Over the next few weeks, the Denver Stiffs staff will be previewing the 2016-17 Denver Nuggets. The team enters Michael Malone’s second season with the Nuggets with a mix of new and familiar faces. With a roster mixed with young talent like Jamal Murray and more experienced veterans like Wilson Chandler, the Nuggets are looking to improve on their 33-49 record from last season.
Most everyone on the Stiffs staff had Jusuf Nurkic as either the ninth or eighth best player on the roster (site manager Adam Mares had him the highest at seventh). On it’s face though that feels low. Nurkic is a consistent part of the discussion when it comes to discussing the Denver Nuggets young core and bright future yet the ninth best player on a roster is a bit rotational player at best. This speaks to the depth the Nuggets have in their lineup and to the rapid rise of fellow Balkan center Nikola Jokic.
Nurkic being ranked ninth also speaks to the inconsistency he displayed last season. After an exciting rookie campaign that saw him surge towards the end of the season, Juka’s sophomore year was marred by injury and whispers about poor work ethic. Coming into last season he was recovering from knee surgery but no one knew at the beginning of the year that it wouldn’t be until game thirty-four of the season before the Nuggets would have their best interior defender back. Even after Nurkic’s return he was plagued with inconsistency in both playing time and production.
The rumor, and the social media campaign, is that since the season ended Juka has been putting in work at the gym, getting leaner, meaner and better than ever for the upcoming season and the photo evidence would tend to back it up.
Juka will need to more than develop his body though, he’s also going to need to continue to develop his game. The big Bosnian is a force of raw power that can be intimidating at times but clumsy and inefficient at others. Without a doubt though he stands as the best interior defender for the team and a vital piece of the Nuggets rotation.
Nurkic’s strength is well...his strength. There’s little debate that he is the strongest player on the team and his size makes opposing guards think twice when attempting to penetrate the lane. In fact, when Juka was on the court last season he accounted for over half of the Nuggets blocked shots. His ability to defend the post registers him as a plus defender, contributing an overall 2.7 defensive win shares in his short career.
The defensive prowess is fairly obvious given his stature, but in addition to his ability to intimidate in the lane, an underrated part of Nurkic’s game is his ability to pass the basketball on offense. Like his teammate Jokic, Nurkic has an uncanny knack for finding a player with a well timed pass and can make assists from out of the post or while operating at the elbow as well as getting out a quick outlet pass to start the break. Unlike Jokic, or some of the other more prominent European big men like Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol, Nurkic doesn’t have the offense ran through him enough to have a comparable assist %, but the talent is undoubtedly there.
The biggest weakness in Nurkic’s game right now is his ability to finish around the basket. He shot just 48.6% within the restricted area, a terrible number in comparison to not only just other centers, but to really anyone in the Association regardless of their position. Juka has the raw strength to bully his way into the restricted circle on almost any given position but he doesn’t appear to be sure what to do once he gets there.
Because he’s been playing basketball for a relatively short amount of time, Nurkic hasn’t developed a well polished post game. This means that he often times rushes his shot or even worse will actually work himself into less favorable position for a shot than where he originally received an entry pass. In the end, that lack of back to the basket ability results in low percentage, awkward looking shots in an area that should be all about high percentage looks that are routine makes.
Projected 2016-2017 statistics
Courtesy of HastagBasketball.com, here are Nurkic’s projected stats.
Nurkic remains on his rookie contract for this season and the next after the Nuggets picked up his team option for both years last October. He will make around an average of $1.8 million per season. When his contract expires the Nuggets will have the option of extending a qualifying offer to Nurkic which will make him a restricted free agent and give Denver the option of matching an offer the young center may receive.