House of Nurk

It’s hard not to root for a player like Jusuf Nurkić. Juka, as he’s affectionately known by those close to him, is reserved but confident. That’s a rare combination.

Jusuf also prefers to keep his life private for the most part and that’s why there isn’t much about him online. When asked about this lack of information, he responded with a chuckle and said, “That’s good.”

That’s also part of the reason why the story of his coming to America and the NBA seems almost mythical.

Nurkić started playing organized basketball much later than most kids in America today, especially with the prominence of AAU competition. When asked how he started playing basketball, he smiled and said, “I hear that question a lot.”

“I started when I was 14 in Slovenia and an agent in Europe found me. My dad is a police officer who’s 6’10” and 400 pounds,” Nurkić said. “[The agent] saw that my dad had a fight with 14 people in the newspaper, [saw] how tall he was and how much he weighed. He asked if he had a kid. It’s a true story. It’s kind of a crazy story. These guys are crazy, man. From that, he said I had NBA potential.”

Despite starting late, Jusuf played pro-level basketball as a teenager for a couple seasons from 2012-14 in the EuroLeague and a couple of the domestic leagues in Croatia. In his best season in the Adriatic League for Cedevita Zagreb, he averaged 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in just 16.6 minutes per game.

It was during this time that Juka began to see the potential in himself.

“I never thought [I could make it to the NBA] until my last year with Cedevita. It’s kind of a long way. I’ve made it to the NBA in five years.”

Jusuf hadn’t always been an NBA fan, though, but only because the time zone differences made it difficult to catch the games at a decent time in his home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“When I started playing, I started to watch more [NBA games],” Nurkić said. “In Bosnia, I didn’t have time because they were usually [starting at] four in the morning, usually three, so if you have school or other stuff, it’s tough to watch. I watched some games but not a lot.”

Usually new opportunities come with new obstacles to overcome. Jusuf was drafted by the Chicago Bulls with the 16th pick in the 2014 NBA draft and acquired by the Nuggets on draft night. The adjustment and the cross-Atlantic move would be understandably difficult for any teenager, and even more so for one so far away from home.

But for Jusuf, he could see the opportunity to play at the highest level of basketball in the world.

“America’s a big deal because it’s way bigger [than Bosnia]. There’s more stuff to do. You have more opportunity to go your own way. [The NBA] is the best league in the world and it’s an opportunity for a new day and it’s something you have to do,” Nurkić told Nuggets.com. “[America] is different in the way of life to the time zones. For me, the first year, you just feel it out, feel out the league, how it works here but after that, it’s been really great. The second year was a lot better for me actually. If you watch the injuries, that was difficult. But stuff off the court and on the court was easier.”

During his rookie season, Nurkić averaged 6.9 points and 6.2 rebounds in 17.8 minutes per game. As a result, he was selected to the All-Rookie Second Team. There was more to come.

In just his second year in the league, Juka showed even more flashes of brilliance. On Jan. 6 against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Rookie of the Year winner Karl-Anthony Towns, Nurkić put up a double-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds, and tied his career-high with five blocks. Nurkić also played well against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs on Apr. 8, scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 boards. In the last game of the season against the Portland Trail Blazers, Juka showed his all-around ability posting 11 points, 14 rebounds, four assists, five steals and three blocks.

Towards the end of the season, Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone also started experimenting with the rotation, trying some lineups where Jusuf and 6’10” teammate Nikola Jokić played together in the frontcourt. Jusuf showed an ability to play with Nikola in a twin towers lineup that’s about as fashionable in today’s NBA as having a flip phone.

Fashionable or not, it worked. Nurkić and Jokić combined for 29 points, 25 boards, five assists, three steals and three blocks in their first crack at the new lineup.

Jusuf relished the opportunity.

“I’m happy about the big lineup [with Nikola]. “Basketball has kind of changed. The NBA has gone smaller because of [the] Golden State [Warriors]. In the [Western Conference] semi-finals, look at [Oklahoma City’s Steven] Adams, [Enes] Kanter, and [Serge] Ibaka. They played all those guys and they see the difference. Me and Nikola have great communication because we played in the same league, we played against each other.”

Despite the steps forward this season, Nurkić has had to battle a couple injuries to his knee and ankle that hampered him earlier in the season. This summer, he’s been working hard to come back stronger and better than ever.

“I’ve been working on staying in shape, [healing from] my injury, [trying] to be 100%. I’m doing everything I can to have the best body and be in the best shape,” Nurkić told Nuggets.com. “That’s my goal.”

This summer is a packed one for Jusuf. In addition to improving his strength and skills, he’s also found time to give back to the community he called home. In June, Nurkić will be hosting his first basketball camp in Bosnia.

“It’s the first time I’m doing a basketball camp in Bosnia. There will be 300 kids in one day. A lot of the stuff will be new for the kids since they will be working with NBA coaches,” Nurkić said. “I’m pretty excited about that.”

Besides Jusuf’s basketball camp, the NBA Draft will also take place in June. The Nuggets will have the luxury of five draft picks and that means there will be the potential of an influx of even more young players.

The good thing is, Juka is prepared to step up and be a leader for the Nuggets going into his third year.

“It’s a great feeling to be a veteran and you’re not a rookie anymore,” Nurkić explained. “If you’re not winning in this league, no one will respect you. At the end of the day, you have to win [and] I want to win. That’s the only reason why I do this. I want to make sure I can be a leader on the team. I will do whatever I can to be the best.”

For a young Nuggets squad looking to make a name for themselves in an ever tougher Western Conference, they will need a leader who’s devoted, passionate, and honest.

That sounds like just the job for Jusuf Nurkić.