After An Extended Wait, Nurkic Has His 'Blessed' Return In Orlando

by Casey Holdahl
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After a four-month break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, every player on the Trail Blazers seems happy to have the opportunity to play basketball again, though the restart hits a little bit different for Jusuf Nurkić. The 7-0 Bosnian was on the precipice of returning to game action after 12 months of rehabbing a gruesome leg fracture before the shutdown postponed not only the regular season, but also his much-anticipated comeback.

So when the Trail Blazers started their restart training camp Saturday on the Walt Disney World campus just outside of Orlando, Nurkić was likely a little more excited than his peers, if for no other reason than he had to endure a much longer wait.

“It’s been blessed,” said Nurkić of his return to full contact practices. “It’s 14 months play the first practice with the team, with the full squad, pretty much. Just that joy and excitement and passing, I feel like just learn the basketball is something I really missing.”

After their first practice, Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts noted that “he’s the Nurk that I remembered playing, at both ends of the floor,” which makes some sense considering Nurkić has been adamant that he’s suffering no lingering effect from his left leg fracturing in two places on March 25, 2019.

“That’s not something I ever felt,” said Nurkić, perhaps with a tinge of annoyance. “It’s just bumps and hits, regular me, man. It’s probably stronger, so everything is so far great. Continue to do my job and try to get as ready as possible with the team. As far as health, zero concerns man. It’s not even a question.”

The return of Nurkić, as well as Zach Collins, who missed all but the first three games this season due to surgery to repair a dislocated left shoulder, gives the Trail Blazers a influx of size and skill, particularly on the defensive end, that they sorely missed through the first 66 games of the 2019-20 regular season.

“They looked great,” said Damian Lillard of Nurkić and Collins. “Both guys played really physical, played well in the paint. They didn’t seem concerned with anything, they looked really comfortable. I’m excited about the style we’re going to be able to play on both ends of the floor with those guys, being up higher in pick-and-rolls, putting more pressure on the ball, our rebounding is going to be much better than it has been all season long, us being able to play through the bigs because they can both pass the ball really well.

“It was just fun to see them back on the floor doing things we haven’t really had the luxury of having this whole season.”

Not only does Nurkić’s return allow the Trail Blazers to play closer to the way they did during their 2018-29 campaign, in which they won 53 games and earned the three-seed in the West, he comprises a huge potential duo with center Hassan Whiteside. Nurkić said prior to leaving for Orlando that he figured he’d play some power forward along Whiteside, who has started at center in every game he’s played for the Blazers since being acquired via trade from the Heat in the offseason, and two days into camp, it’s already something the coaching staff is tinkering with.

“We’ve looked at that already a couple times, (Nurkić and Whiteside) played a lot together today,” said Stotts after Sunday’s practice. “Between those two guys playing together and Melo playing the three alongside two bigs, those are kind of the two biggest changes that we’re going to have. We started the season with Zach (Collins) at four, so that’s not much of a change -- this is Zach’s third year with us. But the biggest changes from a roster standpoint would be those two playing together and Melo at three.

“So I think we’ll spend a good amount of time looking at them, or at least giving them a chance to play during these two and a half weeks.”


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