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Denver Nuggets year in review: Jusuf Nurkic

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Jusuf Nurkic, the Bosnian Beast, started the year wounded and benched and finished as a starter for the Nuggets - but that's hardly the whole story

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

YEAR IN REVIEW SERIES


Over the next three weeks, the staff at Denver Stiffs will be reviewing the Denver Nuggets' 2015-16 season with our Year in Review series. Check back daily for new articles and analysis of the major players on the roster as well as the coaching staff. You can also click on the link to the right for a full list of articles in the series that you may have missed.

Overview

By Gordon Gross

The season started ominously, with a joint conference from GM Tim Connelly and coach Michael Malone that let slip this fact: Jusuf Nurkic would not be ready to start the season. So began a long wait to even see the talented Bosnian center take the floor, and a season that ended much like the last: with the knowledge that Nurkic was a very talented player but had a long way to go to be a great player. The added wrinkle this time was that Nurkic - talented as he is - might not be the best center on his own team.

But who can fairly judge a player coming off a serious knee surgery and grueling recovery? Nurkic had patellar tendon surgery on May 20th and instead of spending his summer working on his game he got to spend it in rehab. Knee injuries on near-seven-footers are notoriously slow-healing, and Jusuf would not take the floor for the Nuggets in 2015 - though he was cleared to play in December and was held out.


When Malone had finally seen enough in practice to let him take the court on January 2nd, Nurkic showed all the rust you would expect - the same kind of rust that took Danilo Gallinari a few months to shake off the previous year. Gallo had already refined his game, though, while Nurkic was still the kid who didn't start playing basketball until he was 14. He had a couple of nice games against Portland and Minnesota but his fouls and combination of high usage and poor shooting limited his effectiveness.

He also found himself behind the new rookie wonder from Eastern Europe, Nikola Jokic. Jokic would finish near the top in Rookie of the Year voting while Nurkic couldn't crack the starting rotation until April - when he would be playing next to Jokic. The recovery from knee issues also kept Nurkic bouncing in and out of the rotation throughout the year, and left both him and his fans frustrated.

Because the signs of a dominant defensive player were still there. There was the 15 point, 10 rebound and 5 block game against Minnesota in just 22 minutes. He faced off against Andre Drummond on February 10th and Drummond - who had given Jokic fits in the first half - could not back down the stouter Nurkic and got just two points in the second half. Nurkic meanwhile notched a very nice 16 point and 11 rebound double-double. Nurkic simply wasn't able to get the consistent court time during the season to improve his still-raw game and these flashes remained just that: flashes of possibility without consistency.

The final game of the season was perhaps most emblematic of his year. Nurkic had the astounding stat line of 11 points, 14 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 steals, 3 blocks, 5 fouls, 8 turnovers and was 5-for-13 from the floor. The Bosnian Beast is able to turn back teams in the paint and is easily one of the strongest players in the league. Watching players who could back Jokic right to the basket just bounce ineffectually off Nurkic's chest was comically entertaining when it wasn't downright frustrating. He is Denver's only real paint presence until Jokic adds some muscle, but his abysmally rushed shooting, silly turnovers and bone-headed fouls scream that he needs more seasoning, more time on the court, and more coaching. Nurkic is the same raw tower of promise that he was last year, and losing a year of growth is never good.

And the Nuggets still have not answered their most important question: can Nurkic and Jokic succeed together as large center-types in a league of spread-the-floor beanpoles? They only played together for significant minutes in April and the results were both interesting and entirely inconclusive.


Nurkic wants his starting job back, but the best ability is availability, and he was not available for the majority of this season. He'll have to work over the offseason as hard as he ever has, and if he can stay around Denver for a large part of it that would be even better. Regardless of whether the Nuggets buy into the large frontcourt idea, he has to catch Nikola Jokic if he wants to get off the bench. Having another big man to push him to be better can only help - as long as he accepts the challenge. The promise remains. The upside is amazing. But only Nurkic can go out and reach for it. This offseason is as big for him as for any player in the entire league.

Important Stat

By Adam Mares
48.6%
That was Nurkic's field goal percentage in the restricted area and it was the 7th worst mark in the NBA for players with at least 100 attempts. He was one of just three centers (Joakim Noah, Frank Kaminski) in the bottom 50.


Nurkic has the strength and touch to become a great finisher around the rim and it really looks like most of his struggles around the basket come from rushing his shot and from not knowing how to use his size to his advantage. Guys with his strength should be punishers inside, holding position on the block or on rolls to the rim and powering through contact. Nurkic was slightly better in 2014-15, at 52.8%. More than anything else, his success on the offensive end will depend on his ability to improve that number.


Room for improvement
By Gordon Gross


Nurkic has to get better at scoring, period, especially in the paint. He only shot 50% from the field on paint touches and had an overall eFG% of 41.7. The guy attempted almost 83% of his shots from within six feet of the bucket, and missed 56.5% of them. Jokic was almost 14% better, and Lauvergne and Faried were 16% better. That's 30+ made buckets he left on the court in limited minutes - something that can't happen if the Nuggets want to win those close games next year. As I said earlier this year:

Nurkic is going to have to learn how to breathe, relax, gather himself, and maybe even head-fake before he bothers hoisting a shot or going back up with a rebound. He's nearly seven feet tall and immovable as an oak. There is no good reason for him to be tossing the ball up in abject terror every time he finds himself by the rim. He's better than that.


Highlight of the Year
The Bosnian Beast Swats LeBron James

By Dan Lewis


Best Game of the Year

By Zach Mikash

Despite having a clean bill of health, Nurkic struggled to find minutes in the rotation late into Denver's season. However, on March 12th coach Malone was forced to insert the Bosnian Beast after Joffrey Lauvergne took a nasty elbow to the face. Nurkic responded with seventeen points in just over seventeen minutes of play and that's counting the four and half minutes in the first half where he scored zero points but amassed three fouls.


Beyond the stat line, when Nurkic checked in for Joffrey in the third quarter it sparked a major run for Denver that turned the tables in their favor. After trailing by eight points entering the fourth, the Nuggets rode Juka's dominant performance inside to outscore the Wizards by twenty-four points in the final quarter and earn the victory.


Roundtable Questions:
Should Nurkic be a definite starter next season, or should Malone consider bringing him off the bench to back up Nikola Jokic?


Kayla Osby (@nuggetchica): I just want what's best for the development of both Nurkic and Jokic. We got a pretty good sample size of the two of them playing together on the court at the end of the season, but Malone may need to see more of it to determine if they should both start. If it turns out both of them on the court at the same time doesn't work as well as we think, I would be all for bringing Nurkic off the bench. Having the Bosnian Beast as your backup starter definitely does not seem too terrible, by any means. Still, if Malone can get Nurkic and Jokic to really gel together, then he should take advantage of it.


Zach Mikash (@ZachMikash): THAT is the million dollar question now isn't it. It's hard to imagine either Nurkic or Jokic as a career reserve and the rotation Denver experimented with at the end of the season might be the answer. Start both guys and play them together for about six minutes then sub one out for a more traditional power forward. From there play traditional lineups and go with the hot hand at the end of the game. I'm not convinced it will work all the time but I think we saw at the end of the year that Jokic can be OK starting at the power forward spot when facing some more traditional fours.


Gordon Gross (@GMoneyNuggs): It depends who else is in the starting lineup. I would like Nurkic and Nikola Jokic paired with each other for several minutes a game, with Jokic playing the 4, but if Nurkic works better with the bench 4 and Chandler then you use him there. If he's better with Gallo and Mudiay than Jokic then make sure he's starting. It's Michael Malone's job to get the most out of his two-headed center, so I'm more concerned with maximizing the hockey shifts that Malone prefers than whether Nurkic is starting or coming off the bench. It may also change depending on the opposing team's starter. Nurkic is much stronger than Jokic at this point so it might just behoove Malone to stay flexible - and both his centers to stay ready.

Nurkic only averaged 17.1 minutes in 32 games this season. Assuming he stays healthy, how many minutes do you see him realistically getting next season?

Osby: I can see Nurkic playing around 25-30 minutes next season. A lot depends on his health and his conditioning. There were a lot of times this season that he appeared exhausted and I think it affected his performance at times. Also, a lot depends on him staying out of foul trouble as well. Both of those things will be the roadblocks in achieving more minutes for him. However, if he's able to stay healthy and doesn't get into foul trouble early on in games, I think he will play 25-30 minutes. I think Malone will recognize that the team is better with him in the paint protecting the rim.


Mikash: I like him and Jokic both around the twenty-five minute mark. Kayla's right to mention the foul trouble because it's a big factor in how long either center can stay on the court. There's going to be games where Nurkic is going to have a size advantage and his post game working and in those cases you could see him get closer to thirty or even thirty-five minutes a game, but there will be other nights where he picks up three fouls in his first ten minutes and sits for big portions of the night. If he's right at twenty five minutes then the Nuggets are likely getting solid production out of him while also still getting plenty of minutes for Jokic.


Gross: I don't see him averaging more than 25 minutes a game. Kenneth Faried got 25 minutes a game this year, and until and unless Nurkic can keep his silly fouls and turnovers down, and fix his ineffective scoring, I don't think Nurkic gets more (and might get a couple fewer). Those silly mistakes are understandable in a young player, but it caps his playing time under a coach like Malone whose patience won't be extended quite as much next year. Nurkic could blow all that up by finally getting a healthy summer to work on his game and taking another leap forward to force more time on the court.


Do you always love Juka's attitude on the court, or do you sometimes wish he would tone it back a bit? (i.e. when he stared down LeBron James after blocking his shot, and James heated up right after)


Osby: I always love when Juka shows attitude to opposing players or referees at the time, but as in the Cavaliers game, I realize that it sometimes bites the Nuggets in the butt later on. Generally speaking, I want him to continue showing personality in games, but I wish he would recognize the time and place. When you're playing against James and the game is still far from being determined, it might be better for him to recognize that he should tone it down just a bit. Maybe instead of staring James down for 3 seconds, he can just flash a little smirk and move on, for example. Still, I would way rather him continue his antics on the court than eliminate them altogether.


Mikash: I hope he stares down LeBron seven days a week and twice on Sunday. As mentioned on the most recent Pickaxe Podcast by Coach Pyper, the Nuggets need attitude, need a little bit of nasty. It's something this team has been missing ever since Kenyon Martin left town and Nurkic is far and away the most likely to fill that void. That cockiness becomes intimidating when it's backed up with defensive presence and Juka certainly isn't lacking in that. Yes, every now and then a player of LeBron's caliber is going to get even but I'll take that in exchange for the mental edge Nurkic can give the Nuggets any day.


Gross: What they said. The book on the Nuggets this year was to push them around and watch them wilt, but that doesn't happen with Nurkic. When K-Mart was on the court for the Thuggets version of Denver's team, nobody tried to rough them up without consequences. Nurkic is that kind of guy. I've said this before, but his "I don't give a ****" meter is very high, and that makes people leery of starting things they might not be able to finish. He's gotten under the skin of players like Marc Gasol, who are used to having their way with opponents. He doesn't back down and the Nuggets need more of that attitude, not less. It's up to Malone to harness it, but he was able to do it with a bigger knucklehead in Cousins. I think he can handle Nurkic, and I think Jusuf can keep his edge under control and use it as a benefit and not a drawback.