Photo / Bruce Ely
Nurkić On Return To Denver: 'The Story Is Over. I Have A New Story'
A few weeks shy of the one-year anniversary since he was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers from the Denver Nuggets in February 2017, center Jusuf Nurkić is set to make his first return to the Mile High City Monday night when the Blazers visit the Nuggets. As with any matchup against a player's former team, the reunion adds a little extra something for Nurkić, even if wasn't initially willing to admit it.
"I feel great, I've got Dame D.O.L.L.A. here," Nurkić joked as he sat beside teammate Damian Lillard at Monday's shootaround in Denver. "When I'm with him, I always feel great, especially in this place."
Nurkić spent two-and-a-half seasons in Denver, earning Second Team All-Rookie status in 2015 before seeing his playing time diminish with the emergence of fellow center Nikola Jokić into Denver's rotation. Though the Nuggets staff tried to play the two together, head coach Mike Malone eventually preferred Jokić, making Nurkić and a first round pick in last year's draft available to the Blazers in exchange for Mason Plumlee ahead of the 2017 trade deadline.
The Blazers reaped the reward of a reinvigorated Nurkić as 'Nurk Fever' took hold of Rip City. An instant fan favorite, the Bosnian big man averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds with Portland -- well above his prior career averages of seven points and 5.9 rebounds with the Nuggets -- to help his new team edge his old team for the eighth seed in the Western Conference down the stretch last season.
"Mindset? I have a new life," Nurkić said, looking back on his mentality when he arrived in Portland last February. "I feel just the way Portland welcomed me, my teammates and everything, a new atmosphere. It was all pretty much like freshman year coming into the city. I’m gonna play with all I have, and right now it’s a learning process for me to adjust to a full season, which I’ve never played before."
He continued: "Everybody know why we didn’t work [in Denver]… To be honest I’m happy [in Portland]. I’m happy, even though I had three years [in Denver] almost — good and bad times — but it’s over. The story is over. I have a new story, and I’m really excited about that."
For Nurkić's teammates, like Lillard, there's been a noticable change in the center's drive to build on what he accomplished in a limited sample size last season. Though his perfomances haven't always been consistent on a night-to-night basis (keep in mind, Nurkić has never played more than 65 games in a season in his young career), Nurkić has averaged 14.4 points and eight boards in 2017-18 while anchoring a much-improved Portland defense in his first season as a regular starter.
"He wants to better," Lillard said of his teammate. "When he got here, it was ‘Nurk Fever’ and it was big and we were winning games. The kind of person he is, he wanted to be better. He wanted to take a step up. Sometimes, you can put extra pressure on yourself when you wanna do that. I know that because I do it to myself. I think that’s the only difference in this year and last year.
"Last year, he wanted to just come in and do something positive. He wanted to do the same thing this year, except he wants to do better. He’s putting extra pressure on himself to do that."
Nurkić took the first two meetings with the Nuggets in Portland, this first coming in March of last season to pass Denver in the standings as 'The Bosnian Beast' notched a career-high 33 points. In most recent meeting, however, his former teammate Jokić was the star of the show, recording a line of 27 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a lopsided 102-85 Nuggets victory at Moda Center.
Despite the previous battle with Jokić for playing time, and his current rivalry on the floor, the two remain on friends off the court.
"We never had bad blood, man," Nurkić explained Monday. "We knew exactly what was going on, and he’s a good player. There’s nothing wrong. I’ve [beaten] him a couple times, but he won last game. There’s good and bad blood, but never between us. I really don’t care about the media involved with it.
"I’m just here to hoop and win tonight, that’s all I care about."