Monday, March 25, 2019, the day Jusuf Nurkic’s career took a shocking turn. The then 24-year-old center suffered a sickening compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula in the second overtime period of the Blazers 148-144 home win over the Brooklyn Nets.
Amid the best season of his young career, Nurkic had put up 32 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists, and 4 blocks on the night the Blazers hugely promising season had seemingly ground to an abrupt halt. Third in the Western Conference with a 46-27 record at the time of the injury, Terry Stotts’ team was less than a month away from the playoffs when they lost their big man to the horrific season-ending injury.
As we all now know, the sheer brilliance of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum propelled Portland to the 2019 Western Conference Finals where they eventually fell to the reigning two-time champion Golden State Warriors in a 4-0 sweep.
Up until the suspension of the NBA season on March 11, the Trail Blazers had been a turbulent team, to say the least. Despite showing glimmers of a revival in the final weeks before the break, Portland held a disappointing 29-37 record which sat them three games back of Ja Morant and the 8th seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
Nonetheless, it’s not difficult to understand that Portland is a significantly better team when Nurkic is available. Since the Blazers acquired the center in a February 2017 trade, they have made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons and finished the last two regular seasons as the third seed in the Western Conference.
16 months after his injury, Nurkic’s long-awaited return to an NBA court felt as if the Bosnian had never left. Putting up an impressive 18 points, 9 rebounds, 6 blocks, 5 assists, and 2 steals in 33 minutes as Portland clinched a vital 140-135 OT victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
In the three games he has played in the bubble, Nurkic has put up a striking 22 points, 12.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 3.3 blocks, and 1.7 steals in 31.3 minutes per game. Helping his team to a 2-1 record, as the race to make the play-in tournament heats up.
However, with only a small sample size to analyse in the bubble, let’s take a look at Jusuf Nurkic’s numbers from the 2018-19 season where he played 72 games. This whole comparison of course rests on the assumption that the 25-year-old can return to his previous production levels, which fortunately is looking promising after a handful of games back.
In 72 games, all of which he started, Nurkic averaged 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.0 steals in just 27.4 minutes per game. Placing him in the top 15 for centers in all five main statistical categories, notably ranking 9th in assists and 10th in steals per game. Doing so whilst, largely, playing fewer minutes than the players ranked above him.
However, his impact is even more noteworthy when you factor in Portland’s offensive and defensive rating when Nurkic is on and off the court. According to NBA.com, Portland’s offensive rating was 117.0 when the Bosnian was on the court and 108.0 when he sits. On the flip side, the Blazers defensive rating was 106.5 with him and 110.2 without.
Perhaps most importantly though is the ease in which he complements the explosive backcourt tandem of Lillard and McCollum. In 3 player line-ups, the trio had the 11th (10.6) highest net rating in the 2018-19 season and the 8th highest offensive rating in the NBA (117.9), demonstrating the elite combination of the three when they step on the hardwood together.
Surrounded by elite shooters, Nurkic although not exactly a regular three-point shooter can make a three and is a competent mid-range shooter knocking down 42.1% of his attempts from that distance. Therefore providing considerably more spacing at the five position than Hassan Whiteside can, and he is also more adept at alleviating the scoring burden naturally from his two star teammates when necessary.
As noted earlier, the 7’0 Bosnian can pass the ball at an underrated level for his position, averaging 3.2 assists last season, and 4.3 assists in his three games in the bubble so far. Creating a pick your poison scenario for the opposition, as he possesses the ability to find his team’s knockdown shooters cutting or on the perimeter, and he can subsequently go and score a bucket himself if required.
Although he’s not known for his lockdown defense, like Rudy Gobert for example, he can anchor a decent D as shown by the 3.7 increase in team defensive rating when Nurkic was off the floor last season. Additionally, according to Basketball Reference, Nurkic was one of only ten players to average at least one block and one steal.
Sat just 1.5 games back of the Memphis Grizzlies in the 9th seed with five games to play, the Blazers have a strong chance of making the play-in tournament. But, running the gauntlet, they still have to face the Nuggets, Clippers, 76ers, Mavericks, and Nets. All eyes will be placed on Dame and CJ to see whether they can haul Portland into the playoffs for a seventh consecutive season.
After making his highly anticipated return to action against the Grizzlies, can Jusuf Nurkic step up alongside his two star teammates and prove to be the difference in the ferocious battle to make the play-in tournament?
Sports Journalism student at the University of Huddersfield. Student Press Officer for Bradford Dragons basketball.