Being huge used to make the game easier. You could get by on height, girth, and a bad attitude. Timofey Mozgov, Kendrick Perkins, dubiously skilled goliaths that can’t hang anymore. Their extinction has been generally for the better. The quality of play improves when players are asked to be more than stationary rebounders, foul sponges. At least Mason Plumlee is quick for his size. But you feel bad for certain strains of big men, the now-obsolete back to the basket types (Al Jefferson was so smooth around the rim), defensive geniuses forced to operate out of their depth (there are games when even Rudy Gobert looks lost). Seven-footers who in any other era would stir fear and awe have jock at the book publishing party energy. They’re struggling to keep up.
Jusuf Nurkić, thank god, is good enough. Any basketball league that doesn’t have room for him is headed in the wrong direction. He’s built his career on massiveness. The reason he arrived in the NBA in the first place is because an enterprising agent once asked a famously gargantuan Bosnian police officer if he had any sons, and if they played basketball.
But Nurk’s not a mere pile of meat. There’s this pose he strikes, from the block or the elbow, where he has his left arm extended and parallel to the floor, like a concrete highway divider keeping the defender in place, and he holds the ball over his head, slightly away from his body, where no one can get at it. This is his unorthodox triple threat stance. He can spin out it and go baseline, move across the lane and shoot a sidewinder-y hook, or just flick his wrist and—boop!—there’s C.J. McCollum open on the wing, Rodney Hood cutting to the rack. There’s nothing labored about it. Nurk is not a slippery player, his frame makes that impossible, but he makes single motions—the sudden turning of his hips, the push-button release of a pass—a lot faster than you would expect. It’s because his mind is as agile as any guard in the open floor.
An example I keep thinking about is a maneuver Nurk pulled off against the Magic in 2018-19. As Evan Fournier drives, Nurk thinks to help, then realizes two teammates are going to trap Fournier, so he sinks back to Nik Vučević on the perimeter, picks off the pass, goes behind his back, and lays the ball off to a trailing Dame Lillard while also sidestepping to interrupt Fournier’s recovery. Of course, Dame doesn’t miss when he’s got space; he cans the three. The whole sequence takes about six seconds, and what floors me about it is that at every point, if you pause the video, Nurk clearly knows what he’s doing. There’s no lag between recognition and action. It would be an impressive two-way play if an all-star wing made it. To watch him do it at his size is downright comic. He does stuff, if not exactly like that, then in that vein all the time. You expect him to surprise you.
That he has all of this ancillary ability makes it so that we can fully appreciate that he’s just a dump truck of a man. He’s got smarts and finesse and sometimes they don’t matter at all. He puts the hard hat on, as Blazers announcers Kevin Calabro likes to say. He moves other dudes around, like he’s rearranging dishes in a kitchen cabinet, to secure the board. He gets half a step, a clean look at the rim, and throws it down. That’s a primal thrill you can’t get from Steph Curry or Paul George, an aspect of the game we miss because it’s not dominated by kaiju anymore. Maybe that is the most special thing about Jusuf Nurkić: he is a highly functional evolution, a throwback with state-of-the-art talents. His play isn’t empty calories; he’s not an aesthetically interesting player the advanced metrics hate. He contributes to winning in his unique fashion. He doesn’t really shoot threes either. I hope he never learns.
Nurk played only 13 games last year, all after the pandemic-induced break. He wasn’t spectacular—his grandmother died in the middle of Portland’s brief playoff run; his heart wasn’t in Orlando then—but all we needed to see from him was that he was moving alright after the horrific leg injury he suffered at the tail end of the 2018-19 season. He was up to his old Nurk-y tricks, not hobbling or noticeably weak on his feet. Nobody with the Blazers is talking about him like he’s hurt; there’s no pre-training camp chatter along the lines of bringing him along slowly or managing his minutes. He’ll be back on the same schedule as his teammates. That’s a relief, because he’s the element that makes the Blazers dangerous, more than just a free-scoring squad with two star combo guards. He protects the lane, cleans the glass, and does eight or nine other things he doesn’t seem like he should be able to do. And he’s only 26. Improbable as it might sound, there is room for Nurk to keep growing.
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2019 Histories: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brooklyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Dallas Mavericks | Denver Nuggets | Detroit Pistons | Houston Rockets | Golden State Warriors | Indiana Pacers | Los Angeles Clippers | Los Angeles Lakers | Memphis Grizzlies | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | Minnesota Timberwolves | New Orleans Pelicans | New York Knicks | Oklahoma City Thunder | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Phoenix Suns | Portland Trail Blazers | Sacramento Kings | San Antonio Spurs | Toronto Raptors | Utah Jazz | Washington Wizards
2018 Futures: Kevin Love, Manu Ginobili, Marcus Smart, John Wall, Devin Booker, Paul George, Blake Griffin, Trae Young, Kenneth Faried, Joakim Noah, Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Kawhi Leonard, Aaron Gordon, Danilo Gallinari, Wayne Ellington, Frank Kaminsky, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Jrue Holiday, Paul Millsap, Kris Dunn, Jimmy Butler, Joel Embiid, Victor Oladipo, Kevin Durant, C.J. McCollum, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic
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