The Ongoing Evolution of Jusuf Nurkic

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Background

Two years ago, the Portland Trail Blazers received Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick from the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Mason Plumlee. Most people saw it as a win for Portland — they switched centers of equal caliber while also snagging a valuable pick. A pick that they managed to turn into Zach Collins, who has played the sixth-most minutes on the team this year. Even if Nurkic never surpassed Plumlee as a player, it would have been a good trade for Portland. After all, Plumlee is four years older than Nurkic.

Though, it didn’t seem like a poor deal for Denver either. Nurkic was viewed as a locker room cancer who was far too undeveloped to get significant minutes over Nikola Jokic. From their perspective, they were trading away a detriment to the team’s chemistry in exchange for a matured veteran. Trail Blazers fans recognized the fact that he just 22 years of age and tempered their expectations as a result. Maybe he would serve as a good starter in the NBA or maybe he would simply plateau as a role player.

In reality, Jusuf Nurkic has turned out better than anybody could have ever imagined.

The Value of Jusuf Nurkic

Two years after the trade, Plumlee has entered his prime and is playing the best basketball of his career for the Denver Nuggets. That’s why it’s even more impressive that Nurkic is outplaying him at 24-years-old.

 Jusuf Nurkic (2018-19)Mason Plumlee (2018-19)
Player Efficiency Rating22.917.0
Total Rebound Percentage20.2%16.1%
Assist Percentage17.2%15.9%
Block Percentage4.0%3.9%
Turnover Percentage15.0%20.7%
Usage Percentage24.4%16.8%
Win Shares Per 48 Minutes.173.135
Value Over Replacement Player1.81.0
Player Impact Estimate14.110.0

Certainly, Plumlee is having a great year for the Nuggets. He’s playing over 20 minutes per game for the Western Conference’s one-seed. However, Nurkic is enjoying a far superior season with a larger load. In fact, it isn’t far-fetched to say that Nurkic has been the second-best player on the Trail Blazers. Obviously, Damian Lillard has held the #1 spot for the past six years. Lillard’s top sidekick has been considered CJ McCollum for quite some time, but Nurkic may have taken the mantle.

Nurkic’s offensive win shares are the second-highest on the team (unsurprisingly behind Lillard). The last time McCollum didn’t hold the number-two spot was the 2014-15 season when he hadn’t yet become a starter. Nurkic is also leading the team in defensive win shares for the second-straight season.

If we take a look at the NBA’s TPA metric, Nurkic’s value is made even more clear. It calculates offensive points added and defensive points saved based on adjusting offensive box plus / minus (OBPM) and defensive box plus / minus (DBPM) to account for the number of possessions the player in question is present for. The sum of these two values is finalized as Total Points Added. Among those who haven’t reached their sixth season in the NBA, Nurkic’s 108.67 total points added is the fourth-highest this year. In similar minutes, Nurkic has more total points added than Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and DeMar DeRozan. All of these players have been on an All-NBA team at one point in their respective careers.

 

Overall, Nurkic is 18th in total points added in the NBA this season. Needless to say, he’s in the company of basketball superstars. One can notice that there appears to be three tiers on the graph. The defensive tier includes Nurkic and other players like Rudy Gobert. The offensive tier consists of elite point guards that lack defense, like Lillard and Curry. Then you have the middle tier in which players are balanced in both departments. This includes those elite small forwards like Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant. There’s some players that seem out of place, like Westbrook and Karl-Anthony Towns. Still, Nurkic’s placement makes sense and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move towards the middle later in his career.

The Trail Blazers actually have two players who made the top-20. The only other teams to have multiple players on the chart are the Thunder and Warriors.

Offensive Evolution

Jusuf Nurkic has become a serious scoring threat on the offensive end. He is often able to simply bully opposing big men down low. His true shooting percentage of 55.5% is his career high by a wide margin. Also, Nurkic’s free throw rate (.441) is the third-highest in the league among centers, behind only Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid. He’s converting these extra shots at the best rate of his career (75.3% in 2018-19, 63.0% in 2017-18).

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Nurkic’s game is in the pick-and-roll. The Damian Lillard / Jusuf Nurkic PNR is nigh impossible to stop. Sure, Lillard can make the pick-and-roll work with any player. Lillard is one of the best scorers in the league and can use anybody’s screen to get buckets. And his scoring is only matched by his playmaking — he can easily feed the big man down low for a simple layup. It would be too easy to use those clips as evidence of Nurkic’s talent. After all, that speaks more to the expertise of Damian Lillard.

However, Nurkic’s assortment of abilities is far more diverse than your average center. After all, Nurkic has 178 screen assists on the season — the third-most in the league. Additionally, his skill as a playmaker is among the best in the league for big men. The pick-and-roll is an extremely versatile yet simple play, but it is reliant on the personnel. After all, NBA defenses are smart and able to adapt quickly. But in this case, the offensive personnel is perfect. If the defense switches to stop him after he receives a pass from Lillard, he can make them pay. And of course, he always does.

In this play, Nurk gets the pass at the elbow after Klay Thompson and Kevon Looney double-team Lillard. Quinn Cook is forced to leave Seth Curry open to prevent Nurkic from having an easy shot. Nurkic recognizes this deficiency in the defense and passes it to Seth, who is shooting 75% on these shots this season. Not a bad shot for the lesser-known Curry.

It’s the same concept in this play. Lillard hits Nurkic in stride on a drive to the basket, forcing Joe Ingles to leave Moe Harkless open in the corner. Nurkic feeds the shooter with a flashy no-look pass. The result is the same. (Although, Harkless is having a down season from three, hitting shots at his lowest rate (32.6%) of the past three seasons. He’s still extremely young and a positive for the team, but it would be fairly disappointing if he can’t get out of his current slump.)

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Nurkic’s value extends outside of the pick-and-roll. The value exists in the same form — as a scorer and a passer. Like a traditional big man, Nurkic can simply bully opposing centers down low. He’s a large, strong human being who has developed uncanny agility over the past year, adding nuance to his array of post moves.

These aren’t slobs at the defensive end. Draymond Green, Tyson Chandler, Serge Ibaka, double-teams, you name it. Nurkic can nail a tough hook shot, spin for an open lay-in, or step back for a jumper if he’s feeling extra confident. He’s bullying the best post defenders in the NBA and he’s only 24-years-old. For reference, players don’t usually hit their prime until they’re 27-years-old. That’s just scary.

Once Nurkic’s gravity sets in as teams are forced to focus on stopping him from dominating in the paint, he demonstrates his playmaking aptitude. In a road game against the Warriors, Nurkic feasted down low. He led the Trail Blazers in scoring with 27 points on 10-18 shooting and also added 12 rebounds to his impressive stat line. When the game went to overtime, it was a no-brainer for Golden State to double-team him whenever he had the ball in the post. Nurkic doesn’t exactly have tunnel vision, though.

In these three plays, the Warriors double-team Nurkic the instant he gets the ball in the post. In each case, Nurkic is able to deliver a perfect pass across the court to a wing shooter. Nurkic actually signals for a player to rotate to the wing in one play. Unfortunately, Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless were unable to convert on these easy opportunities. Even after the misses, Nurkic showed off his skill set as he fiercely fought for these offensive rebounds (and secured one of them). That’s no fluke — Nurkic is among league leaders in offensive rebound percentage.

Defensive Anchor

He is allowing a field goal percentage of just 44.6% on defense. This ranks 11th among eligible centers this year. It’s a better rate than some of the NBA’s most well-known defenders, such as Rudy Gobert and Tyson Chandler. It’s also a massive improvement for him. He’s facing the most shots per game of his career and allowing the lowest percentage of makes. Last season, opponents hit 48.5% of their shots against Nurkic. Needless to say, he’s progressing at an astronomical rate.

Nurkic has been able to consistently contest shots and force opposing players to hit far more difficult buckets. Whether it’s against a guard driving to the rack or an elite offensive big man posting up, Nurkic will make it a tough shot more often than not.

Nurkic’s shot-blocking ability makes him a formidable rim protector for the Trail Blazers. He doesn’t rely on crazy verticality. Instead, Nurkic piles up rejections because of his instincts. He’s able to guess what a player is going to do. Often times, he might make a mistake but he’s still able to react quickly and recover. In addition, he does work as a help defender when one of the guards allows an opposing player to get past them.

Nurkic’s unique instincts carry over to the rest of his game. Nurkic is averaging 1.8 deflections per game, which is in the top-10 among centers. He clogs up the middle and plays passing lanes exceptionally. In a play against the Nuggets, you can also see him simply play with more energy than Nikola Jokic. He anticipates the pass and steals it, clearly frustrating Jokic.

Nurkic has evolved into an elite defensive player for the Portland Trail Blazers. His quick reaction time makes up for his deficiencies in verticality. He serves as an anchor in the paint as well as any player his age.

Conclusion

Jusuf Nurkic is only 24-years-old. Players do not typically hit their prime until they’re 27-years-old. He’s already the 2nd best player on the Trail Blazers and he’s only going to get better. He’s not dominating people with freakish athleticism like Anthony Davis or Giannis Antetokounmpo. No, Nurkic’s feel for the game and instinctive abilities are incredible for a player of his age. He’s not a perfect player in any way. He’s a very good player who will continue to improve.

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