Everything You Need to Know About Denver Nuggets Rookie Jusuf Nurkic

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Everything You Need to Know About Denver Nuggets Rookie Jusuf Nurkic
Jeyhoun Allebaugh/Getty Images

The Denver Nuggets just got even deeper. 

As announced by Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post, "[Jusuf] Nurkic, a 7-foot, 280-pound center, was the No. 16 pick in the NBA draft June 26 and signed a four-year contract worth $7 million."

Now, instead of spending the beginning of his NBA eligibility abroad, the big man from Bosnia and Herzegovina will be plying his trade in the Mile High City, helping create a promising center rotation alongside Timofey Mozgov and JaVale McGee. 

Nurkic may have been one of the two first-round draft picks made by general manager Tim Connelly, but his name still doesn't resonate to the same extent that Gary Harris' does, particularly after the 2-guard impressed in his first showing at the Las Vegas Summer League while his fellow rookie wasn't in attendance. 

So, who is this guy? What does he bring to the table?

He may be a 7-footer worthy of a top-20 pick in a loaded draft class, one filled with depth of talent and star power, but where did he come from? Is he capable of contributing to the cause sooner rather than later, or will he be a project on a deep team that doesn't need a third capable big during the 2014-15 season? 

 

The Backstory

Uncredited/Associated Press

Nurkic isn't one of the international prospects who will debut at an advanced age; he's a 19-year-old prospect who is already a seasoned competitor and physically ready for the rigors of the NBA game. 

The big man burst onto the scene playing on loan for the Union Olimpija Junior Team during the 2011-12 season, still only 17 at the time. In five games, he averaged an impressive 18.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.0 blocks per game while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and draining 46.7 percent of his shots from beyond the three-point arc, per RealGM.com

He'd continue moving up the ranks, spending less time on the court but playing with better teams. In 2012-13, he was on the KK Zadar roster in Croatia, then played with KK Cedevita, the team that controlled his rights when they were bought by the Nuggets. 

He may not have received much run with Cedevita in 2013-14, but he impressed during the 10.1 minutes per game he spent on the court. RealGM.com shows that he actually recorded a 27.48 player efficiency rating, which obviously isn't too shabby. 

However, he truly excelled while playing for his home country in the FIBA U-20 European Championships. As Dempsey reports, "He was selected MVP of the tournament with averages of 21.4 points, 12 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.6 blocked shots in eight games."

The following video contains some NSFW language:

It's hard not to see him developing. Not with his dad—a 7'0", 400-pound policeman—motivating him. 

Nurkic was a late bloomer, as Igor Petrinovic notes for Eurocupbasketball.com. He didn't start playing the sport until he was 14 years old, and he's quickly developed an impressive set of fundamental skills to go along with his can't-be-taught size:

Despite growing up nearby Tuzla, the Bosnian city that is home to KK Sloboda, where former and current Euroleague stars like Damir Mulaomerovic, Damir Mrsic, Mirza Teletovic and Mirza Begic grew up, Nurkic did not pick up basketball until the age of 14. He only started practicing basketball once he was noticed for the height of – his father. Nurkic got introduced to basketball fundamentals and soon moved to Zlatorog Lasko of Slovenia. There he played at the junior level. The basketball world took notice when he was briefly loaned to Union Olimpija Ljubljana to play for their junior team at the NIJT Belgrade tournament in February of 2012. Olimpija finished in seventh place, but Nurkic averaged 18.8 points and 11 rebounds in five games.  

It's been an interesting ride up to this point. 

From the late start to dominating for a junior team. From that to being involved in contract disputes and tug-of-wars between teams in the Adriatic League. From being one of the most impressive per-minute players in the league while with Cedevita to becoming a top-20 pick in the 2014 NBA draft. 

Nurkic has enjoyed a strange ride, but he's in Denver now. What can the Nuggets expect?

 

Strengths and Weaknesses

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Nurkic may have knocked down some triples throughout his international career, but he's not a floor-spacing big. Not at this stage of his career, at least. 

He's capable of setting devastating screens, but he prefers rolling to the basket and either finishing the play with some athleticism or setting himself up in post-up position. He rarely pops, and when he does, the results aren't particularly kind to him. 

Of course, he's only 19 years old. 

Possessing plenty of solid fundamentals, there's hope for a developing jumper, one that would leave Nurkic as a rather complete offensive player.

After all, he continuously displays impressive mobility and has a good nose for finding open space. His form is quite fluid, even if he hasn't found success with it yet, and it's promising that he's consistently knocked down a relatively high percentage of his free-throw attempts for a true center, topping his international career off with 76.1 percent in the U-20 Championships. 

And those post moves? They're the stuff of legend, at least for a player this young without any experience playing in the NBA. 

"In post-ups, he can pound for position with multiple dribbles, and then score with an up-and-under or drop-step spin," writes Bleacher Report's Daniel O'Brien. "He loves the right-handed baby hook shot, but he's also able to toss it in with the left. Nurkic's size and shoulders enable him to shield and clear space for his shots."

Offering similarly effusive praise is Matt Kamalsky, scouting for DraftExpress.com:

If the 19 year old big man can improve as a shooter and continue to use his strength and footwork effectively around the rim, he has a chance to become the best back to the basket player to make the jump from Europe to the NBA since Nikola Pekovic.

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Pek averaged 0.91 points per possession on post-up moves last season, ranking him No. 48 among all qualified players. A comparison between Nurkic and the bruising, hulking Montenegrin shouldn't be taken lightly, and it's an impressive one for the up-and-coming big man. 

Now, here's where you might expect to hear negative after negative about his defense. However, those aren't forthcoming. 

Though Nurkic lacks elite spring in his lanky legs, he boasts plenty of lateral quickness and the physical tools necessary to hang with all types of scoring bigs. If he's dealing with a versatile player, they're going to have trouble getting around him, and he also has the size necessary to bang around in the post with a back-to-the-basket brawler. 

The problems all come up above the neck, as O'Brien explains quite well: 

Most of Nurkic's weaknesses right now are between the ears, as he must become a better decision-maker and adopt a more heady approach to the game.

Much of that basketball IQ will come with time, but there are some concerns about his immaturity and demeanor when things aren't bouncing his way.

As far as specific in-game adjustments go, his defense needs substantial development. DraftExpress video analyst Mike Schmitz explained that Nurkic is 'always in foul trouble, reaches constantly,' and he 'takes bad angles and gets burned in the pick-and-roll.'

All this will come with time. He's not able to legally consume alcohol until we're deep into the 2015 offseason, and he's received precious little playing time in high-level international competition. He's merely a project, albeit one who boasts high upside on both ends of the court. 

And that's exactly what makes this big man so intriguing. 

He's already in possession of an advanced set of post moves and does a convincing job dominating when rolling to the basket, which is quite important in today's pick-and-roll-heavy NBA. He has the defensive tools to thrive against virtually any opponent, and there's a solid chance he develops range on his jumper. 

If he can figure out what comes between the ears, the ceiling is quite high. 

What's Jusuf Nurkic's ceiling?

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Even though he's traveling to the Association sooner than expected, Nurkic is a while away from reaching that ceiling. Playing in the NBA requires mental toughness and fundamental excellence, neither of which he's proven to have during his brief, five-year basketball career. 

He'll be a project for a while, whether he's sitting behind the incumbent centers on the big-league depth chart or learning against lower-level players in the D-League. Immediate contributions simply can't be expected, even with that top-20 tag attached to him. 

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Patience is necessary with almost any 19-year-old prospect, and Nurkic is no different.

His future might be, though.  

 

What do you expect from Nurkic during his rookie season? Let me know on Twitter and Facebook. 

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