Over the next few weeks, the BSN Nuggets staff will review the Nuggets season, player-by-player. We’ll look at their performance from 2015-16 and forecast what type of impact they’ll make next season.
Reflecting on 2015-16
This season was a difficult one for Jusuf Nurkic, especially after he was one of the lone bright spots down the stretch of the Denver Nuggets’ ill-fated 2014-15 campaign.
Expectations were high for Nurkic after a season in which he challenged some of the NBA’s most talented big men, most notably the Gasol Brothers.
Enthusiasm was doused fairly quickly though as Nuggets general manager Tim Connelly announced in September that Nurkic would miss the start of training camp and that the team would take their time in getting him back on the court.
Missing the start of training camp quickly turned into Nurkic missing the entire 2015 portion of the schedule as the Bosnian Beast wouldn’t see his first action on the court until the Denver’s January 2 loss to the Golden State Warriors. He saw just five minutes of playing time and managed to miss all five of his shot attempts.
It didn’t help the big guy’s cause that while he struggled to rehab from his offseason knee surgery, Nuggets rookie Nikola Jokic embarked on a rookie campaign that had him in the discussion for Rookie of the Year. Jokic finished second among rookies averaging over 10 minutes per game in PER at 21.58, behind only Karl-Anthony Towns who finished at 22.59.
Note: The Spurs Boban Marjanovic finished with a PER of 27.77, but played just 9.4 minutes per game and may or may not be the second-coming of Karl the giant from Big Fish.
So while Jokic wowed Nuggets fans and slowly won over NBA fans across the league with his all-around play, Nurkic struggled to regain his swagger from a season earlier. His knee still bothered him after he returned to the court and limited his playing time and production through the All-Star break.
Nurkic was only able to tally two double-double’s and only played over 20 minutes in two games through February. He was hindered both by his own physical limitations as well as by Jokic’s solid play and the glut of big men on the Nuggets roster throughout the year.
As the calendar turned to March and the Nuggets playoff hopes dwindled away to just a mathematical thread, coach Michael Malone saw fit to give Nurkic an extended look down the stretch. Beginning on March 12, Nurkic saw at least 16 minutes in every game that he played in through the end of the season, including at least 24 minutes in seven of his last 12 games and over 35 minutes in two of his last three.
With the uptick in minutes came an increase in confidence as Nurkic managed to score in double figures in eight of those last dozen games with his best game of the season coming against the San Antonio Spurs, tallying 21 points on 10-18 shooting and 10 rebounds. His numbers in the season finale against the Portland Trail Blazers were nearly as impressive as Nurkic stuffed the box score with 11 points, 14 rebounds, 5 steals, 4 assists and 3 blocks.
With the emergence of Jokic, it’s easy to forget just how exciting it was to see Nurkic emerge during his rookie season and the Bosnian reminded Nuggets fans down the stretch that he provides the type of rim protection that only a handful of players in the league can bring to the court.
One trend that continued into Nurkic’s sophomore campaign was his ineffectiveness in the paint. Despite his size and strength, Nurkic has a tendency to fade away or try to shoot around defenders rather than forcing his way to the rim, and it shows in his terrible shooting percentages in the paint.
A center in today’s game needs to be just as efficient around the rim as he is versatile.
Despite the frustrations of this season, Nurkic was able to improve his per-36 averages in scoring from 13.9 to 17.3 points, his assists and his points. He also showed through Malone’s late-season experimentation, that he can co-exist for short stretches with Jokic as both players’ have skill-sets that surprisingly mesh well together on the court.
Final Report Card Grade: C
Looking Ahead to 2016-17
Nurkic showed enough during his late-season surge to prove that he deserves a spot on the Nuggets roster even with the emergence of Jokic. Barring an opportunity to swap a package built around Nurkic and others for a bonafide All-Star like Kevin Love, I would expect to see the 21-year-old back on the court for the Nuggets to start next season.
Last year’s offseason injuries mean that this will be the first full summer for Nurkic to work with the Nuggets training staff and it’s exciting to think about just how much of a force he could be if they’re able to unlock his full potential.
Even with the all-around game that Jokic showed off for the Nuggets this season, he still was never able to provide the defensive prowess that Nurkic did, an aspect of his game that’s only likely to improve as he learns to limit his foul trouble.
Nurkic has not only shown the ability to be a very productive player on the court but also provides a personality that just may be even bigger than his 6-foot-11, 280-pound frame.
If Nurkic puts in the necessary work this summer and can get back to the level he played at during his rookie season, he can make a case to start for the Nuggets and a handful of teams in the league today. If his knee continues to give him trouble and he’s not able to get in shape, his role going forward could be reduced to what it was for most of this season when he was on the court.