It’s midway through the third quarter and the Portland Trail Blazers are making their move.
Having enjoyed another one of their what-is-this-miss-shots-thing-you-speak-of halves, hitting 12-of-22 from deep, the Miami HEAT had taken a double-digit lead into halftime against a Portland team missing Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. But with Kyle Lowry ejected just before the break and the pair of Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo already out of the lineup, Miami’s short-on-ballhandling offense was sputtering and the Blazers had it within nine following consecutive threes from Anfernee Simons.
After Omer Yurtseven follows up a Tyler Herro miss with a putback dunk, he runs down to the opposite side of the floor and waits for Jusuf Nurkic in the paint. Then comes a downscreen from Norm Powell. It’s not a thundering pick, but it gives Nurkic plenty of separation to run up to Simons at the logo for a pick-and-roll. Yurtseven is a good 15 feet behind the action.
“I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, I’m not going to be able to blitz it,” Yurtseven says.
With more than enough of a cushion, Simons rises up from beyond the arc as Yurtseven is still at the free-throw line. Pure. Portland within six. Erik Spoelstra immediately calls timeout, wagging his index finger back and forth as he walks onto the court.
“I still had to be up [at the level of the screen] because Simons was on fire then,” Yurtseven said. “That’s when Spo in the huddle said, ‘You know what you have to do.’ With a few extra sentences to go along with it.”
“Spo jolted him a little bit,” says assistant coach Malik Allen. “But it’s funny because that shook him a little bit but shook him a little bit to where it woke him up.”
On Portland’s next offensive possession, Yurtseven does not run into the paint to wait for Nurkic. He stops at the arc, and when Nurkic sets another logo-high screen for Simons, Yurtseven is there, right at the level, forcing the ball out of Simons hands. He recovers into the paint, puts a body on Nurkic as a shot goes up and Miami gets the rebound.
“That’s developing that emotional stability,” Spoelstra says. “This league is tough, it really is. The pick-and-roll game is so center-involved. Every team is going to be bringing up your center into 60-70 percent of your pick-and-rolls, so you’re going to have to develop something.”
One quarter later, Yurtseven hits his first NBA three to help keep Portland at bay, finishing with 14 points, 16 rebounds and four assists.
“That Portland game was good for him because he wasn’t really playing great until that fourth quarter, and all of a sudden he stays the course and that’s a sign that you can do that,” Allen said. “You can dig yourself out of a hole. He winds up playing really, really big for us down the stretch. Everything like that, he’s cataloguing it.”
Such is life for Yurtseven, Miami’s rookie center who wasn’t in the rotation at all until Adebayo injured his thumb, who has been catapulted into the fire for over 450 minutes on a team with championship aspirations and who has endured plenty of bumps in the road only to keep on trucking, finding ways to thrive – a plus-9.5 on-court Net Rating and 11 consecutive games with at least 12 rebounds – as Spoelstra aims to survive with a roster in constant flux.
“He’s been a monster for us lately,” Jimmy Butler said.
Yurtseven, or 'O' as everyone calls him, was technically on the roster last season, but you’d be forgiven for not knowing that. Signed from the G-League’s Oklahoma City Blue the day before the final game of the regular season in May, the HEAT’s coaching staff didn’t have much time to get a grasp of Yurtseven’s skillset as they prepared for a first-round series with Milwaukee.
“It was strange in the sense that it was so late and you’re really just focused on the home stretch from a coaching perspective, but we didn’t really know too much about him overall,” said Allen, who was soon to be given the assignment of Yurtseven’s primary player development coach, as well as his head coach for Summer League.
So, Yurtseven wound up on the scout squad, pretending to be the Bucks as Spoelstra implemented his game plan. It was in those pre-postseason practices that Allen caught a glimpse.
“The one thing you see is his size,” Allen said. “His rebounding numbers were always good. He would have a possession here or there where he would go and get the ball, and you’re like, ‘Ok, OK.’”
“That was the first time that I said, ‘Alright. I knew going in, I knew his numbers, and then I could see the parallels. I could see it. He’s not just standing in front of the rim and the ball is just falling into his hands. Every great rebounder gets some of those, but there were a couple times where he got off contact, went and got the ball.”
Fast forward seven months, pausing for a brief moment to note a standout Summer League stretch – averages of 20 points, 10 rebounds, 3 blocks over three games – and Yurtseven’s rebounding numbers are so good they practically beg for a critical eye. His 156 rebounds since December 17 are second in the league behind Rudy Gobert and just ahead of Nikola Jokic. His rebounding percentage of 24 would have him tied with Jokic for second in the league if he had enough minutes to qualify. He’s the first rookie in a decade, since Blake Griffin, to grab 12-plus rebounds in at least 11 consecutive games.
It would be understandable if you’re skeptical of such a prolific rebounding run, but all the underlying factors that we do have numbers for these days – crash rate, conversion rate, positioning, contested rebound rate – support what we’re seeing. Yurtseven’s rebounding, even if he hasn’t exactly been facing a ton of all-world centers of late, is legitimate.
The If of it all has to do with the relentless pursuits, the go-and-get it of rebounding that has to be sustained over weeks and months and years, not just a stretch of 11 games. It’s the growth in that area that’s been a focus for Allen and Udonis Haslem, proprietors of Yurtseven’s regular “cage match” workouts, where Allen “shoves and plays dirty” to make the actual, legal game easier to manage, according to Yurtseven.
“How to keep your foot on the gas,” he said. “Seek every rebound. It comes in a lot of areas. Try to fulfill my role, that’s been defending and rebounding so far. I’ve been fully locked in on that. Chasing after every ball as if it’s a miss has been a big adjustment.”
“He’s done a great job on the offensive glass especially, even on the ones he doesn’t get he has really helped us just pursuing some of those balls,” Allen says. “It wears teams down. And it’s hard to do. You know how it goes, for every 10 times that you go you might get one, two, but he has done a great job of pursuing and working. UD spends a lot of times talking about angles and anticipation when the ball is in flight. That’s another added layer of his rebounding. Defensively he’s taking the physical challenge where he’s gotten better at playing in traffic in terms of going to get in the ball. In the beginning he was a little bit shocked by contact. Going to get it [through contact] didn’t always equate to physical possession of the ball, and over the last couple of weeks he’s come up with more of those.”
So, If he can be an every-night player, to borrow a term from Pat Riley, when it comes to his energy and motor, there’s no reason Yurtseven can’t be among the best rebounders in the league.
Yurtseven is a big, vertical threat, and big, vertical threats get lobs and open dunks in an Erik Spoelstra system. Especially with Kyle Lowry around. Where he has possibly the most room for growth is on every shot that isn’t a dunk. While the 23-year-old out of Georgetown just recently hit his first mid-range and three-point jumpers at the professional level (more on that later), on non-dunk paint shots he is shooting 44.9 percent, which ranks 148 of the 167 players who have taken at least 100 shots in the paint. Not just among big men. Everyone. Perfectly understandable for a young center his first time through NBA lineups – Precious Achiuwa went through the exact same thing last season, as did Bam Adebayo his rookie year – but the numbers are what they are, and the in-the-moment numbers are Not Great, Bob.
It should be no surprise that the word physicality is the one that comes up most often around the HEAT when it comes to Yurtseven. He’s not small in any sense of the word – nobody is being generous listing him at seven feet – but as Allen noted earlier, the contact did come at a bit of a shock, especially after a Summer League where he was largely playing against wings and undersized forwards masquerading as centers.
“We’re just trying to give him a crash course on what that looks like, what that feels like, that’s been one of the biggest things that he’s learning and having to grow with,” Allen said. “Especially against other talented players and talented teams. That’s a calling card. Especially these good defensive teams, that’s what you’re going to have to expect. It’s trying to build you up, so you’re prepared to play in a grind. It was great for Summer League, and now it’s different.”
It’s plain to see where that physicality is affecting the finishing numbers in the paint. Just watch this handful of misses, particularly the ones that come up short. The first thing any defender, especially those that don’t have a prayer of blocking the shot, is going to try and do to you around the rim is take away your legs.
The problem is that Yurtseven’s touch is too good. You read that right. All you need to see is the way the ball comes off his hands, the bend in his wrist and the rotation on the ball and the way is skims through the net, to know the touch is “as soft as anybody’s,” as Allen puts it.
It’s so good, it’s become a fallback option.
“I think he probably relies on his touch too much, where there’s opportunities where he can actually reach, extend and get to the rim. It may not be a dunk. Right now, it’s just he’s programmed,” Allen said.
“The other part of it, quite frankly, is he doesn’t know how strong he actually is.”
Allen’s pupil is on the same page.
“I trust in [the touch] so much that I go up too quick at times,” Yurtseven says. “I need to sometimes take my time and gather. Then there’s nothing that can disrupt me getting to that touch with more balance.”
The numbers of today aren’t good, but just as Adebayo before him learned how and when to use specific shots around the rim, the glass half-full way of looking at it – shouldn’t we look at all young players with such hope and promise – is that the interior finishing is all upside. It’s also not all there is.
Let’s take this opportunity to state that Yurtseven probably isn’t going to be playing a ton alongside Adebayo when Miami’s All-Star returns, and he shouldn’t. The HEAT thrive with a floor spacer alongside Adebayo and Butler, and to be that, to be a shooter that matters, you have to be able to shoot with a mix of high efficiency and high volume – which also goes for Dewayne Dedmon, shooting 60 percent from three on just 20 shots.
Of course Yurtseven can be a good shooter at the professional level. Someday. He’s got time to develop that part of his game, and it doesn’t have to happen overnight. Brook Lopez didn’t take more than 15 threes in a season until he was 28. Then he took 387. Right now, it’s just not what the team is asking him to do.
“I think it’s a high percentage shot. I believe in it, it’s just right now my role is to get Max [Strus] and Duncan [Robinson] open,” said Yurtseven, who had eight assists against Phoenix largely via handoffs and open cutters. “If I’m open, I have the ability to shoot it so I will. Right now I’m trying to fulfill and do 100 percent my role. If it’s getting assists, I’m fine with that too. When I look at the game, all I see is the plus/minus. That’s been good for me. It makes me feel good that I contribute to us winning and making a positive impact out there whenever I’m on the floor. It can be from me shooting threes yeah certainly, but I also do a great job getting guys open so I’m trying to take pride in that.”
We could spend all day breaking down the intricacies of Yurtseven’s game. Go through the game film, find and highlight all the little successes and failures. He already does that to himself, on his own and with Allen, and can call up plays by memory, pointing out what he did right and wrong. Allen calls him teachable and a student, everything you want to hear. We’re sticking with the broad strokes because that’s what Yurtseven is. The size. The skillset. It’s just a sketch. Rebounding. Finishing. Shooting. It’s all there, but you don’t start coloring inside the lines with oil paints after fewer than 500 minutes.
He is far from a finished product. You don’t just throw out an unpolished, inexperienced player and say sink or swim, no notes. There are a ton of notes, coverages and schemes and tendencies to remember, no matter how much Spoelstra may want to simplify the game for him – and he did play nearly half of his defensive possessions in zone the first couple of weeks in the rotation. There’s learning to be done. Refine. Polish. We can dissect his data as much as we want – his defensive pick-and-roll numbers, per Second Spectrum, are really good, nestled right in between Joel Embiid and Draymond Green – but everything will change as he catches up to the league, the league catches up to him, and the cycle of adjusting to the adjustments begin.
The elephant in the room, then, is that as Adebayo and Dedmon work their way back over the next however many weeks, the minutes probably aren’t going to be there for Yurtseven on a regular basis. Again, such is life for a rookie. Playing can help you develop, but you can’t let not playing halt your development.
“He can’t get caught up into that,” Allen said. “His path right now is every day you have to focus on improving, whether that’s a practice day or a game day. As a young player that’s hard to do, especially when you’re playing and you’re having good games. But that’s just where he is in his career right now. If you project him to be a big-time center in the league, I hope we get to that point. Where he is, he’s really in the middle of learning the NBA game. A lot of times that’s understated for a lot of younger players. Everybody is different in terms of where they are. This has only accelerated his development in terms of experience and what it’s like to play every day on a good team with high-level players around you. He’s reaping the benefits of that today in practice and tomorrow in the game. Because you don’t know, you have to be the same as far as your preparation.
“Omer just has to make sure he’s doing his responsibility which is to improve every day. It sounds like sort of a cliché thing for a coach to say, but it’s the truth.”
There’s more than something here. Yurtseven isn’t just an abstract idea the HEAT are hoping to mold into a sculpture. Just as Allen did when Yurtseven was on the Milwaukee scout team grabbing rebounds he wasn’t expected to acquire, you can see it. We can all see it.
We just can’t let the allow the idea of what he can be cloud what he is right now. Expectations are heavy, and he’s got enough on his plate. For now, keep an eye out for those possessions where he messes up. And then watch what happens after. The skills will come along. He’s learning how to be physical. The young players worth watching are the ones who can follow possessions of failure with possessions of success.
“If I’m out there, I know and the coaches know that I’ll give it my 100,” Yurtseven said. “That’s all I can count on. If I’m tossed out there, I’ll be ready.”