Portland Trail Blazers: What to expect from Nurkic upon return

Having been on the mend for over a year, it’s important to recall what Jusuf Nurkic could bring the Portland Trail Blazers in their playoff pursuit.

Jusuf Nurkic‘s 2019-20 season debut was set for March 15, 10 days before the one-year anniversary of a broken leg that has sidelined him ever since. A global pandemic had other plans, shutting down the NBA season on March 11, keeping Nurkic from that which he has worked incredibly hard to come back to. With the restart of the season (likely) on its way, so too will Nurkic join his Portland Trail Blazers teammates on the courts in Orlando.

The timing is good, seeing as how Portland faces an uphill battle with just eight games to make up the 3.5 game deficit that separates them and the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.

Given, however, the length of his absence coupled with the productivity of substitute Hassan Whiteside, it’s easy to forget the ways Nurkic is expected to contribute.

Before his injury, Nurkic was one of only seven players in 2018-19 to average north of 15 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per game. The other six were all All-Stars, with Nurkic last among them in minutes per game — the next closest still saw a difference of 3.9 minutes per game.

As one of the seventh-most frequent in terms of pick-and-roll possessions per game, Nurkic was tied for second in points per possession and went to the line at a frequency higher than any of the six in front of him.

Nurkic was part of the Blazers’ three most-used lineups en route to 53 wins and the No. 3 spot in the Western Conference. The average net rating of that trio was 12.7, 4.1 points higher than the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks.

Of course, Portland’s roster is vastly different now compared to last season. Gone are starting forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless, replaced midseason by Trevor Ariza and Carmelo Anthony.

Ariza won’t be traveling to Disney, but Melo should do wonders for Nurkic’s work around the basket after he tied for the 13th-most post-ups per game, placing just above the 33rd percentile.

Despite a potent backcourt, the Blazers only ranked 17th in triples per game last season, hampered by sub-30 percent shooting efforts from Aminu and Harkless.

That Nurkic still managed to post net ratings north of 11 alongside either reveals the type of damage he could do beside a future Hall of Famer who shot 37.1 percent on 3.9 3-point attempts per game this season.

Portland’s defense was noticeably better with the Bosnian on the court. His 1.4 blocks per game were tied for 13th-most in 2018-19, where opponents shot 5.4 percent worse when guarded by Nurkic.

As valuable as Nurkic is to the Blazers when healthy, his return to form won’t be as simple as slipping on his jersey.

When the season resumes in late July, it will have been more than 16 months since he last played an NBA game. Shedding roughly 10 pounds off his hulking 280-pound frame will certainly aid his conditioning, but there’s no simulating the reps of NBA basketball until one gets the real thing.

The presence of Whiteside alleviates a good chunk of the pressure on Nurkic to make it all the way back. Acquired to fill the void left by Nurkic, Whiteside has held down the middle with 16.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and a league-leading 3.1 blocks per game.

As good as those numbers are, Whiteside hasn’t meshed with either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum quite like Nurkic, who has resided in Portland since 2017. The former has an average net rating of 3.2 with the backcourt. The latter was at 10.8 a season ago.

3.5 games is no easy ground to make up. With just eight regular-season games remaining, the odds aren’t in Portlands favor. Even if they do the unlikely, a brutal first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers awaits.

The underwhelming best-case scenario makes you wonder why Nurkic has decided against the route of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. Opting to jump back into the thick of the NBA instead of easing his way back under the lower stakes of the start to the 2020-21 season.

Whatever the reason — likely an unwillingness to sit even longer and wait for a season whose tip-off date we know little of — Nurkic is entitled to the control of his career. Even if he can’t swiftly reach his past self, his debut will mark the completion of a grueling journey that is hopefully the start of a return to his place among the most valued members of Portland’s roster.

Next: What Kevin Love’s transformation might tell us about Nikola Jokic’s