Jusuf Nurkic has always had a good story. As a teenager in Bosnia, he was discovered after his policeman father, Hariz, broke up a massive brawl and was written up in a local newspaper. After learning of the elder Nurkic and his legendary size—6'10", 400 pounds—an agent named Enes Trnovcevic sought out Hariz and asked if he had any children. From there, a teenage Nurkic was introduced to basketball for the first time in his life. At 14 years old, he was sent to boarding school in Slovenia, so he could train full time. He spoke no Slovenian, and he hadn't hit his growth spurt yet, so he wasn't the size of his father. Nevertheless, that first agent's suspicions were prescient. Within four years of leaving for Slovenia, Nurkic was 6’11", 280 pounds and entering the 2014 NBA Draft.
Five years after draft night in 2014, the story on the court is better than ever. After signing a four-year, $48 million contract this summer, Nurkic is averaging 15.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.0 steal, and 1.5 blocks per game. It’s the best season of his career. His PER (23.1) puts him sixth among starting NBA centers, and his abilities as a screener, passer, and low-post threat have helped unlock the floor for C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard and the rest of the Portland offense. He's got a decent case for this season’s Most Improved Player award, and his continued progress has helped the Blazers remain excellent all year.
Portland (39-24) has won six of its last seven and Nurkic continues to thrive. In Sunday's win against the Hornets, he put up 26 points, 15 rebounds, and six assists. Before Tuesday's game in Memphis, he caught up with Sports Illustrated to talk about finding his comfort zone in Portland, life after last season's playoff loss, and what makes this Blazers team special.
Andrew Sharp: You were sent to boarding school in Slovenia at 14, and you've been training for professional basketball ever since. Did it feel like things paid off when you signed that long-term deal this summer? How much does that security help you on the court?
Jusuf Nurkic: It definitely helps. The way I was working, and the commitment from the team over the summer, and really the whole last year, it helps a lot. And it's more about [finding] a perfect spot than just signing the deal. I know what I've been working towards and how I can help this team win. This season has shown the way I can play with this role, and I think we complement each other really well. C.J. [McCollum], Dame [Lillard], and the whole squad. We're all playing unselfish right now.
AS: A lot of people expected this Blazers team to fade away after last year's playoffs. Did that change the way you guys approached this season?
JN: I don't think so, man. Since I've been here, each year before the season, everybody was ready to watch us fade away. So it doesn't surprise me that people were thinking that way. And there was some kind of motivation because we got swept last year. That definitely stayed with us. But we've worked to get another chance and show we're better than that. It's been a long season and there's still some games left, but we've prepared ourselves for what's coming next.
AS: As things were up in the air after the playoffs and over the summer, how often were you and your teammates talking about what was still possible together?
JN: During the season, there's not much time to talk about stuff like that. But in the summer there was a lot of speculation about coach and the team, and what's going to happen. We didn't know. And there were just a lot of things that went into the summer. We watched Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier walk away in free agency. You heard other teams start to say, "Oh, well the Blazers might tank" and stuff like that. I think we knew deep down—me and Dame and C.J., Mo [Harkless], and Chief [Al-Farouq Aminu]—I think we knew that if we stayed healthy, we could still be dangerous. We could do some damage. There was a lot of stuff going on, but Dame was like, "If we're healthy, we're good." And at the end of the day, we've really improved the roster.
AS: Right. Over the past few weeks you guys added Rodney Hood and then Enes Kanter. What did you think of the deadline moves?
JN: We have some guys who can really score the ball. Rodney showed us the last couple games. We're in a really good spot. And it's not just that [Hood and Kater] are great players, but they really fit well with us and the system we have. Rodney, what surprised me, he can really pass the ball too. Obviously he's a scorer, and coming from Cleveland, they didn't win that many games. But coming here he was like I want to do whatever I can to win. That doesn't happen with a lot of guys, and obviously he's a free agent next summer. He's really showing us a belief in our band.
AS: And then there's Enes on top of that. Obviously he's one of the bigger personalities in the league. Are you familiar with the "Nurk and Turk" nickname that's been going around?
JN: (laughs) I saw some tweets. I didn't hear anybody actually saying that. But Enes, he gives us another look from the bench. Most teams are not going to be able to go small [against our bench]. You know, really small. All teams play small now. But Enes gives us a different look. Right now, we're all in a good spot. I'm just hoping we stay healthy and give ourselves the best shot we can get.
AS: The whole league has gotten smaller and faster. What do you think of those changes? Does that make life harder or does it create more opportunities?
JN: There's certain ways you can adjust, but there are certain ways they need to adjust to you. And our team, the way we're built, that's helped a lot too. Great guards, when you're playing with a superstar like Damian and an All-Star like CJ, it's hard for everybody else [to guard]. And I can really pass the ball. We have big wings, too, with Mo Harkless and Chief [Al-Farouq Aminu]. We have good length for the whole team.
AS: Yeah, you mentioned the passing. You've always been a sneaky good passer, but this season it seems like it's hit another level. You look like Marc Gasol out there some nights. Was that something you worked on this summer?
JN: I've always had that in my game. It was about the system and how much ball I have in my hands. I feel like this year my coach and my teammates, they've allowed me to do that and make those [passing] decisions a little more. And moreso, I feel like with this team, everybody right now, we're understanding what our roles are, and we accept that.
AS: You've always been light on your feet, but you look a little quicker this year. Do you feel like you're in better shape this season, or is this where you've always been?
JN: It's kinda both, if that makes sense. A few summers ago I lost too much weight in a short period and it was kind of a shock to my body. And then I got back to what I used to be with the muscle stuff, and we just worked the whole summer. I just needed to get out there and hoop and have some fun.
AS: What are your expectations for the playoffs spring?
JN: There's not really expectations. We live by... We got swept last year. We didn't believe somebody was going to be able to beat us 4-0 in any type of series last year. But we did. We lost four games. This year, it's more like, let's stay healthy and do the best we can in the season. And then whoever we got [in the playoffs], we're going to give our best effort. That doesn't mean we didn't play the best we can last year, but things just didn't go our way. We got a good a shot [last season], and we're happy to be in position to have another one. Most people probably are not going to get that [second] one.
AS: How much did last year's Pelicans series stick with you over the summer?
JN: We've come to the point where everybody's expecting something from you, and it can get even harder, because you're the hardest on yourself. It's hard, because when you lose in the NBA, you always have another game. So you're not really focused on what you did, watching film. But you still think about it. Like, "what if I'd done this" or "I could be better" and stuff like that. It's just, in the NBA, it happens so fast. Everything's overnight. You're traded, people are in the league, and then they're not anymore. The way this league is built, it's just ridiculously fast. And we understand, you're not going to play forever. And I think Damian's doing a great job trying to build something in Portland. He thinks he can do that here, and I'm here to help. And I'm still 24 years old, so I'm pretty young.
AS: Yeah, outsiders are always talking about what a great leader Damian Lillard is. What does his leadership look like on a daily basis?
JN: It's hard to explain day-by-day what he means to us. But I think the most important thing for me, and for anybody on the team, he's a consistent person every day. He never changes. No matter what happens to the team or to us [as individuals], he's the same person. Ain't no fake. Ain't no lies. Whatever he says, he stands by that. That's what you want from anybody, but especially from your best player out there. For me, that was a huge part of growing last year. Whatever he said, I knew he meant it. It was really enjoyable playing with a star who can take care of you both on the floor and off the floor. Sharing his experience, knowing what he's been through. It's amazing.
AS: Can you think of any specific conversations with Dame that have helped along the way?
JN: Yeah, I think somebody just tweeted it too. About the Toronto game. I couldn't sleep that night. I got in foul trouble and whatever I tried to do, it was not going my way. And I knew I hurt the team because I'm not out there. So I'm trying to figure out all the physical and mental stuff going through my head, and it's just not my night. So he just called me over. I had tried to go to the end of the bench and shake everybody's hand and just sit. But he grabbed me and said, "Look, you did what you can. You're not fouling anybody on purpose. Just stay with it, and when you go back out there just do your best." And we still had a shot to win the game, even not playing great. To stay in that [Raptors] game, that shows how deep we are this year.
AS: In general, it seems like the Blazers are one of the only contenders in the league that's actually having fun this year. Why do you think that is?
JN: There's a lot of guys misunderstanding their roles in the league. I think we're one of the few teams where guys understand their role. And not only understand it, but accept it. Like they actually agree with the role. There's a lot of NBA players [on other teams] who can hoop and do a lot of things, but sometimes for the good of the team, you just need to accept that role. It's a team sport. You can't just think about yourself. And that's where it becomes a problem, when there's young guys just coming in the league, and some guys don't feel that way, and don't want to sacrifice anything. For us, we're on the same page.
AS: One thing I enjoy about you is how much trash talking you do on the court. Why is that? Does that get you going during games?
JN: (laughs) Not really, man. l'm the guy... I'm probably not going to start anything like that. When people see there are a lot of players out there talking, there'll be like, really, five dudes who are talking. And when you cross that line, there's no back downs. It's all about talking and whatever you can show on the court. But I'm not the guy who's going to be disrespecting anybody before somebody starts that.
AS: You're not starting anything, but you'll respond.
JN: For sure. Some people would probably say, "Nah," but I really believe I'm just trying to hoop and have fun out there. And help my teammates get some wins.
AS: So I assume you don't have any additional Ben Simmons thoughts.
JN: Nah, nah. Whatever he thinks, he thinks. That's fine. And I said what I said.
AS: Alright, some quick questions at the end here. Elsewhere in the league, who talks the most of anyone you guys play?
JN: Well, when I came in the league it was KG. I'll never forget that one. Kobe and KG were the craziest trash talkers. But right now, this year, there's a lot of people who talk. I don't know. Westbrook is probably the craziest. He's just talking too much generally. But I love his passion for the game. You can't deny that. His passion is crazy. But, you know, he talks a lot.
AS: What did you Kobe or KG say to you?
JN: Well not just me, but just generally. They talk just ridiculous, crazy. They saying a lot. To teammates, my team, whoever. Whoever they played they was talking really bad. It was fun to be in my rookie year and watch them.
AS: Who's the toughest big guy to guard?
JN: I don't know. I feel like the more you can handle the ball the tougher you get to guard. That's what I've seen around the league. Like Boogie Cousins on the Pelicans, before the injury, the way he was playing with the ball, it was just insane to guard one-on-one with no help. It didn't matter how big you were or how quick you were.
AS: Right. Giannis is like that, too.
JN: Yeah, when you talk about Giannis, his length is just ridiculous. Every time he steps on the floor I feel like he's doing three steps. And he's not most of the time. But it just feels that way. Every time he steps, dunking forever. But he's not [traveling]. I'm just saying how long those steps actually are.
AS: What's your favorite NBA city to visit and why?
JN: L.A. Great food, great weather. Everything's happening there. Lot of reasons why I love L.A.
AS: I read that before the draft you told the Spurs that "if America is like the movies, I'm never coming." What did you mean by that?
JN: (laughs) It was a great experience, the draft process. I was just a kid from the village playing some European basketball. And then everything starts happening fast. NBA teams starting calling—Lakers, San Antonio, Denver, Philly. Talking to those GMs, they'd be like, "What do you think about America? What do you know about America?" I said I've never been there, but I watched a lot of movies. And if it's like the movies... it's scary, you know? Guns and all that stuff. So I told him that, and I never told him I was joking, but he was laughing. But it's way safer than I thought, so it's been great.
AS: So how do you like life in Portland?
JN: I love it. The way Portland is built, it's pretty similar to my home. Maybe Portland has a little bit more rain. But this year it's perfect. There's not actually a lot of rain. And people complain too much about the weather. The weather is actually great. It snows once every two years. It's really... I like it. I like everything about Portland right now.
AS: If you have an off-day up there, what's your favorite thing to do off the court?
JN: I'm drinking coffee, man. I'm going to my favorite coffee shops with my girlfriend and friends. Just enjoy the day.
AS: One more important Blazers question: What would you have done in the middle of that broken elevator situation?
JN: Nothing, man. I've never been scared in my life.
AS: Wow. No reaction at all.
JN: It was funny, people tried to make more stories and more stories. But I would just wait for someone to open it. There's nothing you can do and nothing's gonna happen.
AS: OK, then what if you had to choose one teammate to be stranded in an elevator with. Who would you pick?
JN: Ahhhhhh. You're making me choose just one? I don't know. Maybe Meyers or Dame. Gotta be somebody who can be a little bit funny so I can laugh.