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What the Phoenix Suns can expect on defense from Jusuf Nurkic

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
October 12, 2023
Here's a look at what the Phoenix Suns can expect from Jusuf Nurkic on the defensive end

For better and for worse, Jusuf Nurkic changes the dynamic of the Phoenix Suns on both ends of the court. Outside of Devin Booker, Josh Okogie and 19 games of Kevin Durant, it’s a drastically different team already, but going from Deandre Ayton to Nurkic changes the equation in a number of ways.

Although Ayton’s tenure in the Valley flamed out, the former No. 1 overall pick did bring several useful skills to the table when he was fully engaged — especially on the defensive end, where the Suns will miss him the most.

Still, Phoenix prioritized fit over talent in making this bold trade less than a week before Media Day. The trade was a “unanimous decision” for owner Mat Ishbia, team CEO Josh Bartelstein and general manager James Jones, and they had coach Frank Vogel’s support too.

“Myself, James, Frank and Mat, we’re constantly canvassing the league and looking at how to improve our team,” Bartelstein said. “And we thought Nurkic was a great fit for this team, his passing ability, how skilled he is offensively, what coach Vogel is gonna do with him defensively.”

That last part is what may decide the fate of the 2023-24 Phoenix Suns. There’s no question about what Nurkic brings as a sturdy screen-setter and gifted passer on the offensive end, but defensively, he’ll need to prove he can be the anchor of Vogel’s defense.

Since we’ve already covered the offensive end, it’s time to look at some film to figure out how Nurk will hold up playing for a defensive-minded coach, the problem areas that will need to improve on a winning team, and where he might be able to hold his ground on the interior.

The Suns’ priorities shifted after adding Jusuf Nurkic

When Vogel was first hired, the new Suns coach was high on trying to restore Ayton to an “All-Star caliber” player, saying their defense started with the big fella. When it comes to Nurkic, most of the praise — even when asked about the defensive end — seems to circle back to where he can help on offense.

“You just said the words, ‘the defensive anchor,’ and his ability to pass the basketball offensively with the perimeter firepower that we have really makes him a great fit for our system,” Vogel said.

Sure coach, but what about the defensive end?

“The two things that stick out, what I just mentioned, is that he’s a dominant defensive rebounder, and that he’s an exceptional passing big,” Vogel added.

Right….But the defense, though?

“Defensively, just the size at the basket, and being an elite defensive rebounder is gonna help us secure the boards and get our guys out on the break,” Vogel elaborated.

For the last two weeks, Vogel has politely fielded questions about how Nurkic is fitting in on the defensive end. It’s a normal query for a new coaching staff that only has training camp to teach a bunch of new players a different system, but it does seem to come up in respect to Nurk more than anyone else.

That’s to be expected, and no one should expect Vogel to start delcaring Nurkic a frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. But everyone involved is aware it’s an elephant in the room until proven otherwise. For their part, the Suns seem to be okay with that; as Vogel has alluded to multiple times, their strategy is all about being scrappy and physical, rebounding misses and pushing the tempo.

Vogel understands this is a high-powered offensive team, and if the Suns can just be good on defense — with the potential to be really good — they’ll have a chance in any playoff series. To that end, his honesty with Nurkic and their mutual understanding about the defensive end is a solid foundation to build on.

At Media Day, Nurkic said he was a big fan of Vogel’s, called him “the biggest reason” he’s in Phoenix. He appreciated that his new coach understood what he brought to the table offensively, but was more excited about the other end.

“To be transparent, I feel like the fit on the offense will be the easiest part,” Nurkic said. “I will have to figure out the defensive part with the team, and that’s coach coming in and do his part.”

Jusuf Nurkic the rim protector

From a basic game-planning perspective, the Suns already have a check list. It goes something like “rebound misses, push the ball up the court, play with tempo on offense, repeat.” Vogel said it starts with the transition defense, but the emphasis on closing out stops with a rebound has been abundantly clear.

“He’s one of the best defensive rebounders in the game,” Vogel said. “So as we compete to guard, we’re gonna force a lot of misses, and we gotta board. If we want to get out and be a running team, we need somebody that can dominate the defensive boards, and he’s elite at that.”

Last year, Nurkic averaged 9.1 rebounds in 26.8 minutes per game. Ayton’s average was higher, but he also played more minutes, skewing the comparison.

According to The BBall Index, Nurk posted slightly better numbers in offensive rebounding chances per 75 possessions, defensive rebounding chances per 75 possessions, and adjusted box-out rate. Ayton posted a 39.1 contested rebounding percentage, per NBA.com, while Nurkic was at 43.5 percent.

“This team was struggling in the past with rebounds,” Nurkic said. “I’m one of the best in defensive rebounds, so I believe I’m a really good fit as far as that.”

It’s the “forcing misses” part that will be a challenge, but Nurkic actually showed flashes last year of bothering shots around the rim:

Although he’s a bit flat-footed, Nurk’s 7-foot-2 wingspan and sheer size can be a deterrent in the paint. When fully engaged, he’s able to close the gap and surprise would-be scorers by getting a hand on the ball. His strength and ability to bang bodies in the paint allows him to absorb contact and still challenge shots with verticality (or in some cases, swing one of those flailing limbs at the ball like the Whomping Willow).

“He’s one of the guys on our team that should — most nights — be able to dominate his matchup with physicality,” Vogel said. “And that’s the one thing that I love about him.”

Thanks to Ayton’s down year as a rim protector last season, Nurkic actually checked out as a more active, physical defender on the interior. He placed in the 98th percentile in rim contests per 75 possessions and held opponents to 3.8 percent worse shooting at the rim, which ranked in the league’s 84th percentile, per The BBall Index.

Ayton, by comparison, ranked in the 76th percentile in rim contests per 75 possessions and held opponents to 2.9 percent worse shooting at the rim (80th percentile). They both averaged 0.8 blocks per game, but Nurkic played four fewer minutes. Nurk also rated higher in blocks per 75 possessions and percentage of rim shots contested.

Jusuf Nurkic
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The advanced metrics are kinder to Nurkic than the eye test, but the majority of the numbers indicate he was a more engaged rim protector than DA last year.

Jusuf Nurkic in space and in the drop

The bigger problem for Jusuf Nurkic is defending in space. Somehow, The BBall Index rated him as a more effective on-ball perimeter defender last season, but the eye test confirms he leaves something to be desired when it comes to his perimeter mobility and positioning when guarding pick-and-rolls.

Whether due to lateral quickness, fatigue or flat-out weariness with his team’s losing situation, there were routine plays where Nurk offered zero resistance in impeding a ball-handler or cutter’s path to the rim. These types of plays where he’s out of position or just concedes a bucket won’t fly on a team like Phoenix or under a coach like Vogel. That’s particularly unacceptable when he’s in drop coverage:

The Blazers occasionally had Nurkic play up to the level of the screen, rather than concede pull-up 3s or midrange jumpers. There were times were Nurk held his own, and plenty others where those lumbering footsteps weren’t quick enough to stop the ball-handler from turning the corner and exploding past him:

Because Nurk is a step slower these days, the Suns will likely resort to drop coverage a fair portion of the time with Nurk. It’s easy to see from the film where they’ll be vulnerable: Not only will they be susceptible to pull-up 3s and midrange jumpers, but also drives and even pocket passes back to rolling bigs, depending on how Nurkic defends in space.

Watching some of the plays below, pull-up jumpers are what the defense is forced to live with in drop coverage. But as the clip goes on, Nurkic struggles with his positioning between the ball-handler and the roller whenever his fellow defender gets caught on the screen.

Vogel’s task will be improving his ability to hedge toward the driver to at least slow the play down in those situations. He’ll also need to teach Nurk how to close some of the passing windows he leaves open for the roller.

This example from the Suns’ first preseason game is the exact sort of problem Phoenix needs to shore up if they don’t want Nurkic getting played off the court late in games:

Jusuf Nurkic
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Stretch-bigs present a whole new bag of problems in pick-and-pop scenarios, which may require extra creativity. All in all, the Suns need a more engaged Nurkic than he’s shown in recent seasons, but they’ll also need to have the four defenders around him locked in at all times.

Jusuf Nurkic meets Frank Vogel’s system

As Bartelstein mentioned, the Suns believe an elite defensive coach like Vogel can help revive Nurkic on the defensive end. It wasn’t long ago that the Bosnian Bear was a legitimate anchor for the Portland Trail Blazers, but his leg injury back in 2019 sapped him of some of his footspeed and leaping ability.

Nurk has slimmed down considerably to keep pace with Phoenix’s up-tempo game plan, but the Suns really just need their 29-year-old center to do his job in Vogel’s system, rather than try to replicate what a younger, more athletic Deandre Ayton brought to the table.

“With Nurk, just execute our scheme,” Vogel explained. “We’re teaching him our scheme, and obviously utilize his passing, utilize his defensive rebounding, maximize his speed. The running game is a habit more so than actual physical speed, and [then] execute what we’re asking him to do.”

It’ll take time for Vogel’s principles to become instinctual reactions. There have been positive signs through the first two preseason games, like this possession against the Detroit Pistons:

Jusuf Nurkic
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Or this play from their second preseason game against the Denver Nuggets, when Nurk got to defend more at the level:

Jusuf Nurkic
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But whether he’s playing up to the level or trying to navigate open space in the drop, even if these examples, the other four guys are required to bring an extra level of activity, hedges and early rotations to make it work. The Suns have the personnel for it, but Nurkic’s deficiencies on the defensive end will undoubtedly put a little more pressure on everyone else to stay connected on a string.

That starts with the point of attack, which is why Josh Okogie is the most sensible choice to be the Suns’ fifth starter. Whenever Nurk is in the drop, being able to jump the gap and turn dribblers away from their screens, or hound those ball-handlers around those screens and keep applying pressure, will be critical.

As Dave Deckard of Blazers Edge summed up: “Nurk is pretty good right at the rim, especially when he has time to track the play. But when guards let dribblers through too quickly, Nurkic isn’t going to stop them. Nor is he quick enough to close out at the three-point arc.”

It’s clear Vogel wants — and quite possibly needs — the Suns to lean into their speed, length and physicality on defense. They won’t be the biggest or strongest team, but having all that length out there can help cover for the occasional defensive lapse in a few ways.

“Obviously, at the basket, with dissuading shots and grabbing boards, but also the length on the perimeter,” Vogel said. “We want everybody down in a stance, in their gaps and shrinking the floor. And if there’s less driving lanes because we’ve got longer dudes out there, it’s just tougher for opposing offensive players to think they can get to the basket.”

Vogel has mentioned how “two-on-two” coverages are important in order to keep Phoenix out of undesired rotations. He’s also pointed out that the Suns are still at the base level of their defense, with more layers to be added on as the season progresses. For now, the focus is providing real-time accountability for the mistakes made in practice and preseason games, with the coaching staff breaking down film and taking advantage of this extra time to stop, teach and correct.

Nurkic has said all the right things about picking Vogel’s brain and seems excited to learn on the defensive end. Devin Booker praised Nurkic’s communication, and Nurk is open to being challenged by his teammates to make sure everyone is held accountable.

Communication — with his teammates and with his coach — will be key to smoothing out this transition process. So far, Vogel has lived up to his billing as a great communicator, giving constant feedback throughout practices and water breaks to tell Nurkic where he’s done well and what mistakes he needs to clean up.

“Knowing what I know about Frank Vogel and his past with the bigs, I think it’s really exciting for me,” Nurkic said. “I think he understands and loves to put bigs in situations to have the best position to succeed in his system. I think the most part I’m excited [for] is the defensive system, to see what he wants to do and communicate with him in the best way possible. And I will do it. I will definitely do whatever him and his coaching staff ask of me, so I’m not afraid of that.”

If you missed Part 1 on Jusuf Nurkic’s offensive game, you can read it here.

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