What Jusuf Nurkic gained from losing a year to injury

What Jusuf Nurkic gained from losing a year to injury


IT WAS THE kind of play people see once and vow never to watch again.

One second, Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic was flying through the air, trying to tip in an offensive rebound at the end of a double-overtime game against the Brooklyn Nets on March 25, 2019. The next, he was lying on the ground, his lower leg obviously broken, writhing in pain.

For the first month, Nurkic didn’t watch video of the play. He already remembered so many strange events from that night: The baseline referee accidentally kicking his foot as he tried to step over him. The doctor who wanted to operate on him as soon as he arrived at the hospital.

“I was like, ‘Oh hell no. I ain’t going to be the last patient of the day,'” Nurkic joked. “Like, how many other surgeries have you done today? I don’t want a tired doctor.”

But ahead of Nurkic’s regular-season return Friday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, he was ready to look back on it.

“I’ve probably watched it a thousand times now,” said Nurkic, 25. “And every time, I feel the same way: I couldn’t do anything differently. I’ve done that move probably a million times in my career.”

The Blazers have performed their own analysis of the play to see if something predisposed the 7-foot, 290-pound Jurkic to bone fractures. He suffered a stress fracture in 2017 on his right leg, so it warranted deeper investigation. Nothing jumped out as a red flag.

“When something just randomly happens like that, you wonder what’s going on,” Nurkic said. “But at the same time, I do believe everything happens for a reason.”

And during the 16 months away, Nurkic believes he learned what that is.

FOR AS LONG as he has been playing basketball — which, frankly, isn’t all that long — Nurkic has been searching for a place that feels like home.

He was discovered, the story goes, by a sports agent who read an article in a local Bosnian newspaper about a 7-foot, 400-pound cop in a city called Tuzla who fought off 13 people while on the job. The agent, Enes Trnovcevic, was determined to find out if that cop had any sons because: What better pedigree for a future NBA player, right?

Well, that cop happened to be Nurkic’s father, Hariz. And he indeed had a son, though 14-year-old Jusuf looked nothing like a future NBA player. He wasn’t particularly tall or strong, had never picked up a basketball and knew very little about the game. But Trnovcevic was undeterred. He convinced Nurkic’s family to let him take young Jusuf to a boarding school in Slovenia, where he would study and learn to play basketball.

Just five years later, after several stops in Croatia and a wicked growth spurt, the ​Denver Nuggets acquired Nurkic in a 2014 draft-day trade with the Chicago Bulls. He was barely 20 when he made his NBA debut.

“The basketball stuff at times comes really easy for him,” Blazers associate head coach Nate Tibbetts said. “He’s so talented. But when you’ve come thousands of miles and don’t know a lot of people and are learning a new language, things can happen really fast.”

It wasn’t long before Nurkic, stuck behind Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic and frustrated with his role, asked for a trade. It took some convincing, but the Nuggets finally obliged in February 2017, sending Nurkic and a first-round pick to Portland for Mason Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash.

Nurkic was directly inserted into the Blazers’ starting lineup, proving himself to earn a four-year, $48 million extension in 2018. Fans in Portland immediately embraced the “Bosnian Beast,” and he started to feel like he’d found his NBA home.

“He’s become like the team-spirit animal,” said Neil Olshey, the Blazers’ president of basketball operations. “Dame [Lillard] is Dame, and that’s just understood. Right. And CJ [McCollum] is CJ. They are much more stoic.

“But Nurk plays with his emotions on his sleeve. I use the tennis analogy: Dame and CJ are [Bjorn] Borg. They’re quiet assassins. Nurk is more Jimmy Connors or John McEnroe.”

Olshey was scouting a college tournament on the East Coast, keeping an eye on the Blazers-Nets game on NBA.com’s GameTracker when Nurkic broke his leg. There was a slight delay, which is normal as scores update. So he refreshed the screen a few times. Each time, no update.

“It was like the game stopped,” Olshey said. “I thought somebody hit a game winner or something.”

Then, he saw the tweets and the texts. Something awful had happened.

Olshey had built this Blazers team to counteract the NBA trend toward small-ball — throwing three 7-footers on the court at the same time — to force teams such as the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets to contend with those matchups. But that strategy works only if you have 7-footers like Nurkic, who are nimble on their feet, know how to use their size and have vision and the passing ability to exploit defensive traps.

“Most teams start big and then go small,” he said. “We wanted 48 minutes of playing big with Nurk, Zach Collins and Enes [Kanter].”

It was working, too. Nurkic was having a career season, averaging 15.6 points and 10.4 rebounds and propelling Portland to a 45-27 record. The Blazers had a net rating of plus-10.5 with Nurkic last season — a number that would have been tops in the league over the course of a game. It fell to minus-2.2 when he was off the court. He had 32 points and 16 rebounds in just 34 minutes in the game against the Nets before his compound fracture with 2:22 left.

But all of those plans were gone in the time it took Olshey’s GameTracker to catch up to the reality of what had just happened to Nurkic’s lower left leg.

play

0:20

Jusuf Nurkic throws in the hook shot, giving him his first points since injuring his leg in March of 2019.

NORMALLY WHEN A player gets injured, Todd Forcier’s job is to get a clip of the injury and send it to the Blazers’ medical staff on the court so they can make a quick assessment.

But this injury needed no replay.



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