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NBA Saturday: Strong Start for Jusuf Nurkic in Portland

In his short time with Portland, Jusuf Nurkic is reminding us of the potential he displayed earlier in his career.

Jesse Blancarte

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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.”

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

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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