Portland's Odd Couple Knows Exactly What It Wants

Jonathan Abrams@jpdabramsSenior Writer, B/R MagDecember 10, 2018

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 23: Jusuf Nurkic #27 celebrates with Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers during the game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on November 23, 2018 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
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To Jusuf Nurkic, the rim suddenly closed tight. The 7-foot, 275-pound Bosnian center had been traded to Portland less than two weeks earlier, liberated, really, from Denver's bench. He needed the Trail Blazers and hoped to immediately impress. Against Toronto that night in February 2017, his easy bunnies fumbled around the rim and against the backboard. He looked around at everything and nothing, muttering to himself.

"No, stop," Blazers star guard Damian Lillard told Nurkic. "I don't want to hear that s--t anymore. We're not making excuses tonight."

As much as Nurkic needed the Blazers, Lillard recognized the team needed Nurkic. They had been floundering, hitting the All-Star break at 10 games below .500. The lottery seemed a more realistic destination than the playoffs when Portland made the deal for Nurkic.

Lillard had offered Nurkic some breathing room for a couple of days following the trade. Now, though, he needed his new teammate's focused play. So Lillard let Nurkic know the clouds would eventually part and the ball would start falling. He went out of his way to get him the ball that game.  

"It means the world to me, man," Nurkic says. "I'm from Bosnia, a small country, three, almost four million [people]. To me, it's like a dream to have a superstar, and he kinda takes you under his ... wing for whatever you need. "

Lillard remembers telling Nurkic the organization accepted him and wanted to help him advance as a player. "Once that happened, he just opened up," Lillard says in a conversation a few days before Thanksgiving. "I felt like he needs somebody to be in his corner because it seemed like they didn't support him there, so I just decided I was going to be in his corner and he opened up to me and we hit it off from there."

Since Nurkic's arrival, the Trail Blazers have gone 82-54. This season they find themselves, as usual, bunched in a clogged Western Conference. While last spring's flameout in the first round to the lower-seeded Pelicans prompted a lot of talk of changing the roster, the club has opted, for now, to run it back with essentially the same group. Improvement, the type that allows for a playoff series win, will need to come internally. For that, the organization is looking for Nurkic to become a third pillar alongside Lillard and CJ McCollum.

The club tried to express its faith he could do it in agreeing to a four-year, $48 million extension with the 24-year-old veteran over the summer, a deal that should allow Nurkic to play without looking over his massive shoulders.

"You always want to see people that trust in you, and you got to earn it one way or another," Nurkic says, adding: "You want to feel the communication."


He grew up in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the son of a police officer, Hariz, and homemaker, Rusmina. "He was a cop, man," Nurkic says of his father. "Got a big ass car." 

Jusuf Nurkic is big. His father, Nurkic cannot emphasize enough, is BIG. The legend goes that Hariz once expressed an interest in basketball, but no one could locate shoes large enough for him.

"Well, actually, that's his story, so I need to believe him," Jusuf says. "Trust, man, you will, too. He's big. … He never looks fat. He's just big. His bones and everything. He's ... almost something like compared to Shaq right now. He's just a big dude. You can't even stand against him. You feel small."

His father made the news for a fight that landed 14 people injured. He remained standing. Enes Trnovcevic, an agent reading about the incident, located Hariz and asked him one question: Did he, by any chance, have a son?

Trnovcevic offered to train Jusuf in Slovenia, telling the 14-year-old that he was the best basketball player born in 1994. That dude is on drugs, Nurkic recalls thinking. "I'd barely ever touched a ball," he says.

Hariz insisted that his son open himself up to the possibility. Nurkic relented.

He went from hardly touching a basketball to living the sport in Slovenia. He practiced and trained relentlessly while trying to familiarize himself with a new language in a new country. Can I do this? Maybe not, he would think to himself some nights.

"People don't get it when you're young and you've never been away from your family, your father, mother or anybody close to you," Nurkic says. "You've never been, really, a day without them and then you going like [a] six-hour drive to another country. It's, like, a big transition, especially [for] a kid. ... It was hard. It was struggling, man. You're just out there by yourself and you basically need to grow up overnight."

Nurkic made it through that year and returned as a growth spurt began kicking in. He had made friends. He learned the language. He became comfortable.

Oh yeah, he started thinking. This is something I want in my life. This sport is changing me and my whole life. The future was different.

By the time he was 18, he signed his first professional contract with Croatia's Cedevita Zagreb.

"Players ... would set illegal screens and there's no offensive fouls and there's no three seconds out there; like, people being in the paint," Nurkic says. "People play physical. That's why you have like 50, 60 points a game. There is [nobody] who can score 50 a night. He going to the hospital that night, for sure."

Nurkic became frustrated, though, backing up Cedevita veterans and was loaned to Zadar. There, he teamed with Romeo Travis, a high school teammate of LeBron James, and tried soaking in as much English as possible from the Ohioan. "I thought the most important thing for me was just listen to him and [talk] to him for days and days and the whole season," Nurkic says.

On the court, he flourished and helped defeat Cedevita in the semifinals of the Croatian Premier League playoffs in 2013. He returned to Cedevita and started noticing NBA personnel in the stands.

"You start [to] realize that something [is] going to happen," Nurkic says. "You might have a chance to play in the NBA. You wanna stay on the ground and focus on what you need to do, but at the end of the day, you start to realize it's true."

In 2014, the Bulls drafted Nurkic with the 16th overall pick and then dealt him to Denver. Nurkic had questions about Denver's intentions. The Nuggets already had a crowded frontcourt. Midway through his first season, though, the club traded away centers JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov, moves that opened playing time for Nurkic. "I was confident before and I know I can play, but the more important thing was like, Can they see that?" Nurkic says.

Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris were both drafted by the Bulls in 2014, but were traded that same night to the Denver Nuggets for Doug McDermott, Anthony Randolph and a future second-round pick.
Jusuf Nurkic and Gary Harris were both drafted by the Bulls in 2014, but were traded that same night to the Denver Nuggets for Doug McDermott, Anthony Randolph and a future second-round pick.Steve Freeman/Getty Images

Things changed quickly in that first offseason. A torn patellar tendon required surgery in May 2015. Mike Malone replaced Brian Shaw as the team's coach, and Nikola Jokic arrived that June.

Malone tried playing both at the same time to ill-fitting results in today's smaller NBA. "They basically cannibalized one another," Portland general manager Neil Olshey says. Nurkic requested a trade in April 2016, only to relent and return for another season. The combination still clashed, so Malone brought Nurkic off the bench, a situation he found to be untenable. He started being held out of games altogether, openly sulking, and again asked to be traded. He had lost trust in the franchise.

"It's tough to understand what the organization is trying to do with you and how much you're important for the future," Nurkic says. "We just want to hoop, man. Pretty much you want to hoop every night, but in the end, you didn't have that much patience. You just want things to happen overnight."

Shortly before the 2017 trade deadline, Denver dealt Nurkic and a first-round draft pick to Portland for Mason Plumlee and a second-round pick.

"Everything was kind of perfectly set up," Nurkic says.


By the time Nurkic arrived in Portland, the Trail Blazers were in the middle of a retrofitting of sorts. The team had been built around the career arcs of LaMarcus Aldridge and Lillard, but when Aldridge left for San Antonio in free agency in 2015, the plan needed recalibration.

Olshey asked Lillard to talk.

"We're going to hit the reset button," Olshey told his remaining star. "We're going to bring in young guys. We're going to have to Moneyball it a little bit by finding guys that have been a little bit overlooked or forgotten by other organizations, so they're not going to be flashy signings. We're going to have to take some fliers. We're going to have to build a culture and we're going to have to be patient."

Olshey told Lillard he planned to build around him for the long haul. He asked if Lillard would be ready or even want the responsibility.

"It takes a lot of your energy as a player because you've got to think of 14 other guys with everything you do," Olshey says. "You can't just focus on your game and your development. You're going to have to understand that everybody is going to look to you, and that can become exhausting in terms of your own personal resources."

Lillard, Olshey said, did not flinch in accepting the role, and when Nurkic arrived in the middle of a 2017 season that appeared destined to end in the draft lottery, Lillard was ready for the onboarding process.       

In the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge's departure in 2015, Damian Lillard has become the voice of the Blazers, not only to fans and media but also to his teammates.
In the wake of LaMarcus Aldridge's departure in 2015, Damian Lillard has become the voice of the Blazers, not only to fans and media but also to his teammates.Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Part of what makes Dame special is he doesn't punish the son for the sins of the father," Olshey says. "There's no revisionist history. If we make a decision to move on from a player and bring somebody new on, Dame knows it's his job to integrate him into the culture, embrace them and give them the best chance to succeed. That was very empowering for Nurk because when he joined our team, we had slipped out of the playoff race. The season was going downhill really fast. It looked like we were going to miss the playoffs for the first time in four years. Dame realized that Nurk was the linchpin to turning the season around, so he jumped on it right away."

Lillard had already been eyeing Nurkic from afar. He's known Shaw for a while through their mutual Oakland connection and tuned into Denver's games whenever he could.

Nurkic's body language stood out to Lillard.

"I would see him get frustrated," Lillard says. "They would always talk about him on the broadcast, how big his dad was and all that stuff. He stuck out like a sore thumb because he was a big dude, powerful. When he came to us, he was kind of hard. He was happy to be there, but he was still hard, like he didn't want to really mess with nobody that much."

Lillard made sure that Nurkic knew he was welcomed and held to the same standards as everyone on the roster.

"That's where I kind of struggled the year in Denver," Nurkic says. "[In Portland] I came to enjoy the basketball. It's just kind of fun out there. Just two great guards who make my life easier, just kind of on the fly. We understand each other. Even if we don't talk, we understand what we're supposed to do on the court."

Fellow Portland center Meyers Leonard likens Nurkic's game to a rival big man who plays farther down the coast.

"If you watch the Warriors in particular, when Draymond [Green] catches the ball in the post, he's not even really looking to score," Leonard says. "He's waiting for a cutting player or a cutting KD or somebody to go into a gaggle action, or a flare screen, and all of a sudden, two defenders make a mistake and there's a backdoor cut. Nurk has that vision. ... Then having a shooting touch … when he's locked in and when he's playing to his fullest capability, he's impressive to watch."

And it made a difference in Portland soon after he arrived.

The Blazers ended the 2016-17 season 17-6. In an overtime win over Philadelphia, Nurkic became the first player to have at least 28 points, 20 rebounds, eight assists and six blocks in more than 30 years. "Portland fans fell in love with him," Leonard says. Just as Nurk Fever overtook Portland, however, Nurkic suffered a fracture in his right leg. He returned for a cameo during Golden State's sweep over Portland in the playoffs.

With Nurkic playing about 26 minutes per game, the Trail Blazers rank third in the league in rebound percentage and 10th in opponent points allowed in the paint, according to NBA.com.
With Nurkic playing about 26 minutes per game, the Trail Blazers rank third in the league in rebound percentage and 10th in opponent points allowed in the paint, according to NBA.com.Steve Dykes/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Still, a home had been found. Nurkic enjoyed the passion of the city's fans and that he could find a coffee shop seemingly on every corner. It reminded him of home. (Nurkic estimates he began drinking coffee with his mother at around five.)

Damn, that's a good life out here, Nurkic recalls thinking.


The honeymoon is over. Work toward a lasting partnership is progressing. The organization asked Nurkic to drop some weight over the summer of 2017, so he stopped eating sugar and took up boxing classes, CrossFit and bike riding.

Nurkic shed more than 30 pounds. He posted career highs in points (14.3), rebounds (9.0) and blocks (1.4) while playing in 79 games in his first full season with the Blazers. Portland's defensive rating jumped from 22nd (110.0) to sixth (105.5). At times, Nurkic still struggled with inconsistent play.

"I was too fast, I guess," Nurkic says. "I would do stuff in a rush. I would do stuff like, I didn't recognize myself either."

Nurkic describes this past summer as a whirlwind after getting swept out of the first round last spring. Speculation swirled about whether these Trail Blazers had peaked and if the Lillard/McCollum backcourt should be dissolved. The organization optioned for stability and Nurkic signed his contract extension.

"You're talking about a guy who had one foot out of the league, to the point where Denver gave us a first-round pick to take him to a certain degree," Olshey says. "He was a guy that everybody knew was talented, but there were issues as far as would he make it or not; could he control his emotions, did he have the maturity, was he professional enough? Dame guided him through the end of that rookie scale contract. And then when he got paid last summer, Dame had another talk with him about, 'It's going to be different now. You have a contract. Eyes are going to be on you. People are going to expect you to live up to and earn that contract.'"

Nurkic knows. "This is kind of the place I want to be and where I'm going to be hopefully the next three to four years," Nurkic says. "The next step was, 'I want to be an All-Star and I want to win as many games as we can.'"

So far, the results have been mixed.

A brief ride to the top of the Western Conference standings has leveled off of late for the Blazers. For his part, Nurkic has been the same, efficient low-post presence he's been since arriving in Portland, averaging 15.0 points per game on 51.6 percent shooting and 10.6 rebounds.

"He's taking his time a little bit more when he gets the ball, either on rolls or offensive rebounds or post-ups," says Blazers coach Terry Stotts. "I think he's doing a better job of finishing around the basket. Defensively, he's had an impact ever since he's been here, so I don't notice as big a difference on the defensive end, but it just seems like he's a little bit more under control at the offensive end."

Lillard has noticed the changes.

"Now ...  that he's been with our team, [he has an] understanding of what we need him to do and what we want him to do to improve, and he's committed to it," Lillard says. "It's one thing for him to have all those things that he's capable of and [it's] ... another thing for him to be committed to it and to do it all the time, and I think that's the biggest difference for us."

Indeed, Lillard won't let him forget. The two have become close in their season-and-a-half together. They text. They FaceTime. They discuss games and game situations and more.

"We're always around each other, always in each other's ear. Before practice we sit there and talk. After practice we sit there and talk. We went to dinner in Orlando and just talked about our girlfriends, you know.

"I think it's gone past the teammate group; that's my brother now. I just want somebody to think they need to remake the movie with Gheorghe Muresan, My Giant, and have me and Nurk in there. I told him we should do that next year for Halloween."

    

Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wireavailable right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.

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