Jusuf Nurkic at the center of team’s future despite inconsistent past: Trail Blazers season review, look ahead

The Oregonian/OregonLive is taking a player-by-player look at the Portland Trail Blazers roster heading into the offseason.

Other posts: Josh Hart; Nassir Little; Justise Winslow; Trendon Watford; Greg Brown III; Keon Johnson; CJ Elleby; Brandon-Williams; Ben McLemore; Drew Eubanks; Elijah Hughes; Keljin Blevins; DiDi Louzada; joe english; Eric Bledson; Reggie Perry; Chris Dunn.

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Today: Jusuf Nurkic, 27, 6-foot-11, center.

Contract status: Nurkic will become an unrestricted free agent after earning $12 million this season.

Likelihood to return: It’s about as certain as it could be given that Nurkic has the freedom to test the open market. But general manager Joe Cronin has made it clear that the Blazers plan to re-sign Nurkic this summer.

2021-22 contributions: Nurkic started all 56 games he appeared in and averaged 15 points, 11.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists. He shot 53.5% from the field while playing 28.2 minutes per game.

Strengths/weaknesses: One of Nurkic’s top goals this season was to improve his accuracy close to the basket. Mission accomplished. He shot 62.1% from inside five feet compared to 56% last season. However, on shots between 5 and 9 feet, his numbers dipped slightly from 43.2% to 42.3%.

For comparison’s sake, Denver’s Nikola Jokic, the two-time reigning MVP, shot 70.9% inside of five feet and 60.6% on shots from 5 to 9 feet. Jokic also outshot Nurkic from all other ranges.

Of course, nobody should expect Nurkic to play on the level of Jokic. But the disparity matters when trying to decide what Nurkic’s usage on offense should actually be.

He wants a larger slice of the offensive pie but has yet to prove that the offense should run through him more than it already does.

Where Nurkic is a great fit in coach Chauncey Billups’ offense is as a facilitator. Billups doesn’t mind Nurkic getting his hands on the ball within the flow of the offense because he usually makes the smart play.

On defense, Nurkic had a 110.1 defensive rating, below his normal performances when he floated between 103.1 and 108.2. However, this season’s Blazers defense was so poor that everyone’s individual ratings ballooned.

That said, Nurkic must be the anchor of the team’s defense in order for it to work, especially given that the Blazers plan to start Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons at the guard positions.

Trail Blazers vs.  King's

Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (#27) scores past Sacramento’s Tristan Thompson as the Portland Trail Blazers open the 2021-22 NBA season against the Sacramento Kings at Moda Center on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021.Sean Meagher/The Oregonian

2022-23 outlook: Nurkic has been inconsistent during his six seasons with the Blazers and some fan frustration has stemmed from the fact that he has flashed that he could be so much better than he often is.

But if one purely views Nurkic for what he is, there is no denying that the “Bosnian Beast” is a quality NBA center who happens to be just entering his prime.

For those reasons it would have been foolish for the Blazers to have shipped off Nurkic at the trade deadline just to get whatever assets might be available. Quality centers are a rare commodity in the NBA and chances were that the Blazers would not have landed a better option in a trade or as a free agent signee.

Cronin and Billups have made it clear that they value Nurkic’s skills and believe that he has not fully realized his potential. The sides almost certainly reached agreement on his return to the Blazers because otherwise there is no conceivable way Nurkic agreed to be shut down with “plantar fasciitis” while he was in the middle of one of the most dominant stretches of his career.

Nurkic’s price tag went up with each performance. His last game by him came Feb. 16 during a 123-119 win at Memphis in which he had 32 points, eight rebounds and four assists while going 12 of 17 from the floor.

Nurkic can’t be counted on to show up like that every night. But the threat of such performances makes Nurkic a valuable piece to have inside, drawing attention and feeding off the perimeter skills of Lillard and Simons.

And of course, the Lillard-Nurkic pick-and-roll game at times can be sublime.

Figure that Nurkic will receive a contract probably similar to the one the team gave Norman Powell last summer when he signed for $90 million over five years.

While it might appear outrageous that Nurkic would jump from $12 million per season to about $18 million to $20 million after yet another spotty season, remember that Powell was one of four good but small guards on the roster. Nurkic was the team’s only viable big man and not as easily replaceable.

Nurkic is about to get paid and a deal has probably already essentially been worked out. Blazers fans simply must hope that Nurkic remains motivated enough to live up to Cronin’s belief in his talents.

— Aaron Fentress | afentress@Oregonian.com | @AaronJFentress (twitter), @AaronJFentress (instagram), @AaronFentress (Facebook).

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