Jusuf Nurkic's biggest impact comes on defense, where he's been something close to the panacea the Trail Blazers needed since returning from injury in late March. His playmaking prowess as a high-post trailer, elbow hub and pick-and-roll dive man adds a crucial wrinkle to Portland's oft-stagnant offensive approach.
The Blazers, obviously, don't need another scorer, and the value Nurkic adds compared to his peers at center indeed comes elsewhere. But as Portland caps the regular season with its most difficult three-game stretch to date, the subtle strides Nurkic is making as a finisher loom larger than ever – just as much for the Blazers' prospects of avoiding the play-in tournament as their hopes of winning a playoff series.
Rip City doesn't need much explanation of Nurkic's time-honored struggles around the rim. His ugly 55.1 percent shooting from the restricted area prior to Portland's win over the Indiana Pacers on April 27, per NBA.com/stats, was as unsurprising as it was frustrating. The question was whether those labors were more a reflection of Nurkic's longstanding troubles to finish, or his inevitable acclimation period after injuries limited him to a combined total of 25 games in two calendar years.
During the Blazers' 8-1 binge, Nurkic has answered it definitively with the eye test alone.
Lengthy finger rolls after embarrassing the defense with fake dribble hand-offs aren't quite the new norm for Nurkic. There's only one Nikola Jokic, after all.
But the touch, decisiveness and basketball IQ shown on the impressive sequence above has been a constant for Nurkic recently, helping him reach new heights as a finisher. He's shooting 63.6 percent in the restricted area over the Blazers' last nine games, per NBA.com/stats, a would-be career-best over a full season.
There's nothing unsustainable about Nurkic's improvement as a finisher, either. Six weeks out from returning to the court and unleashed from his minutes restriction, Nurkic is simply exhibiting the freedom and confidence of a player no longer slowed by ramping up physically and spending so much time away from the game.
He's always had the foot speed and dexterity to Eurostep around defenders on the move. The difference now compared to earlier this season is that Nurkic is fully reacclimated to the speed of the NBA, able to leverage his relative quickness, skill and instincts comfortably at a moment's notice.
How many 290-pounders have the coordination to finish through contact off the same foot as their shooting hand, or tiptoe around defenders for swooping layups in tight corridors on the roll?
Nurkic's canny screen-setting makes life easier for both Portland's guards and himself. With defenses ever geared toward stopping Damian Lillard at the point of attack, his understanding of angles and timing while setting picks on the ball has taken on extra significance.
When his defender commits to Lillard early, Nurkic sometimes eschews a screen altogether, knowing the path to the rim that normally begins with a pick-and-roll has already materialized.
Nurkic isn't just feasting in the paint off dives to the rim and attention being paid to Portland's star guards, though.
He's been much better posting up of late, too, deploying the same sense of pointed aggression and quick decision-making he has as a pick-and-roll release valve. Nurkic abused the Rockets' undersized frontcourt on the block Monday night, just like he did Brandon Clarke and Justin Holiday against the Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers, respectively.
Jonas Valanciunas is the rare foe who can match Nurkic's girth, and Jakob Poeltl is one of the best rim-protectors in basketball. It just didn't matter when Nurkic, extra physical, went right at his fellow giants with his back to the basket.
Nurkic won't ever be Portland's second option offensively, let alone its first. He'll always want more direct touches in the post than he gets, and the flubbed layups for which he's become infamous in Rip City won't vanish altogether, either. His greatest influence will always come as a back-line protector defensively and supplementary playmaker on the other end.
But the observed evidence of Nurkic's progress around the rim is overwhelming, and the numbers support it, too. The next test for Nurkic? Proving that development is sustainable while battling the league's best against a playoff backdrop.