Nurkić Sets His Sights On Making All-Defensive First Team

by Casey Holdahl
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Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkić is a fun-loving, gregarious fellow, so much so that sometimes it’s can be hard to tell when he’s making a joke. But when the 7-0 center from Bosnian & Herzegovina declared after a recent practice that one of his goals is to make the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team, there was no doubt about how serious he is about the aspiration.

“I want to be first-team defense because I think people overlook a lot of things,” said Nurkić. “That’s why I’m going to probably be even more aggressive on defense this year. There’s going to be times it’s not going to look like it but I definitely approach the game defensively more aggressive this year.”

At first blush, Nurkić making the All-Defensive First Team seems like somewhat of an impossibility, especially with the likes of Rudy Gobert, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and Draymond Green all in the primes of their respective careers. And obviously making any All-NBA team is difficult, so Nurkić will certainly have his work cut out for him if he’s to achieve such a lofty goal.

But when you consider how much Portland’s defense has improved since his arrival, and specifically their recent success in defending the restricted area, Nurkić making the All-Defensive team seems much more feasible.

Last season, the Trail Blazers ended the year ranked sixth in defensive efficiency after ranking 22nd in 2016-17 season. What's more, the Trail Blazers were ranked 26th in defensive efficiency prior to the All-Star break in 2016-17, but improved their ranking to 13th after the break, which coincided with Nurkić's arrival in Portland.

"He was outstanding (in preseason) but our defense the year he got with us, the second half of the season was really good," said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, who also noted that he loves when players set high goals for themselves on defense. "We were a Top 10 defensive team last year with him, so I think there’s been a correlation between Nurk and our defense."

To get more specific, the Trail Blazers held opponents to 55 percent shooting in the restricted area last season, the best mark in the NBA by nearly four percentage points. And while teams shot 42 percent in the non-restricted area of the paint versus Portland, they still only gave up an average of 42.1 points in the paint last season, with only the 76ers and the Jazz allowing fewer such points.

Nurkić doesn't get all the credit for Portland's improved interior defense -- both Ed Davis and Zach Collins played important roles in locking down Portland's paint last season -- but as the starting center who also had the best defensive rating on the team (at least among those who played even semi-regular minutes) last season, he probably deserves the lion's share.

"I can’t do it by myself but all my teammates help me to do this, and I help them," said Nurkić. "There is a lot of great players in this league, the best league in the world. You’re not going to be able to block every shot but I’m going to try to make as hard as possible for them and try to avoid them easy layups or dunks."

If history is any indicator, Nurkić will find it hard to get the necessary votes he'll need from NBA media and broadcasters to make an All-Defensive team in 2018-19. No Trail Blazer has made any All-Defensive team since Theo Ratliff earned second team honors for the 2003-04 season, and you have to go back to Buck Williams in the 1990-91 season to find a Trail Blazers who made first team All-Defense, so there's not much of a legacy for Nurkić to follow.

But there's little utility in setting easily attainable goals. So to have a player like Nurkić, whose work ethic and attitude were questioned earlier in his career, set his signs on as high of a prize as All-Defensive First Team is a good thing in and of itself, even if he ultimately falls short.

“I always have goals,” said Nurkić. “Obviously I’m not going to be in position to win MVP but definitely I want to have approach to have some goals I can reach, definitely. To me, we are a good defensive team last year and we gonna improve that. Why I’m not gonna be there too?”