If you were to ask a casual fans about the Portland Trail Blazers, it's likely the first thing they would mention is the backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But there's another pairing that has risen to prominence this season in Portland, albeit for their exploits just adjacent to the court, rather than on it.
While the pairing of Jusuf Nurkić and Zach Collins in Portland's frontcourt has been put off until at least March due to both players sitting out the majority of the 2019-20 season with serious injuries, the duo have comprised an effective one-two punch as cheerleaders and hype men on the Trail Blazers' bench. Whether it's getting excited when one of their teammates does something spectacular on the court or offering encouragement when times turn tough, Nurkić and Collins have made a point of staying engaged despite being unable to provide any on-court assistance.
"I think we don't have a choice, to be honest with you," said Nurkić of his and Collins' bench antics. "We going through some rough times and the process is not fun, but try to be positive, try to be with teammates. I feel like it's important to let them at least feel support."
Other than lending emotional support to their teammates, staying engaged on the bench benefits both Nurkić and Collins mentally as they rehab from their respective injuries. Though the two are obviously involved in day-to-day activities, there's still a feeling of helplessness that injured players often have to account for, especially when their teams have struggled in their absence, as the Trail Blazers have this season. Providing whatever boost they can, however small it might be, helps dull that feeling of inefficacy.
"It sucks not playing," said Collins. "It's not necessarily to stay entertained, but to just keep that competitive edge there. You want to be out there and you've got to express it in some type of way and being there for your teammates and being excited when they do something good is just part of that."
Sometimes, it's running out to the court to dole out high fives during a timeout. Other times, it's over-the-top celebrations on the sidelines. Nurkić has the designated role of providing water, be it for the purpose of imbibing or surprising, and hasn't let his inability to play this season keep him from engaging in a bit of trash talk from the bench.
"Nurk is great, he's always been great on the bench, even when he was playing," said Collins. "He's a funny dude, especially with his English and his accent, that all adds to it. Just having a guy like that who is willing to get up and get excited just makes it that much more fun. It's contagious."
"It's definitely a good balance," said Collins. "You've got a loud guy and you've got a guy who is more clean cut and to the point. It's fun, it's always fun to see what he comes with every night. Everybody is kind of commenting on who's got the best suit game. It's fun. You're just doing stuff to kind of stay with the team and make it fun while you can't play."
"He's kind of modern big man from the Las Vegas, so I think it's important for him to keep it fresh," said Nurkić. "At the same time, I ain't trying to impress nobody. I try to just enjoy what I wear, have some pockets open still, but I'm going to try to keep it when I'm back. You will see even more 'Flashy Nurk' when I'm back."
With Nurkić expected to return to the lineup sometimes in the not to distant future -- the expectation is that the 7-0 Bosnian will be cleared some time in February, though the team has been purposefully vague about the timeline -- and with Collins potentially returning some time in March, their time together as street clothes bench buddies is likely coming to a close. And considering the way the first three and a half months of the season has gone for the Trail Blazers, their respective returns can't come soon enough. But the camaraderie banked while making the most of a difficult situation will carry over even after Nurkić and Collins shed their suits for sweats.
"We try to make it fun," said Nurkić. "When you see all these people kind of reacting to our style or whatever, pictures, keep rolling with that. I feel like that's important message for people a little bit. At the end of the day, I think it's great for the team."