NBA, Portland Trail Blazers

Jusuf Nurkic is the difference for the Trail Blazers

After bruising and scoring through Kevin Knox‘s clutches, Jusuf Nurkic was anchored at the free-throw line, chasing a retrograde 3-point play. Moments later, he twirled the ball between his bear paw hands, dribbled twice and capped a 68-second stretch featuring six points, two rebounds and one block. But first, a young fan, clad in a grey and white camo long sleeve and black Nike shorts, bellowed out a message to the Bosnian.

“We love you!” he passionately yelled, standing on his feet and admiring from many rows up.

The free throw gave Nurkic 18 points for the night and he finished with a game-high 20, adding eight rebounds in just 19 minutes of action. He bludgeoned an undersized New York Knicks frontline with ease — a commonplace occurrence for him this season — in the Portland Trail Blazers’ 111-101 win.

“He’s huge. He is a mountain man and you can’t move him,” Knicks head coach David Fizdale said. “The guy is so nimble. He’s never really off balance. He sees the floor well. He finishes great around the rim with his touch. He’s just a real difficult cover.”

That young boy’s fevered cry has echoed throughout Portland this season, acting as a rallying cry among Blazers fans. Nurkic is reveling in a career-year, helping his team climb to fourth in the West. His box score numbers — 15.1 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.6 blocks and 1.1 steals on 56.3 percent true shooting — are all career-highs. They closely resemble his post-trade, 20-game rampage in 2016-17 when he averaged 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals on 54.5 percent true shooting.

Beyond the production, Nurkic radiates a joy. He shimmies and cha-chas after swishing 3s in warmups, has moonlighted as the team photographer and dons jumbo-sized ushanka hats in frigid climates. Earlier in his career, though, both the success and bliss were absent.

Before Portland acquired him on Feb. 12, 2017, Nurkic ‚— once a pillar of the Denver Nuggets’ future — had drifted out of the rotation. Over his final 16 games with Denver, he played 20-plus minutes just twice, including four DNPs, and tallied double-digit scoring nights only once. He vocally expressed frustration with his role in late December of that season, pushing back on the relegation. Months earlier, in April 2016, with Nikola Jokic burgeoning, Nurkic approached Nuggets General Manager Tim Connelly requesting a trade.

“The way I look at it, I just asked for a trade and put myself in a better position and for them too. It’s a win-win. They have the player they want. I never want to be in a position [with people] who don’t want me,” Nurkic said. “I was trying to get in position to find a place for me and who want me to be the player who I am. I’m not looking to be different. For me, it was like stay in the league [and] be who I am or just get out of the league.

“I feel when players do something for themselves, they’re [selfish]. When teams do it for themselves, it’s just business. Either way, people gonna hate or not be happy with decisions. But I think I did a pretty good move for myself.”

Past the halfway pole of the 2018-19 season, Nurkic has been a top-30 player, perhaps a fringe All-Star if the West wasn’t flooded with talent. He ranks 11th in Jacob Goldstein’s PIPM and boasts Portland’s best net rating on-off split at plus-14.5.

Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

“I feel like it’s the perfect fit for me and for the team, the role I have right now,” Nurkic said. “I accept my role and I’m cool with whatever coach and the coaching staff wants to do for me. I’m trying to respect that.”

It’s a role that’s featured his playmaking acumen more prominently this season compared to last, the product of Portland’s agenda to re-emphasize passing. During his 20-game stint two seasons ago, Nurkic averaged 3.2 assists with a 17.7 percent assist rate before those marks tumbled to 1.8 and 11.7 in 2017-18. Now, they’ve spiked to 3.2 and 18.6.

Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said his center’s passing flair has long intrigued him and was on the franchise’s radar when they traded for Nurkic. In his second full campaign with the club, the Bosnian Beast is rediscovering that hidden craft.

“I love it. Scoring makes one person happy, assists make two, so I’m just making reads in the right direction,” Nurkic said. “For me, I feel good about it … I always can pass. I just didn’t have the ball [before].”

He pings bounce passes off the hardwood into the hands of cutters, lofts rainbow feeds from outside the paint and hits the open man when defenses collapse. With Stotts fostering a guard-centric ecosystem, deploying Nurkic as a facilitator is a curveball.

“They’re used to him setting screens and sometimes, we’ll pitch it to him and he’ll hand it back. They’re used to more stuff like that. They’re not used to him having the ball and us just kinda cutting off him and playing without it,” Damian Lillard said. “So, he’s able to show his ability to pass more and he’s also giving other teams a different look. It’s something that they haven’t seen much of.”

It’s enabled Lillard to dictate the action less often, operating as a secondary option and off-ball explorer. Per Synergy, his cutting and off-screen usage have increased this season while pick-and-rolls and isolations have declined. Both he and Stotts noted that dynamic alleviates pressure for Lillard and makes the game more challenging for opponents.

For years, Nurkic previewed a charming, versatile skill set, only for it to hibernate over long periods. At times, he grew overzealous and attempted to showcase the whole package. In his fifth season, discretion is the key, powering his rise.

“I feel — I don’t know how to put this — I feel the decisions I’m making [are better]. Before, I was trying to figure out too much. Right now, I just have fun and enjoy what I’m doing,” Nurkic said. “To be in a position to just relax and go out there and play means to me a lot. Before I wanted to do a lot of stuff at the same time and it couldn’t happen.”

Lillard, his teammate of two years and Portland’s undisputed leader, sees a big man whose mind is clear and sharp. Talent and mental acuity — the former has always been there — are coalescing to elevate Nurkic’s game.

Together, the guard-center duo pairs to enact one of the top pick-and-roll forces in the NBA. Lillard is an omnipotent pull-up shooter and all-around scorer with high-level passing chops to counter eager help defenders. Nurkic — who lauded Lillard’s gravity and floor vision as primary factors in their ball-screen chemistry — is an adroit, hulking 7-footer.

“Skilled player in Lillard, you can’t go under, you gotta go over. Now the pocket’s available. Nurkic has great hands and the ability to play off the move,” Chicago Bulls head coach Jim Boylen said. “He’s very grounded, he doesn’t really make too many mistakes in the pocket. Two good players, a good system and a good coach.”

Added Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego: “They’re a challenge. They played so well together the last couple years. I think they have a great rhythm in that pick-and-roll, two-man game. They put a lot of pressure on your defense.”

While Lillard is the offensive fulcrum who Nurkic derives much of his scoring from, an inverse relationship exists on the other end. Nurkic may sit a tier below the game’s top rim protectors — players like Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid — but still masks many of his team’s shortcomings, which lacks a glut of rangy point-of-attack defenders.

Nurkic ranks third in DRPM,  seventh in DPIPM and is one of three players averaging more than 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals per game this season. As CJ McCollum views it, Nurkic’s defensive impact stems from a high IQ. He understands opposing personnel’s tendencies and schemes. Which guys drive right, who prefers the left, what a certain play call signifies — awareness that results from hours tethered to a computer studying film.

Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Combine that with a 7-foot-2 wingspan and 280-pound build, and Nurkic is an authoritative interior presence who can radicalize offensive schemes.

“He has very good timing and he has good reactions,” Stotts said. “He’s kinda quick. I think his positioning continues to improve on pick-and-rolls and reading the defense.”

The footprint Nurkic has left on the Blazers this season is one of mammoth-sized proportions, both analytically and anecdotally. Yet among most national circles, his name isn’t swirling around as a potential All-Star.

Despite voting ending earlier this week, he will not campaign for himself as a reserve. If his native country of Bosnia and Herzegovina flocked to the polls in full force, Nurkic believes he would be a starter. It matters little to him, confident this breakout season is a prologue to stardom.

“I’m not worried about it. I know I can be an All-Star and I’m gonna be at some point. But I can’t control that stuff either,” Nurkic said. “I’m gonna try to do the best I can in the role I have and I’m not gonna put pressure on myself that way.”

Adjacent to Nurkic’s cubby in Portland’s locker room is a plaque listing every winner of the organization’s Maurice Lucas Award, annually given to the player who best represents Lucas’ character. Prior to his passing in October 2010, Lucas was nicknamed “The Enforcer,” regarded for his bulldog spirit and game. He is forever preserved in Blazers’ history with his No. 20 draped from the rafters. On this team, Nurkic appears to embodies that moniker, roaming the paint, pulling down double-digit boards and jawing with trash-talking opponents.

Backed by teammates, coaches and the front office, he seems to have found comfort in the Rose City. But Nurkic is also candidly blunt when it comes to the mercurial nature of fandom — enforcing a dichotomy frequently swept under the rug.

“People don’t change. If you play good, they’re gonna root. If you play bad, they’re gonna boo … I feel for everybody. If they wanna trade Dame at some point, why would they be happy with me or anybody else?” Nurkic said. “I feel sometimes they really show up and come. We respect that and we’re happy about that. But we want them to be happy and win as many games as we can.”

His off-the-cuff nature bleeds into other areas as well, where he cancels out the noise associated with a franchise mired in a 10-game playoff losing streak.

“I feel sometimes through the media, you guys, whatever, be like ‘trade Dame, trade this, start big blowout.’ We can hear that or see that,” he said. “Why do I need to worry about it? I’m trying to give my full effort with what I can do and I feel they can respect that or not.”

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Nurkic is refreshingly honest, speaking from the heart during media scrums defined by recycled cliches and truisms. When he wanted out of Denver, he didn’t hide it, though some may object to his handling of the situation.

Watch him for a night and a timeline of emotions sprinkle across the screen. He will not compromise himself or his game for anyone. Those principles led him to Portland, where’s he finally at peace as an authentic hooper and personality.

“I feel like I made the step I wanted in my career,” Nurkic said. “I feel I’ve grown a lot from the first year here.”

All stats are current through Jan. 24

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