The FanRag Sports Offseason Rankings count down the top 100 NBA players throughout the offseason. Methodology, voters and the full countdown are all detailed in the introductory post.
Jusuf Nurkic is a great example of a player proving that sometimes all a guy needs is the right situation. When the Portland Trail Blazers acquired him at the trade deadline from the Denver Nuggets, they actually received the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as an incentive to take him. All they had to send back was Mason Plumlee and a second-rounder. It’s not often that a team gets the better player and the better pick in a trade.
Nurkic lost the starting job to the Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic (and deservedly so), but he was also just in a bad situation in Denver. Once he arrived in Portland, he thrived. His numbers vaulted from 8.0 points, 5.8 boards and 1.3 dimes per game to 15.2/10.4/3.2. His Player Efficiency Rating ballooned from 15.0 to 21.1. Suddenly, the Blazers had the big man they were looking for and Nurkic found a home.
While it’s just half a season of work, it was enough to make him the 68th-best player in our panel’s minds.
While Nurkic’s play after the trade was eye-opening, a half-season of outstanding performance comes with a sizable grain of salt. I’m not saying that it was a fluke, but I do think a 20-game sample size can be misleading. On the other hand, over the last two seasons, Nurkic is averaging 17.2 points, 11.9 boards and 3.0 assists per 36 minutes, so if he can get starter’s minutes, he should stay in the top 100.
Spacing helps big men who can finish at the rim. When you start pulling out power forwards to the 3-point line, it opens up things under the bucket, and that leads to more opportunities for bigs. Nurkic went from getting 4.2 attempts inside the restricted area in Denver to getting 6.9 in Portland. That’s a big difference, and it’s a big part of the reason for the leap in scoring.
Having Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum open up the lanes for him has helped him thrive, and there’s reason to believe that will continue. Therefore, I think it’s likely that he’ll be more the player we saw last year after the trade deadline.
Nurkic made most of his points at the rim, but he wasn’t particularly efficient. He was 55.1 percent, which is actually 5.3 percentage points below the league average. With those shots accounting for most of his attempts, though, it creates the illusion that he’s more efficient than he actually is. According to NBAMath.com, he actually “gave up” points on most play types and overall.
While he’s not a great scorer, he is an underrated passer — perhaps a bit overlooked because of the sensational abilities of Jokic, his former teammate. Still, dimes like this are pretty impressive, particularly for a big:
Where Nurkic made his greatest presence felt, though, was on the defensive end. The Trail Blazers were one of the worst in the league at preventing buckets before he got there, and he changed that. Their defensive rating was 103.7 with him and 111.3 without him, according to NBA.com.
That seems like it could be luck or ability. Nurkic’s job on defense seems to be hovering near the rim and stopping penetration, which he does effectively. On the other hand, he tends to sort of swipe at the ball and wait for the pull-up. And a lot of times the shooter missed. Is that ability or just a little luck that’s going to balance out with a larger sample size?
If you want to believe Nurkic is a difference-maker in Portland, you can make that case. If that case seems pretty fragile, you can make the argument, too. The truth is that Nurkic needs to prove he can do it over 82 games. If he does, he’ll be creeping into the conversation for top 50, perhaps even top 40.