Jusuf Nurkic Finds The Time

by Casey Holdahl
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Watching Jusuf Nurkić off the court, one doesn’t get the sense that slowing down would be much of an issue for the 24 year old Bosnian. A mountain of a man at 7-0, 275 pounds, Nurkić carries himself with a kind of lumbering rhythm that results in his body moving from side-to-side as he moves forward, almost as if he’s using the momentum of one leg to convince the other to follow.

But while his movement off the court looks methodical, on the court, Nurkić has struggled when it comes to taking his time. Especially during his first full season in Portland, it seemed as though his enthusiasm for taking advantage of a mismatch or utilizing his uncommon nimbleness to make quick moves around the basket would too often manifest as wasted opportunities. The frequency of his miscues and missed chances during the 2017-18 season even led some to wonder if Nurkić, after transforming his body during his first offseason working with Portland’s training staff, had lost an advantage by losing too much weight.

Though that has not been the case for Nurkić this season, and particularly as of late. His previous predilection for quick spin moves leading into ill-fated layups off the glass and bounce passes with little-to-no chance of reaching their intended destinations have been replaced by more patient attempts at creating offense for both himself and his teammates.

And with averages of 15.3 points on 51 percent shooting, 10.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals, Nurkić’s improvement is one of the main reasons the Blazers have reached the midway point of the season with their best record since their 2014-15 campaign.

“He's been on a good roll,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts. “A lot of it is just being a little bit more measured and taking advantage of the opportunities he has.”

While he’s been good all season, In his last 10 games, Nurkić has been a revelation with averages 18.0 points on 58 percent shooting, 11.5 rebounds and 3.7 assists in almost 29 minuets per game. Those performances, which have helped the Trail Blazers win nine of their last 13, have even stoked a little All-Star buzz for the "Bosnian Beast."

“I feel I have the more fun (than I) probably ever have,” said Nurkić. “This stretch we have, we have a homestand, so we want to take advantage of what we have.”

More and more, the Trail Blazers are figuring out what they have in Nurkić, especially when he slows down. This season, Nurkić is shooting 53 percent on two-point shots when he shoots within two seconds of receiving the ball and 55 percent when he possesses the ball for two to six seconds before putting up an attempt, which, along with anecdotal evidence, would seem to indicate he’s better off being a bit more deliberate.

That notion is further advanced when considering that last season, which could be considered a disappointment relative to his first 20 games as a Blazer, 72 percent of Nurkić’s two-point attempts came within two seconds of touching the ball, whereas this season, that frequency is down to 65 percent.

Those numbers are even more stark in the last 10 games, with Nurkić shooting 59 percent on shots taken within two seconds of possession and 62 percent between two and six seconds. And even though he still takes the vast majority of his attempts within the first two seconds, he’s up to 28  percent of his shots coming on attempts two to six seconds after touching the ball. And if you want to really drill it down, he’s shooting a ridiculous 73 percent on shots taken between two and six seconds of possession in his last five games.

It should be noted that Nurkić’s shooting percentage plummets on attempts taken after he holds the ball for longer than six seconds, so there’s a balance to be struck between taking an extra half moment to survey the defense and rote ball-stopping. But as of late, it would be fair to say Nurkić has found that sweet spot.

“I think early on in his career he wasn't necessarily sure of what moves he could go to, how much space he had, how strong he was,” said CJ McCollum. “I think now, with the amount of work he's put in before practice, after practice, feeling guys out, figuring out what counters he needs to go to, figuring out on some guys you just bang, bang, hook or bang, bang, quick finish. I think that's he's gotten to the point now where he's comfortable around the basket. He's taking his time.”

Nurkić’s teammates are also benefiting from his more measured approach by running the offense through him when the matchup is right. His improved decision making has resulted in his assists increasing by nearly one per game, with no corresponding increase in turnovers, relative to his season average over the last 10 games. What’s more, his assist percentage of 20.1 percent in his last 10 games is five points better than his season average. Simply put, by proving he could make good decisions by being just a bit more deliberate, he’s earned the right to take on a larger role on offense.

“They really trusting me, throw me the ball,” said Nurkić. “They said ‘Take it down and go to work,’ so I feel that's probably the most fun part about it. They really trust in me how I trust in them.”

And all it took was a little more time.

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