Since being traded from the Denver Nuggets to the Portland Trail Blazers in February of 2017, Jusuf Nurkic has played 86 games with the Blazers and averaged 14.4 points, 9 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 blocks in 26.7 minutes per game – while shooting 49.4 percent from the field.
Unfortunately, after playing so well for Portland following last year’s trade, Nurkic got hurt and was limited to just one postseason game. Well, the 43-26 Blazers are currently the Western Conference’s No. 3 seed and Nurkic continues to produce at a high level, so he should get a chance to showcase his skills on the NBA’s biggest stage this year.
Nurkic is a reliable third option alongside star guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, as he’s the only other Blazer who averages double-digit points per game. On defense, opponents shoot just 55.8 percent against him at the rim, which is seventh-best among qualified players. He also has the NBA’s eighth-best defensive rating (101.9). Portland has won an NBA-best 12 straight games and during this span, Nurkic has averaged 14.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1 block, while shooting 52.3 percent from the field.
“Nurk’s play as of late has been crucial in our run,” McCollum told HoopsHype. “He’s finishing around the basket better and more efficiently, he’s rebounding at a higher clip and he’s making an impact each night. We look forward to having him healthy for a full postseason this year. His interior play and decision-making make our jobs easier on the perimeter.”
HoopsHype caught up with Nurkic to discuss his success with the Blazers, his individual ceiling since he’s only 23 years old, the sacrifices that make this group of players so special, his thoughts on Portland as a city, his upcoming restricted free agency and much more.
You’ve been playing very well lately. What’s been working well for you recently and how can you carry this production into the playoffs?
Jusuf Nurkic: I think as a team, we’re just understanding what we need to do. By now, at this point in the season, we know what it takes for us to win. There are some teams that are out of the playoffs that aren’t looking for wins right now and we’ve been taking advantage of that. Everyone competes at the end of the day, but some teams quit and some don’t. We’re beating those teams and we’re winning against the playoff teams we’re facing too. We have a rough schedule to close the season; we play a lot of the playoff teams. But that’s good. Everyone wants to play good games [to prepare for the playoffs]. I feel when it comes to myself, I’m just more focused on the little things and particulars. I try to work really hard, as hard as I can, so I can be in the position that I’m in now.
It seems like the fans in Portland love you and have really welcomed you with open arms since you joined the team. How nice is it to be a fan favorite and get that kind of support?
JN: I mean, it’s hard to be the fan favorite when you have someone like Dame on the team! (laughs) But it’s been great and it gives me even more motivation. The whole team has support from the fanbase, which is great. When I first came here, pretty much everyone was talking about tanking and not going to the playoffs. Now, we turned it around. But the fans always show up and support us, no matter what. At this point in the season, we’re glad the fans are happy. I’m glad to have them on our side!
Last year, we only got to see you play in one playoff game due to your injury. Now, you guys are the No. 3 seed and we could see you guys go on a deep run. How excited are you to enter the postseason healthy?
JN: Oh yeah, I’m ready. [Last year], I just tried to give it a shot and see if I could help, even if I was only able to play about 10 minutes. But this year is different.
This team has never had an issue on offense; we’re always able to score points. We have two guards who can score anytime and anywhere, and they just make the game so easy for me. Our defense is where we are better. We’re way better. That’s likely the category where we jumped the most. [Editor’s note: Portland defense is seventh-best in the NBA this season, up from 21st in the league last year.] When I got here, I knew this team could be better and I really focused on the defense.
Now, we have a team where everyone is playing well: Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, Moe Harkless, Shabazz Napier… Everyone has found their own role and everyone is playing great [on both ends of the court]. These have all been team wins, which is great.
I think some people forget that you’re only 23 years old. You just turned 23 last August, so you still have so much upside. As you keep developing, how much better do you think you can become and how much more room to grow do you have?
JN: Oh man, it’s really amazing. I still have a lot of room to grow and I love the game, so of course I’m going to keep working on myself and parts of my game. It’s my fourth season in the NBA, but it feels like my second almost. When you look at everything I have now and what happened before, it’s different. This is my first year as a full-time starter in the NBA and I’m just blessed to be in this position. I know how much work I’ve put in to get this and it’s just amazing to be in a position like this now.
Speaking of the work you put in, last summer you changed your workout regimen to lose weight and focus on conditioning more. Now that we’re late in the season when everyone is tired and worn out, how are you feeling and how does it compare to your previous seasons?
JN: I feel great. I really feel great. Early in the season, I felt really good and now 65 games later, I still feel really good. It was a really good experience for me because I had never played that many games in a season, but I’ve been able to stay healthy for pretty much the whole year. It’s just amazing for me. I remember thinking after the All-Star break, “Yeah, this worked. This feels good.” I’m in shape, everything is working out well and I’m healthy! I feel like I’m in the perfect position right now.
I’ve always loved your confidence. You don’t take sh** from anyone or back down from opponents.
JN: I mean, people talk too much sh** to me – especially the young players who just came into the league. They’re already talking about how they’re beasts and they haven’t even come that far yet.
When you look around the NBA, where do you think you rank among the best young centers?
JN: I believe that right now, I have a chance to show what I can do while being on a team that’s winning and while still developing. When you look around the league, some teams don’t have players who are willing to make sacrifices to win. We have a team that’s great at that; our guys sacrifice and play to win. On other teams, the players don’t want to make the sacrifices to win because they care about themselves first and foremost. They want the points and rebounds and all that. They’re chasing stats, they’re chasing [individual accolades]. We really don’t care about those things on this team.
When you ask me where I rank, I really don’t care, man. I know how much I can do for this team, how good I can be for this team, and that’s my only focus right now. I realize that way [of approaching the game] isn’t for everybody, but that’s working for me.
CJ was saying that you make life easier for he and Damian because of how productive you are down low, but I know that goes both ways. When you have CJ and Dame scoring and dominating on the perimeter, how do they make your job easier?
JN: Oh man, I’ve never been in this position and had two guards like this! Before I came to Portland, I never had two guards who in the pick-and-roll, nobody can go under! And it helps me because every team pays so much attention to them. On every possession, everyone is so worried about both of them and what they can do, so I have a chance to make plays. When I get the ball, it’s pretty simple. I just have to make good decisions – either dunking or finishing at the rim or making the right pass. The game is definitely more simple when you have two guards like that.
Also, everyone knows that they’re great players, but what’s even better is that they’re great people too. They care about others, they have great personalities and they’re just really humble men.
We talked about the team, but how have you enjoyed Portland as a city?
JN: I actually love it. Some people complain too much about the weather, but they don’t know bad weather! I come from Bosnia and I love back home, but the weather here sure is better than back home. I guess because California is so close, that’s why people complain so much about the weather. But I love Portland; it’s great!
You’re a restricted free agent this summer. Does that ever cross your mind?
JN: I don’t even think about it. I’m really only focused on Portland and the playoffs right now. In this league, business is business, but I just try to keep it simple: I’m going to hoop and let everybody else do their job.