Not much has gone right for the Denver Nuggets since they fired George Karl. After winning 57 games in their last season with Karl, they won only 36 games the next season and they are currently scuffling under .500 with a 18-23 record. Two weeks ago, they officially waived the white flag on their season, trading away their starting center (Timofey Mozgov) for two future first-round picks.
The good news for Nuggets' fans is the move opened up playing time for Jusuf Nurkic, a talented rookie center from Bosnia. Taken with the No. 16 overall pick in this year’s draft, Nurkic already looks like one of the real steals from a loaded class. While his season averages aren’t great - 6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1 block on 44% shooting - his per-minute numbers as a rookie mark him as a comer - 15.6 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.9 blocks a game.
At 6’11 280 with a 7’2 wingspan, Nurkic has a rare combination of size, skill and athleticism. He’s known mostly for his bull in a china shop demeanor, but he’s surprisingly nimble and he’s capable of covering ground quickly for a man of his immense size. That’s his main weapon early in his NBA career - Nurkic is bigger and faster than the vast majority of the guys he goes up against. Everyone talks about him not being scared of older players. Why would he be scared of people he literally looks down on?
Nurkic didn’t got a ton of publicity before the draft, as he never played in the Nike Hoop Summit and hardly made any appearances on the North American continent before joining the NBA. As a role player in Europe, he never averaged more than 16 minutes a game in a season, preventing him from putting up the type of eye-popping numbers teams are drawn too.
He has one of the most advanced post games in recent years, but that was no longer seen as much of a distinction in an era where many centers are confined to catching lobs on the pick-and-roll. The success of teams like the Atlanta Hawks, meanwhile, who don’t play a traditional center and spread the floor with five shooters, makes an old-school behemoth like Nurkic seem a bit outdated in the modern NBA. He’s a throwback to a different type of game.
The big concern with those type of players is the defensive end of the floor, as most great low-post scorers are floor-bound Goliaths like Nik Pekovic and Al Jefferson. The most encouraging thing for Nuggets fans is that hasn’t been the case for Nurkic so far:
For all his skill, though, his offense is a bit of a mixed bag. Like many young big men, Nurkic can be too aggressive for his own good and he can struggle when defenses send extra help and commit to stopping him. After a series of strong games since Mozgov’s departure, culminating in a 16 point, 8 rebound performance against DeMarcus Cousins, he has fallen back to Earth, with 8 points on 14 shots in his last three games. A great post scorer has to be able to read the defense and create shots for his teammates, something Nurkic struggles with, which you can see in his per-40 minute averages of 1.8 assists on 2.7 turnovers.
Part of the issue is undoubtedly the lack of outside shooting around him, as Denver is committed to two big men - JJ Hickson and Kenneth Faried - who can’t consistently stretch the floor. The Nuggets have been at their best when Nurkic has played with Darrell Arthur, a sweet-shooting big man who has added a three-point shot to his game in recent years:
Even though Faried just received a huge contract from the Nuggets in the offseason, it’s unclear how committed they are to him and he has repeatedly clashed with Shaw. Faried put up the best numbers of his career playing in Karl’s uptempo system and his lack of outside shooting makes him a pretty shaky fit with Nurkic. When push comes to shove, the Denver front office is likely to take the younger player with more upside whom they drafted.
The most encouraging thing about Nurkic is just how young he is. He should be a sophomore in college - he turned 20 in August and is younger than college centers like Willie Cauley-Stein and Frank Kaminsky. And while Kaminsky is dominating a bunch of overmatched college kids without the size or athleticism to match-up with him, Nurkic is getting an education of a lifetime from the best players in the world. There may not be as many great centers in the league as there once were, but that doesn’t mean Nurkic is getting many nights off.
Since the turn of the year, he has gone up against Marc Gasol, Kosta Koufos, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Gorgui Dieng, Nik Vucevic, Kyle O’Quinn, DeMarcus Cousins, Tyson Chandler and Andrew Bogut. Considering that he is significantly younger than all of those guys and he’s playing on a team that is going nowhere fast, it’s no real surprise that he’s had his share of ups and downs. When his rookie deal is up, Nurkic will be younger than Dieng, a rising young center in this league, is now.
Going forward, what Denver will need to figure out is what type of players make sense around their young big man. With so many quality young teams ahead of them in the West, it may be a few years before Denver is ready to compete for a playoff spot. By that time, guys like Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler and Arron Afflalo may be already past their prime. Trading Mozgov was only the beginning - word around the league is that the Nuggets are ready for a fire-sale.
Denver resisted making a full rebuild after dealing away Carmelo Anthony, but it appears they may no longer have a choice. As the old saying goes, this is the first season of the rest of the Nuggets lives. There are a lot of different directions the franchise could go in and it’s very likely they end up wandering in the wilderness for awhile. It won’t be easy, but there is hope. Rebuilding a team starts with laying a foundation and there are few better cornerstones to have laying around than a 6’11 280 two-way center.