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NBA Saturday: Strong Start for Jusuf Nurkic in Portland

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The Portland Trail Blazers have had a disappointing season thus far, but they aren’t ready to quit on this season. At 25-35, the Trail Blazers are currently 2.5 games behind the eight seed Denver Nuggets.

Interestingly enough, these two teams consummated a deal weeks before this year’s trade deadline. The Trail Blazers agreed to trade Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round draft pick to the Nuggets in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 top-five protected first-round pick (via the Memphis Grizzlies). The trade had its benefits for both teams, but many interpreted the move as a conscious decision from Portland general manager Neil Olshey to punt on this season and prioritize the team’s long-term goals. However, considering how well Nurkic has played so far for Portland, the team may find itself in the postseason after all, which may somewhat help make up for what has been a tough season for the franchise.

“I feel great to be here and excited every day to spend with those guys and this city,” Nurkic said recently. “They gave me a lot of opportunity when I came here, so I just try to play and have fun.”

Nurkic definitely seems to be having fun now that he has moved on from Denver. In the Trail Blazers’ game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Nurkic was engaged and active from start to finish. He stifled Steven Adams and Enes Kanter on multiple occasions, controlled the paint on defense and swatted Russell Westbrook when he made an aggressive drive to the rim. On offense, Nurkic hit a floater off the dribble, scored in the post, hit a running sky hook in the lane and dished to open teammates out of pick-and-roll sets and from the post. Nurkic looked like the tantalizing rookie from a few years back that had vanished after suffering a few injuries and the emergence of Nikola Jokic.

“He gives us something we haven’t had for the last two years,” Damian Lillard said of Nurkic. “A guy that can get the ball on the block, he can pass from the block and he can really score on the block. Good skills and good feel for the game. That gives us an opportunity to pass and cut. He’s hitting guys when they cut and when it’s one on one, he’s scoring. You can trust his basketball IQ.

“And on the defensive end, guys have to bang against him. That takes a lot of energy out to have to bang with him on both ends of the floor. So I think those are some of the things that he’s brought to the game that we haven’t had.”

In five games with the Trail Blazers, Nurkic is averaging 14 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.8 blocks per game while shooting 58.3 percent from the field. Those are very solid numbers for Nurkic, and show that he was in serious need of a chance in scenery. Perhaps the most encouraging part of Nurkic’s first few games with Portland has been his passing.

When Portland traded Plumlee to Denver for Nurkic, some people (this writer included) believed that Nurkic was not well-equipped to be a facilitator on offense the way Plumlee had been for the Trail Blazers. However, in his first five games as a Trail Blazer, Nurkic has shown a consistent desire to find open teammates and has made numerous difficult passes that he rarely made while with the Nuggets. Plumlee is still a more natural and gifted passer than Nurkic, but so far Nurkic is nearly matching Plumlee’s assist numbers from earlier this season and has put up some impressive stat lines.

Something that won’t show up in any box score or advanced metric is the attitude Nurkic brings to the Trail Blazers.

“I guess you would call him a tough guy — every play he’s saying something,” Lillard said, stopping himself with laughter. “He’s got something to say every play and that’s just the type of attitude that you want to see in a big. You want a kind of an angry guy out there and a competitive guy.”

The Trail Blazers aren’t known as a particularly tough or physical team, so Nurkic’s presence and confrontational attitude may help embolden the rest of the team. But even if it doesn’t have any real tangible effect on his teammates, at least Nurkic is around to be physical with opposing big men, like he was with Adams and Kanter.

Despite Nurkic’s impressive play, the Trail Blazers have still only won three of their last 10 games. Whatever has plagued this team all season hasn’t vanished overnight with the addition of Nurkic, and the Nuggets aren’t simply going to roll over and give Portland the eighth seed. That reality hasn’t dampened Portland’s hopes, however, including Ed Davis, who will sit out the remainder of the season after suffering a torn labrum in his shoulder.

“The season’s not over with,” Davis said. “We still have a bunch of guys in this locker room that are still going to fight every day. Hopefully, we still get that eighth playoff spot and make a push for Golden State.”

Count Nurkic among those players that believe this team can hit a new gear and take over the eighth seed.

“We just need to play our game,” Nurkic said. “I know, man, we’re going to be great. It takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight. We have a lot of games still. Everybody need to believe. I’m pretty sure the fans believe. We’re going to do everything we can to be in the eighth spot. [I] 100 percent believe we’re going to be there.”

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About Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.