Jusuf Nurkic, entering a crucial contract year that could double as Damian Lillard's swan song with the Trail Blazers, isn't feeling the pressure as 2021-22 fast approaches. The seven-year veteran has never looked forward to an NBA season more than he has this one, in fact, despite an immediate future in Portland that seemed uncertain as recently as June and a cloud of drama hanging over his team that won't be lifting anytime soon.
Why? Invigorated by Chauncey Billups replacing Terry Stotts on the sidelines, Nurkic senses a new opportunity to fulfill some untapped potential he believes the Blazers' previous coaching staff largely ignored.
“I actually love that I’m in a contract year. As you know, players in their contract year probably play their best basketball, period. So I’m excited,” Nurkic recently told Jason Quick of The Athletic. “But even me being in a contract year hasn’t gotten me as fired up for basketball as much as Chauncey has. When he came, and the stuff he said, and the stuff he is trying to do here…I am beyond happy.”
Since officially being named Portland's coach in late June, Billups has preached moving the Blazers away from the ball-screen heavy offense they've long deployed to a more modern, egalitarian approach based on movement, pace and the extra pass. Though the goal of that shift is to lessen the offensive burden on any individual players, specifically Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Billups has also frequently championed the merits of expanding Nurkic's role.
How that increased responsibility is actually manifested on the floor remains to be seen. What clearly excited Nurkic most, though, is the prospect of getting the additional touches down low he's long felt were warranted. Nurkic publicly clamored for more shots in the aftermath of Portland's dispiriting playoff loss to the Denver Nuggets in early June, and repeatedly stressed Billups' plans of playing “inside-out” to The Athletic.
Billups doesn't exactly seem against feeding Nurkic on the block, either.
“I think Big Nurk is an asset,” Chauncey Billups said during his introductory press conference. “I think that he can score more than he has in the past.”
The Blazers would obviously benefit from Nurkic emerging as a more prolific, consistent scoring threat from the post. They ranked dead last by a wide margin last season with just 33.9 percent of their points coming from the paint, and lack dynamic penetrators from the perimeter beyond Lillard and Norman Powell. It's not like Nurkic becoming a high-usage, high-efficiency back-to-basket scorer wouldn't make life easier on his teammates, either. Billups wants to keep the ball moving and attack from multiple sides of the floor first and foremost, and Nurkic drawing double-teams in the post would be as sure a way to initiate those quick-hitting sequences as anything else.
The problem? There's just no evidence Nurkic is likely to develop into that type of dominant low-post scoring hub other than blind optimism. He averaged 0.74 points per possession on 2.2 post-ups per game in 2020-21, per NBA.com/stats, in the 17th percentile among players league-wide. Nurkic has never shot better than 45.2 percent from the block in any full season of his career, and doesn't make up for it by getting to the free throw line. His turnover rate in the post is perpetually high, too.
None of that means Nurkic is undeserving of the confidence Billups has in him. Nurkic will never be Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic or even Jonas Valanciunas as a post scorer, but the only reason that would ever be a real issue is if the Blazers ask him to be. Nurkic has plenty more to offer offensively, attributes that make him extremely well-suited for the variable system Billups has in mind.
There are only so many seven-footers in the league with Nurkic's court vision and passing chops. He'll continue to make hay as a short-roll playmaker under Billups, but expect Portland to rely even more on Nurkic as an initiator from the elbows and high post this season. Dimes like these that take advantage of his teammates' rare collective shooting threat are the types of plays where Nurkic easily provides the Blazers most added value on offense.
The next frontier for Nurkic as a scorer can spring from his additional playmaking load, too. Not only is he capable of briefly putting the ball on the deck when fooling defenders with fake hand-offs or getting his shoulder past plodding opposing centers, but Nurkic has also flashed nascent three-point range.
He shot a solid 12-of-29 (40 percent) from beyond the arc last season, career-bests in both makes and attempts. That's a tiny sample size, obviously, but all of Nurkic's triples coming from above the break suggests there's more to his ceiling as a shooter than other centers who tried and failed to legitimately expand their range.
As defenders lay off Nurkic to clog passing lanes or contain drives and cuts from his teammates, what happens if splashes like this become routine instead of novelty?
Further playmaking obligations and an uptick in three-point rate probably aren't illustrations of Chauncey Billups' belief in him that have Nurkic most sanguine. He wants the profile of a star, and those developments wouldn't win him fans the way beasting other bigs down low would with newfound regularity.
But they'd no doubt go a long way toward winning the Blazers more games, in the process assuring Jusuf Nurkic gets the payday next summer that centers with his impactful two-way ceiling deserve—whether in Rip City or elsewhere.