15.2 points per game
  • 10.4 rebounds per game
  • 3.2 assists per game
  • 1.2 steals per game
  • 2 blocks per game

Talk about a stat line. In fact, Nurkic’s advanced stats may be even more impressive with Portland. He is averaging career highs in PER (21.1), true shooting percentage (54.5), win shares per 48 minutes (.117), and box plus-minus (2.7).

Just last month Nurkic was essentially forgotten about on the Nuggets bench and now he could be the key ingredient to a Blazers playoff appearance. Oh how things have changed for the Bosnian big man. How is Nurkic doing this? Well let’s take a closer look.

One of the most interesting things about Nurkic’s new role is how he is being used in the offense. Nurkic has a 25.6 usage percentage with Portland, and with that increased usage Nurkic has been passing the ball like never before. Nurkic had never previously averaged more than two assists per game in his career, so the four per game he is averaging with Portland is an incredible jump.

Nurkic is also posting an assist percentage of 17.7, which blows away his previous career high of 12.3 last season. In his 28 point, 20 rebound, 8 assist, and 6 block game against the 76ers, Nurkic put on a passing clinic that few centers are capable of doing.

Nurkic has been given more of the reigns on offense, and it turns out he is a more than capable passer and initiator. Ironically enough, Nurkic has played a similar role on offense in Portland to the role his former teammate Nikola Jokic is playing in Denver.

it’s extremely unlikely that the Blazers expected Nurkic to be such a force offensively, especially with his passing. Sure, he still struggles to post up strong interior defenders, but if Nurkic sets hard screens, rolls to the rim, and initiates from the top of the key, the Blazers will have an elite offense with him on the floor.

In fact, that’s exactly what the Blazers’ offense has been since Nurkic’s arrival. Since February 15th, the Blazers own the fifth best offense in the entire league.

Now that Nurkic has shown he can contribute at such a high level given enough minutes and opportunities, the trade looks like even more of a steal for Portland. When you consider that paying Mason Plumlee $12+ million per year was never truly in Portland’s plan given their tough cap situation, getting Nurkic and a first round pick is an incredible return.

Oh, and did I mention Nurkic will make less than $3 million next season? And that he’s just 22 years old? Yeah, I think too many people gave up on Nurkic too quickly. And now Nurkic is reminding people why that was silly. Opposing big men, you have been put on notice.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com

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