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  • From anonymous Balkan teen to potential NBA franchise center, Jusuf Nurkić has bulldozed his way to success. The Blazers' 23-year-old center isn't changing his approach, either. "If I don’t fight for myself, who is going to fight for me?”
By Ben Golliver
November 20, 2017

In the weeks leading up to the 2014 NBA draft, Jusuf Nurkić admitted to the Spurs front office that he had serious reservations about life in the United States. The elder of two sons, Nurkić was raised with a military mindset by traditional parents—a 400-plus-pound police officer and his wife—in a small Bosnian village. “If America is like the movies,” Nurkić told the soon-to-be champs, “I’m never coming.” Upon his arrival in New York City before the big night, the 7–footer craned his neck to marvel at the skyscrapers, only to have his worst fears confirmed. “My very first day, some guy asked me if I wanted drugs,” Nurkić recalled, his voice a mix of exasperation and amusement. “My first experience in New York is a drug dealer! What’s going on here? It was just like the movies.” 

The perplexities were just beginning. Chicago selected him with the No. 16 pick, beating most pre-draft expectations, and it seemed like a happy twist of fate. “I used to help on my grandfather’s farm and he’s all about bulls,” Nurkić laughed. “Natural, big bulls. He was so happy Chicago took me. Everyone was excited.” By the time Nurkić put his limited English to the test in media interviews, though, Chicago had already traded his rights to Denver. It didn’t take long for Nurkić to realize the Nuggets were well-stocked with big men, a fact that later prompted Nurkić to bluntly ask GM Tim Connelly, “Why do you want me?”

When camp opened, it dawned on him that his American teammates Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson were real people, not just “NBA 2K” characters. During a preseason game against the Lakers, Nurkić was so transfixed by his childhood hero Kobe Bryant that he wandered aimlessly around the court as coach Brian Shaw tried to get his attention. Shaw had played professionally in Italy so he was sympathetic, but he also worried that culture shock might be a nightly distraction. “We play Oklahoma City next. Are you going to act the same with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?” Shaw asked. “No, coach,” the reply came. “Only Kobe.”

Stargazing proved to be an impossible luxury; the rookie’s November DNP-CDs turned into January starts once Connelly traded center Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland. Just five years after he first picked up a basketball, Nurkić was learning on the fly at the sport’s highest level. But the twists and turns never stopped in Denver, where disputes over his role prompted multiple trade requests and raised questions about his attitude.

Nurkić, now the Blazers’ 23-year-old starting center, doesn’t do regrets or apologies. He prefers to trust an unyielding approach forged during his whirlwind journey from anonymous Balkan teen to potential franchise building block.

“In Bosnia, with $1,000 per month you can live a great life. With $10,000 per month, you can be the king,” Nurkić told The Crossover during an extended interview at The Nines Hotel in Portland. “Every time I go home, I cry because nothing changes and everyone I know is stuck in the same position. So, it’s simple: I want to play. I know I should be starting. I know I can be an All-Star. If you ask me, no center in the league is better than me. If I don’t fight for myself, who is going to fight for me?” 

This wasn’t a rhetorical question. Nurkić, in a ripped jean jacket and ripped black jeans, leaned forward and pointed his finger. “Would you fight for me?”

Justin Tucker @Nine80Four for Sports Media World

Nurkić’s tall tale origin story is more truth than myth. His cop father, Hariz, really was written up in the local newspaper for his starring role in a brawl that landed 13 people in the hospital. His first agent, Enes Trnovcevic, really did travel to Tuzla, Bosnia, to seek out Hariz and ask whether the larger-than-life policeman (6’10”, well over 400 pounds) had any children interested in translating their genetic advantages to the hardwood. His mother Rusmina, a housewife, really did agree to let Trnovcevic ship off 14-year-old Jusuf to a boarding school in Slovenia, even though her child hadn’t studied the Slovenian language, hadn’t yet hit his growth spurt, and had rarely spent a night away from home. There was also the little matter of Nurkić’s lack of formal basketball training. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I was a minus-10,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to run.”

In Slovenia, he was welcomed by friendly teammates and a regimented schedule that kept him busy with classes and as many as five practices per day. His coaches initially cast him as a point forward, placing him in drills with guards and preaching the value of the pass. Yet Nurkić suffered from severe homesickness. “I’d be a liar if I said I believed that I could make it back then,” Nurkić said. “I had never touched a basketball. I was the youngest guy on the team. My whole life changed overnight, and I couldn’t accept that at first. I cried almost every night for six months.”

Reluctant to show weakness to his father, Nurkić confided in Rusmina during long telephone conversations in which she assured her son that he could come home after a year if things didn’t pan out. Meanwhile, Trnovcevic preached a day-by-day mentality, pointing to Mirza Begić and Hasan Rizvić, Bosnian-born big men who enjoyed long and profitable careers, as inspiration.

Nurkić slowly settled into his new routine and realized that he had no major passion pulling him back to Tuzla. He had no interest following in Hariz’s footsteps as a cop, given the long workdays, modest pay and the constant need to settle grievances for everyone in town. While envisioning a future in basketball was hard, a future without basketball wasn’t any clearer. “I started to understand what you need to do to be a man,” Nurkić said. “I stopped thinking about wanting to go home and how life was tough. From that point on, I thought: I need to do this.”

That’s when he started growing, roughly four inches per year for three straight years. Nurkić moved to Croatia, signed his first professional contract with Euroleague club Cedevita Zagreb in 2012, and got accustomed to a brutish style of play in the post while playing with and against men twice his age. “We set Zaza screens,” Nurkić said. “You set a screen and someone gets injured immediately. You need to earn the points.”

Cedevita provided his first brush with the politics of playing time. Coach Aleksandar Petrović, brother of Croatian legend Dražen Petrović, told Nurkić that he would back-up his veteran teammates. Rather than wait for an opportunity that might never come, Nurkić informed Petrović that he wanted out as soon as possible. Cedevita agreed to loan Nurkić to Zadar, another Croatian club located in a small town of 75,000 people along the Adriatic Sea.

Nurkić enjoyed more playing time and a passionate fan base that turned out every night. When he walked to the store, young children dressed in Zadar jerseys called him by name. He also exacted revenge. In front of 10,000 fans, Nurkić and Zadar defeated Cedevita in the semifinals of the 2013 Croatian Premier League playoffs. “Cedevita was still paying me,” Nurkić pointed out, smiling. “Everybody who talked to me after the game said, ‘S---, we should have kept you.’” At season’s end, Nurkić returned to Cedevita, where he gained acclaim as an NBA-level prospect.

The Zadar detour provided two takeaways. First, that Nurkić loved basketball for the first time in his life. “Parents raise their kids from birth to cheer for Zadar and no one else,” he said. “They don’t skip games and they love when you fight for them. Their support made me appreciate them and the game.” Second, that impatience in Zagreb had been fully justified. What would have happened if he had agreed to languish on Petrović’s bench?

In Zadar, across a border and roughly 400 miles away from the Tuzla bull farm, Nurkić discovered the value of stubborn self–interest. “I’ve learned in my life to be a decision-maker,” he said. “I don’t want to have regrets. I like living my life by my decisions. I’ll listen to everybody, but I want the responsibility. That’s the best way.”

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Nurkić knew little of NBA culture when he landed in Denver, but he was well-versed in reading depth charts. Alarm bells went off once he realized the 2014-15 Nuggets had four other bigs: Mozgov, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and JaVale McGee. While he was barely 20 when he made his NBA debut, Nurkić wasn’t a typical one-and-done player looking to gradually earn minutes while developing over his four-year rookie contract. He had lived away from home for five years and played professionally for multiple seasons. Sitting in Denver was no more appealing than sitting in Zagreb.

Mozgov and McGee were dealt in midseason trades, clearing the way for Nurkić, who wasted little time introducing himself. In his second start, a January win over Sacramento, he hit a jumper over DeMarcus Cousins and mocked the soon-to-be-All-Star. He went on to post a series of double-doubles, but Denver limped to 30 wins, its worst season in more than a decade. Shaw was fired in March and Nurkić, who had tried to play through left leg pain, underwent knee surgery in May that sidelined him for seven months. As he rehabilitated, Michael Malone entered as coach and Nikola Jokić, a promising Serbian prodigy, emerged as the Nuggets’ starting center. 

Nurkić struggled to find his form upon his return, and he was bothered by his coach’s decision to bring him off the bench late in 2015-16. “Mike Malone came to me with all this sweet talk, saying that I was going to be fine and that he couldn’t wait to see me back,” Nurkić recalled. “If you like somebody else, play them. But don’t come to my home and say that I’m going to be the starting center and then play someone else.”

Although the Nuggets experimented with starting the 6’10” Jokić and Nurkić together, that hardly seemed like a winning long-term combination with small ball sweeping the league. Reading the tea leaves, Nurkić went to Connelly and requested a trade in April 2016.

Denver tried to mend fences, dispatching Malone for a summer meet-up in Bosnia. Nurkić, who had battled weight and conditioning issues for years, spent the offseason losing weight and following Denver’s training protocol. After assessing his progress, the Nuggets promised Nurkić that he would get the chance to open the 2016-17 season as a starter. On opening night, Nurkić realized there was a catch.

“In the first game, I only played three quarters,” Nurkić said. “I had 23 points and 9 rebounds. I’m playing a good game, we’re winning and I’m not playing in the fourth quarter? From that point, I could kind of see that something was wrong.”

After 25 games, including a brief stretch with Jokić coming off the bench, Malone opted to pull Nurkić from the starting lineup. By December 2016, frustrated with his role and his long-term outlook, Nurkić and his NBA agent, Aylton Tesch, requested a trade for the second time. With Jokić, an able scorer and sublime passer, blossoming into a franchise player, Connelly and Nuggets ownership agreed to seek trade options. During this period, Nurkić said he and Malone went months without directly communicating.  

“I believe you can develop guards together. But two centers? No way,” Nurkić said. “I don’t want to make this a big drama like KD. I was never on the same page with the coach and the front office. It just came to the point where I needed to go. My career was on the line.”

As both sides waited for a trade, Nurkić took heat from local media members for pouting over his demotion, and he received multiple DNP-CDs from Malone. Rumors swirled that he had even left the arena during a game in frustration. Nurkić acknowledged that Malone was “mad” about his body language, but added that he never missed a practice or a team commitment and insisted that he bears no ill will toward Jokić over their position battle.  

“People assume I had an attitude problem and people like to make up stories that paint me as a bad guy,” he explained. “Once I asked for a trade, there were even more rumors that I wasn’t happy. But I shouldn’t be happy! No one in that situation should be happy. I put in the hard work to play and someone was holding me down.”

Nurkić also denied that he ever left the arena during a game. “I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I can’t change the whole world’s opinion. Ask anyone who has played with me and they will say the same thing: I’m a funny dude, I work and I have never had a problem with one of my teammates in my life.”

Denver mercifully pulled the trigger on a Nurkić deal last February, sending the center and a first-round pick to Portland in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash. Plumlee’s inclusion in the deal ensured that Nurkić would step in as the Blazers’ starting center, fulfilling Nurkić’s top request.

“I needed a change of scenery. Both sides needed it,” he said. “I’m thankful Denver let me go where I wanted to go. If I was doing all the bad things that people said, the Nuggets wouldn’t have traded me where I wanted to go, and they probably would have gotten a way better deal than they got.”

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For the second time in his young career, Nurkić had pushed his way out of a limited role. And for the second time, he had landed in a small city, on the water, with a diehard fan base that filled the building and recognized him around town in no time. As in Zadar, Nurkić needed to establish himself as a player in Portland. He weighed over 300 pounds after playing sporadically in Denver and faced lingering questions about his attitude. Blazers guard Damian Lillard greeted his new center with a simple message: “We don’t make excuses for anything. We don’t do that s--- here.”

From Portland’s perspective, Nurkić was a no-risk flier during a disappointing campaign. Blazers president Neil Olshey handed out a series of questionable long-term contracts during the previous summer, only to see poor defense and lineup issues spoil the investments. Plumlee was headed for free agency and hadn’t played well enough to justify a lucrative deal.  

Coach Terry Stotts offered a starting role, a clean slate, a simplified playbook and an accommodating approach to his conditioning issues. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions about who he was,” Stotts said. “I tried to be fair and honest. I knew he was upset not playing, and I understand that. I was really impressed with his skillset, particularly his passing. He showed he was much more than a low-post player.”

Nurkić responded well—to Lillard’s message, to Stotts’s communication and support, and to his expanded role. He notched a double-double in his first start for Portland, he posted 18 points and 12 rebounds in his first game at the Moda Center and he exploded for 28 points and 20 rebounds against Philadelphia in early March. “I felt free like a bird flying around,” Nurkić said. “I had peace of mind for the first time in two years. My team was going with me, not against me.”

Down the stretch, the Blazers went 14-6 with Nurkić, who averaged 15.2 PPG and 10.4 RPG after the trade. Lillard and CJ McCollum finally had a frontcourt scoring option to balance the offense, and Nurkić had guards who were willing and able to consistently set him up. With the ball, Nurkić displayed far more creativity and variety than he had in Denver: posting up smaller opponents, crashing the glass and dusting off his old point-forward training to facilitate from the elbow and to toss in finesse floaters. Portland’s defense was far stingier with Nurkić (103.7 defensive rating) than it had been with Plumlee (111), and he exhibited a demonstrative on-court demeanor that his predecessor lacked. 

Blazermaniacs embraced Nurkić’s physicality and swagger, and his status as a fan favorite peaked when he scored a career-high 33 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a home win over Denver in late March. The victory helped seal the West’s final playoff spot for Portland instead of Denver, and Nurkić wished his former team a “happy summer” during a post-game interview. “Rip City likes the fighters,” he said. “After [LaMarcus Aldridge] left, they waited two years for a big man who can hoop. Once they saw how I pass and fit into the system, everybody caught Nurk Fever.”

The party ended abruptly when Nurkić fractured a bone in his right leg, causing him to miss the final seven games of the regular season and most of the playoffs. Still, he pointed to the victory against Denver—a parallel to his semifinal win over Zagreb four years earlier—as proof that concerns about his character were overblown. “Each of my Nuggets teammates came over to me afterward and we talked,” he said. “If I was a bad guy or doing the wrong thing in Denver, they wouldn’t do that. They were happy for me.”

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Nurkić, a 2018 restricted free agent, entered this season as the Blazers’ biggest X-factor. Olshey spent a quiet summer stocking up on cheap rookies and dumping salary. For Portland to break through in the West, Nurk Fever needed to return. But the Blazers were wary of overhyping their young and relatively unproven center, and Stotts resisted elevating Nurkić as the third member of a Big 3. 

“It was a great honeymoon for 25 games and things went really well for him and us,” Stotts said. “We can’t take that for granted. He helped us win games and that’s going to be the bottom line going forward. It’s not about numbers.”

After recovering from his leg injury, Nurkić started reshaping his body. Leaning heavily on chicken and fish while cutting out all desserts and junk food, he lost 34 pounds to drop to 270. While the new diet initially left him jittery from sugar withdrawal, Nurkić knew he needed to improve his stamina and quickness if he wanted to stay out of foul trouble and cover ground in pick-and-rolls.

Although Portland could have inked Nurkić to an early extension in October, the two sides failed to reach an agreement. This was a classic “prove it” scenario. A nine-figure, max-type contract, like the ones signed by Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert, seemed plausible if he built on last season’s momentum. But the capped-out Blazers couldn’t risk overpaying for a possible flash in the pan, and the center market has been difficult to forecast due to unpredictable salary cap growth and a shifting style of play that favors versatility over sheer size. 

Aside from Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, two established All-Stars, Nurkić projected as one of 2018’s top free-agent centers. However, if his production or impact waned there were plenty of cheaper comparison points: Plumlee re-signed with Denver for $41 million over three years, Kelly Olynyk inked a four-year, $50 million deal with Miami, and Cody Zeller signed a 4-year, $56 million early extension in Charlotte. Meanwhile, Dallas’s Nerlens Noel and Phoenix’s Alex Len found no outside offers and had to settle for one-year qualifying offers. 

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

Through 16 games, Nurkić is averaging a career-high 14.6 PPG and 7.2 RPG, while posting a strong 97.9 defensive rating for a Blazers defense that surprisingly ranks second in the league. Offensively, he hasn’t truly rekindled Nurk Fever, as opponents appear better prepared for him and Portland’s attack has been prone to choppiness. His effort level has regressed compared to last spring’s highwater marks—no great surprise—with foul trouble often a contributing factor. Still, he can usually be found in the middle of the action, whether sustaining a concussion while wrestling with Sacramento’s Jack Cooley during the preseason or taking a controversial flagrant foul from Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony earlier this month.

This season’s first notable flashpoint came during a home loss to Brooklyn last week, when Stotts opted to play Ed Davis over Nurkić during the fourth quarter. This was, of course, the same coaching decision that precipitated his final fallout with Malone. Nurkić was unexpectedly unavailable to reporters in the locker room after the Nets loss, although he said the next day that he had been receiving treatment. Tesch asserted that the situation was “cleared up” and said that his client “gets along great” with Stotts and his teammates. 

For Nurkić, the Nets episode encapsulates the next great challenge of his career. Years spent fighting for himself have landed him in a favorable location, but sacrifice is required of every NBA player. Portland (9–7) has no other legitimate starting center candidates on its roster, and it lacks the cap flexibility to pursue quality outside options in free agency. As a traditional center heading to restricted free agency without unicorn selling points like three-point range and elite shot-blocking, Nurkić needs the Blazers as much as they need him.

“I’m not going to say names, but some of my good friends are OK with scoring 20 points and losing,” Nurkić said. “I’m not that guy. I’m a team player. I would like to score 10 to 15 points per game and win every game. Portland gave me the situation I always wanted: the fans, the city, the teammates and two guards who can really hoop. It sounds perfect to me. I don’t want this to end. I want to be here."

A fighting bull enters the ring alone. Nurkic's father, according to legend, took down 13 men without back-up. The solo approach has carried Nurkić halfway across the globe, from the farm to the court, and through professional turbulence to the brink of generational wealth he couldn’t have conceived just five years ago. To go any further, though, he must help lead the herd.   

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