Bruce Ely

A Night Of Firsts In Nurkić's Moda Center Debut

by Casey Holdahl
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When center Jusuf Nurkić arrived at the Moda Center Thursday night prior to his debut in front of his new home crowd, the 7-footer from Bosnia and Herzegovina wore a t-shirt screen printed with the face of his girlfriend, Emina, along with text reading "If You Can Read This You're Too Close. He Has A Girlfriend." When one considers Nurkić's performance in Thursday night's game versus the Oklahoma City Thunder in front of a national television audience, perhaps her concern was warranted, as it stands to reason he'd have at least a few new admirers in Rip City.

In his fifth game as a Trail Blazer and his first at the Moda Center, Nurkić finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and five blocks, a stat line never put up in franchise history, in just under 38 minutes to help the Trail Blazers defeat the Thunder 114-109. Nurkić also added two steals to top off his Moda Center debut in front of a sellout crowd of 19,875.

"I feel great to be here, excited every day to spent with those guys in this city," said Nurkić after his first game in Portland. "They give me a lot of opportunity when I came here, so I just try to play and have fun. I know who I am... I know I'm going to be on the court. I just go there and play."

Which he's done a great job of doing since the Trail Blazers acquired the center in his third season prior to the trade deadline along with a 2017 first round pick from Denver in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a 2018 second round pick and cash considerations. In his first five games with Portland, four of those being starts, Nurkić is averaging 14.0 points on 58 percent shooting, 8.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.8 steals in 29.8 minutes, all while give the Trail Blazers a post presence on both ends of the floor that they've been lacking for the last two seasons.

"A guy that can get the ball on the block, he can pass from the block and he can really score on the block," said Damian Lillard of his new starting center. "Good skills and good feel for the game. That gives us an opportunity to pass and cut. He’s hitting guys when they cut and when it’s one-on-one, he’s scoring. Catching it in the middle of the defense and you can trust his basketball IQ. Late in the game, I’m comfortable throwing that pass to him knowing that he can see the skip pass and he can finish the ball different ways. And on the defensive end, guys have to bang against him. That takes a lot of energy out to have to bang with him on both ends of the floor. So I think those are some of the things that he’s brought to the game that we haven’t had."

They're also the kind of skills that Trail Blazers fans tend to revere. Few types of players draw more affection in Rip City than hard-nosed bigs who like to operate in the painted area on both offense and defense, which just about encapsulates Nurkić's style of play. And while he was already receiving accolades from Trail Blazers' fans for his play prior to his Moda Center debut -- getting two fake teeth knocked out versus the Raptors in Toronto and then subsequently returning to finish out game earned Nurkić near instant credibility in Rip City -- his performance in Thursday night's win might have very well cemented his status as a fan favorite in his fledgling days as a Trail Blazer.

"I love, man. My last three years I was playing in kind of half arena, so now it's all about fans," said Nurkić. "You got out there, see them, it's a sixth man still with you, so I enjoy. I can't wait to make them feel amazing."

What might be the most exciting thing for Trail Blazers' fans, not to mention his teammates and coaches, is how well Nurkić has played despite joining the team less than three weeks ago and not yet being completely in shape due to playing infrequently in his final months with the Nuggets. Once he gets up to speed with both the playbook and his conditioning, Portland's chances of making a playoff push in the final month and a half of the regular season increases dramatically.

“I think it’s pretty obvious, (Nurkić) has a good basketball sense, a feel for the game," said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. "When we go through our offense, he’s picking up that pretty quickly. He’s good out of timeouts. But I think more than anything else, you can tell he has a good sense of the game. When you have that, I think the integration goes a little bit better."

Nurkić isn't likely to put up franchise-first stat line in every game, and perhaps opposing teams learn how to better contain him once they have enough film to really scout how he's being utilized in Stotts' system, but after his first five games as a Trail Blazer, fans have good reason to pay close attention, even if his girlfriend would prefer you do so from distance.