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Jusuf Nurkic’s 3-point shooting is about much more than makes for Blazers

Jusuf Nurkic, Blazers

Barely three minutes had elapsed since tipoff of the Portland Trail Blazers preseason opener, and Jusuf Nurkic already found himself standing alone beyond the arc. He readied his hands, took a pass from C.J. McCollum and let fly from the right wing with zero hesitation as Kevon Looney offered a half-hearted close-out.

Clank.

Nurkic went 12-of-30 from deep in 2020-21, career-highs in both makes and attempts. Offseason and Media Day talk of Nurkic playing a bigger role offensively under Chauncey Billups centered mostly on maximizing him as a playmaker and affording him more opportunities in the post. But Nurkic becoming a legitimate three-point threat is key to his potential breakout season, too, and the early portion of Monday’s game made clear he knows it.

Less than two minutes of clock time after his first three came up short, Nurkic was dared by the Golden State Warriors to give it another go from exactly the same spot on the floor. Instead of taking the first open look made available to him, though, Nurkic bent the defense a little further by forcing the planned two-man game with Norman Powell. Resetting his feet behind the line and getting Draymond Green to commit harder to the ball was all Nurkic needed to feel comfortable once he caught again at the right elbow extended.

This time, splash.

That shot will be there all season long for Nurkic. Side ball screens and dribble hand-offs with an empty corner are a staple of the Blazers’ early offense under Billups, a simple way to leverage the individual scoring talents of Damian Lillard, McCollum and Powell with the weak side of the floor spaced by three shooters.

Just because defenses will first sell out to stop Portland’s guards from getting loose in that action doesn’t mean Nurkic has carte blanche to shoot three after three. As Billups explained at Friday’s practice, there’s a different hue to Nurkic’s green light from three compared to the Blazers’ best shooters.

“I like to see Nurk shoot that shot. I think he can make that shot, he can make the three-point shot,” Billups said. “But when you say green light, we’ve got a couple guys who have the green light to shoot the three, and Nurk is not a green light guy.”

Rightfully so, too. Anyone expecting Nurkic to go from inconsequential three-point shooter to one of basketball’s most high-volume ones from the frontcourt this season was always fooling themselves. It typically takes years for traditional big men who add the long ball midway through their careers to truly optimize their three-point rate. Some seven-footers with natural touch, like Marc Gasol, never quite get there.

Beneficial as it would be for the Blazers, Nurkic ever developing into an imminent three-point threat would be something close to shocking. He likely won’t shoot threes with the frequency of Brook Lopez or even Myles Turner, instead functioning as an opportunistic long-range shooter when Portland exhausts its primary offensive option and the defense begs him to launch. In that vein, it’s actually most significant that Nurkic simply takes those triples; making them is almost a bonus.

“He is a guy that can make it, and he’s a guy that if he’s shooting that shot in rhythm and he’s wide open, I want to see him shoot it because he can make it,” Billups said. “It opens up your offense a little bit and makes it tough for the defense.”

Billups’ case in point: This backdoor assist to Powell from the early third quarter of Monday’s game as Looney—perhaps wary of another three—pressures Nurkic on the perimeter, leaving the paint wide open. Just imagine how helpful it would be for Portland’s offense if rim-protectors like Rudy Gobert or Anthony Davis (playing center) were forced to venture outside to keep Nurkic from letting fly unencumbered.

It’s those little nuances that Billups’ overall offensive principles work to create and exploit. Portland doesn’t exactly boast a wealth of aggressive downhill drivers. One less man near the rim, especially a center, inherently encourages rim attacks from the Blazers’ guards and wings that only Lillard and Powell are consistently capable of producing by themselves.

Making threes at a 40 percent clip again, obviously, is the best outcome for Nurkic. But taking them with the contextual regularity Billups describes is most important, and could be the surest avenue toward Nurkic enjoying the career-best season he believes is inevitable—and the Blazers pushing for basketball’s best offense.