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It hasn’t even been two weeks since the dust settled on the Deandre Ayton trade, but with preseason basketball already underway, the Phoenix Suns have little time to waste integrating Jusuf Nurkic before the season begins.
Training camp represents something of a crash course for Nurk, who will be facing very different expectations going from a tanking Portland Trail Blazers squad to a Phoenix team with title aspirations. That’s especially true considering the defensive-minded coach he’ll be playing under, all while replacing the only No. 1 draft pick in franchise history at center.
As much as Ayton’s tenure in the Valley flamed out, the athleticism, finishing ability and defensive mobility he brought to the table won’t be easy to replace. DA is the better individual player, but for the Suns, targeting Nurkic — a “unanimous” decision from owner Mat Ishbia, CEO Josh Bartelstein and general manager James Jones — boiled down to fit.
“Our team got better that day without question,” Ishbia said at Media Day. “So we’re real excited about that. And once again, Nurkic might not put up the numbers that Deandre will put up, which is perfectly fine. We want him to play the role.”
Phoenix’s approach shouldn’t come as a total shock. Over the last three years, the Suns went 130-64 when Ayton played, for a .670 win percentage. In the games he missed over that span, they used a center smorgasbord of Bismack Biyombo, Dario Saric, Frank Kaminsky, JaVale McGee and Jock Landale to go 30-12, giving them a .714 win percentage.
Granted, the 194 games Ayton played encompassed a much larger sample size than the 42 he missed. But the Suns’ hesitance to reward him with a max contract until the Indiana Pacers forced their hand last summer stemmed from one central belief: They could still win with a center who provided 70-80 percent of what DA gave them, at a fraction of the cost.
The 29-year-old Nurkic will put that theory to the ultimate test, in a season with championship hopes on the line. It’s quite a gamble, but one that prioritizes specific traits Nurk brings to the table that Ayton did not.
“His skill-set complements our best guys, and more importantly, he’s ready to win,” Jones said. “He’s been in a situation the last few years where they’re just playing to try to get to where we are, but we’re playing to win championships. And if you get a really good player who’s motivated and you give him an opportunity to win a title, you usually see the best versions of those players.”
The question is, what does the best version of Jusuf Nurkic look like? What does he bring to the table that will help this new-look Suns roster? And just as importantly, what are the areas for concern that Phoenix will need to compensate for? In Part 1 (with Part 2 to follow later this week), let’s take a what to expect from the Bosnian Beast on the offensive end.
Jusuf Nurkic drastically changes The Suns offense
On paper, Nukic’s 13.3 points in 26.8 minutes per game on 51.9 percent shooting last season don’t look like much. As a scorer and finisher, he’s more limited than Ayton.
Excluding garbage time last year, DA shot a staggering 78.8 percent at the rim, which ranked in the 91st percentile among centers, per Cleaning The Glass. Nurkic shot just 62.9 percent at the basket, which ranked in the 22nd percentile. And even though Ayton’s hook shot dipped by about eight percentage points last season, his 57.5 percent conversion rate was still leagues better than Nurk’s 49.5 percent.
Considering how brilliant Phoenix’s pick-and-roll attack has been over the last few seasons, Nurkic’s ability to finish in those situations could be an issue. He misses more bunnies around the rim than he probably should:
With that being said, Nurkic’s newly-developed range could help spread the floor a bit. Ayton was a dependable midrange threat, but Nurk touted a respectable 3-point shot for the first time last season, shooting a career-high 36.1 percent from deep on 2.3 attempts per game.
To put that number into context, Nurkic attempted nearly as many 3-pointers last season (119) as he had in the first nine seasons of his career (138). He also made and attempted more 3s last year than Ayton has in his entire five-year career.
If that efficiency stays level, he’ll bring a floor-spacing element that Ayton never provided. Nurk made a respectable 36.9 percent of the above-the-break 3s that defenses will give him, because according to The BBall Index, he ranked in the 96th percentile in openness rating. There’s a good chance opponents will continue to let him shoot as they’re forced to pick their poison against this high-powered offense.
But even if Nurkic’s 3-ball isn’t a reliable staple in his game, he’ll still open up the floor in a few important ways.
Jusuf Nurkic the screener
As a sturdy screen-setter and underrated passer, Nurkic possesses two elements that make him an exceptional fit on a team with Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and Bradley Beal — especially since he’s accustomed to setting bone-crushing screens to free up Damian Lillard.
“It’s simple, they’re gonna be open,” Nurkic said of his screens. “Having somebody who can really shoot, like probably Dame-type of range, and not even give respect to another one, I give defensive players one option: You can go under.”
Nurkic ranked in the 96th percentile in screen assists per 75 possessions, so when he makes good contact, the Suns’ Big 3 will have opportunities to take what the defense gives them.
“It puts the other big in a tough situation, ’cause it allows me to go downhill at him,” Booker said. “And if he’s back too far, coach is stressing us to rise right up, force them bigs to have to be away from the basket. We have a lot of threats on the perimeter, and we’re gonna try to space the floor out and get good looks.”
When the on-ball defender goes under the screen, it’s an opportunity to pull up for 3. If the defender gets caught on Nurkic’s screen or trails it, the Suns’ stars can pull up from the midrange if the big is in drop coverage, or they can drive right at the big if they’re at the level of the screen. What’s scary is all the examples from the clip above are just from handoffs where Nurkic wound up screening.
“Setting a good screen just puts the defense in a bind, so that’s just the first domino to fall,” Durant explained. “If we got a good screen, now we can start to understand what the rest of the defense is gonna do. And we got smart players that can make those quick decisions. If a guy jumps out and traps, or if the guy’s in the drop, we can make those decisions, but it starts with just the hit first. I think Nurk is really good at just getting that first initial hit, and then figuring it out after that.”
Jusuf Nurkic excels in the short roll
The “figuring it out after that” part is where Ayton routinely struggled. One of the biggest knocks on DA’s game was his inability to attack whenever he caught the ball in the short roll. He typically froze, took too long to assess the right play, and then usually pulled up for a midrange jumper anyway, despite having plenty of space to drive and either finish or kick out to shooters.
Booker, Durant and Beal are all the caliber of player that opposing defenses will need to trap on screens, just to get the ball out of their hands. Nurkic isn’t an elite finisher, but he’s the kind of rolling big who can actually make a play out of the short pocket. And as he explained while breaking down a play from training camp last week, he’s already relishing those situations.
“I’m coming down the floor, and Devin Booker has the ball, and I’m running and see, like, playing pick-and-roll with D-Book,” Nurkic described. “But out in the corner I got KD, and then Bradley Beal. I’m saying, ‘God damn.’ It’s kind of crazy when you think about it, but the spacing and everything, as a big and as someone who loves passing, it’s just really fun to be out there.”
Every Suns player, coach or executive who’s been asked about Jusuf Nurkic over the last two weeks has praised his passing. That ability to keep the ball moving when opponents blitz the ball-handler will be a drastic improvement in the short pocket, whether he’s finding open shooters in the corner or cutters in the paint:
“He’s a beast,” Booker summed up. “He can playmake, his I.Q. for a big is off the charts.”
In five NBA seasons, Ayton never averaged 2.0 assists per game, and he never had a season where he finished with more assists than turnovers. Nurkic has accomplished that feat in each of his last five seasons, averaging 3.1 assists per game over that stretch.
Those numbers don’t quite paint the full picture of Nurkic’s basketball I.Q., however, since he was playing with inferior talent in Portland the last few seasons. According to NBA.com, Ayton averaged 2.5 potential assists per game last year. Nurk nearly doubled that, with worse players around him, at 4.8 per game.
“Those go hand-in-hand,” Booker said of Nurkic’s I.Q. and passing ability. “He can read a play before it develops. He can be the secondary point guard too if a team traps me and he plays in that pocket. It’s a clean exchange: He catches it, it’s right to the corner or he punishes a smaller defender under the hoop.”
Jusuf Nurkic, Playmaking hub
It’s not just pick-and-roll situations where Nurkic can playmake. Frank Vogel has emphasized playing at a faster tempo to create more advantageous scenarios for Phoenix’s Big 3, and sometimes, that’ll look like Nurk being an offensive hub while they make life hell for opposing defenses by cutting, screening or backdooring every which way.
“To be able to throw the ball to him and have our guys in movement, it just gives us a different dynamic than them just coming down and playing pick-and-roll or post-up or iso every time down,” Vogel explained. “So whether we’re throwing it to him in the post and splitting and cutting or throwing it to him at the top of the key, we really want to get those guys in space, get bodies off of our elite scorers on the perimeter. And Jusuf does that for us.”
Nurkic ranked in the 81st percentile in box creation, which is an estimate of open shots carved out for teammates by drawing defensive attention. In the post, he’s big and physical enough to command double-teams against a number of matchups, and when that happens, he possesses the court vision to move the ball to the weakside corner or hit open cutters:
All the Suns’ firepower on the perimeter will make his life easier in turn, too.
“Not just those three — everybody else like Eric Gordon, like [Nassir Little], and everybody,” Nurkic said. “I feel like it’s a lot of shooting out there. One possession I was in the post, and I’m like, ‘There is really no one around me, man.’”
The Suns will also try to get creative with having Nurkic distribute from the top of the key, much like the Blazers have been doing for years. It’ll take time to develop the chemistry, but much like Booker, Durant likes what he sees so far.
“Love his IQ for the game, his physicality,” Durant said. “Somebody that’s been around the league for a while, has played in different systems as well, so his IQ for the game is how our chemistry is gonna get better by each rep. So these practices are important for us.”
Defenders are going to overplay to keep the ball out of the Big 3’s hands. It’s easy to envision Booker, Durant and especially Beal cashing in on these types of backdoor opportunities when that happens:
Nurkic’s experiences with Lillard, Anfernee Simons, and going back even further to the days of Dame and CJ McCollum, have set him up perfectly for an opportunity like this.
“In Portland, it’s obviously Dame and CJ running off stuff a lot of the time, but I didn’t know how good of a passer he was at just seeing different things out there,” Keita Bates-Diop said. “Whether it’s a skip pass or a bounce pass, he’s capable of making a lot of passes I didn’t know he could.”
The Blazers were crafty with getting Nurkic the ball and running actions with Dame and McCollum, Dame and Simons, or Dame and another shooter like Gary Trent Jr. Putting high-octane scorers, shooters and off-ball cutters like Booker, Beal and Durant in these kinds of sets will force defenses to make impossible choices, and Nurkic will be able to make the right read when somebody pops open.
Jusuf Nurkic is not a perfect replacement for Deandre Ayton, but it’s clear the Suns value his schematic fit with the Big 3 thanks to his screen-setting, short pocket playmaking, and all-around basketball I.Q.
“My game is gonna help everybody else,” Nurkic said. “Like Book said, I’m a point guard now. So it’ll be fun for me to really enjoy, a fresh start and a super-team. I didn’t have a chance to be part of a super-team before, so I will experience that in the best possible way.”
For those interested in Jusuf Nurkic and the defensive end, you can read Part 2 here.
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