Jusuf Nurkic isn’t a common household name to the 2014 draft. He is one of the elite NBA lottery prospects. He’s an incredibly productive center that plays for Cedevita.
In terms of size, he’s a full 6’10” (w/o shoes) with a 7’2″ wingspan. At 280lbs., he has a low post base that is NBA ready now. He compares favorably to NBA player Robert Sacre, who was listed at 6’10.75″ w/o shoes and a wingspan of 7’0.5″ at 263lbs. Nurkic may lose out a bit on height, but he has the wingspan and added bulk as a 19-year old prospect.
Athletically he’s a different kind of center He lacks a great vertical, which was measured by DraftExpress at a maximum of 23″. But, he has great agility, lateral quickness, and mobility. With the agility, he has been able to switch on pick-and-roll switches defensively, use fundamental pivot work in the paint, and some quickness to evade his defender at the lower block. Pau Gasol has a tremendous amount of moves in the painted area, but can’t always get the position he wants. He compensates with a 7’6″ wingspan to get extra reach when he’s pushed out of the paint. Nikola Pekovic of the Minnesota Timberwolves wasn’t this big coming out as a rookie. While he struggles with transition play, he’s an absolute boulder in the paint. He establishes position and can get the shots he wants simply because of his strength alone. None of these guys play above the rim, but show excellent skill below it.
Offensively, Nurkic is exactly what NBA General Managers look for in a traditional NBA center. Not only does he set up deep position in the paint, he develops rhythm with the bounce, reads his defender, and takes a shot accordingly. The shot may be a basic jump hook or a spin move using the left-hand for a shot, but the field goal percentage is outstanding at 58% overall. He has great hands with a soft touch. He relies on a flip shot in the paint. In addition the post offensive post game, he’s unselfish. He finds shooters quickly and keeps the ball moving. He doesn’t have a great A/TO ratio, now at .6 to 2.3, but this isn’t out of selfishness. Post players often struggle with reading and reacting to double teams, but he shows signs of proper reads here.
He also excels at pick and roll play. He never pops out for a jumpshot, but always bumps the defender and waits for an extra second before cutting hard to the basket. The screen is what makes the pick-and-roll effective, and he’s able to finish those plays well. When team help comes early and he has no open late, he goes straight into the flash post area within 5′ from the rim, and establishes position.
While he shoots 70% from the free throw line, there’s no indication of him developing a mid-range game, high-post game, or expanding the range. He’s very reluctant to take the midrange jumpshot. Form-wise, he uses his left hand, which is unusually for a shot, but there’s no doubt he can develop the range as a set-shooter similar to Marc Gasol from the perimeter. From the high post, he is able to take a couple of dribbles and attack the basket, as long as he doesn’t change direction on the fly.
Defensively, there’s a lot of potential. He has great reach, a low post base, and agile feet. Not only can he show out on pick-and-rolls defensively and switch onto guards, but he has all the physical tools to become a solid low-post defender as well. While he lacks great leaping ability, he will rotate and cover up the painted area on dribble penetration. If there’s an advantage to not having great leaping ability, it is that he is more likely to get great rebounding position as well. The best way to describe his defensive abilities, is to liken him to Aaron Gordon of the University of Arizona. Both players slide well effectively. They are always between the opponent and the hoop. Once the shot is about to go up, the “wall-up” very well to contest the shot. What makes Nurkic different is unusually quick hands for a center. He steals post-entry passes, from pressure on the pick and roll, and even off-the-dribble against smaller players.
Rebounding ability is one of his greatest strengths. He is advanced, meaning, not only does he play physically in the paint, but he also boxes out and shows a great motor for chasing down rebounds. He uses his physical tools as a great advantage, despite not having the most explosive vertical for a center. In the Eurocup league, he averages 8 rebounds per game per-40, but in the Adriatic league, averages 13.9 rebounds per game per-40, with 4 offensive rebounds per game. That is an outstandingly high rate.
So, why is he in the late lottery? There are several things for him to work on at the NBA level. Keep in mind, that his skill level is ahead of the curve at age 19. Unfortunately, he struggles with several specific issues, mostly revolving around foul trouble and conditioning. Sometimes gambling for the steals leads to cheap fouls. His steal rate per-40 is unusually high at 3.8 a game, but those are gambles that may not work at the NBA level. Cheap fouls keep him off the floor. When players are tired, they stop moving their feet. His minutes have been limited at the European level because of his conditioning as well. Once he’s able to stay on the floor for 20-30 minutes per game, his impact one the game can be felt.
He has played organized basketball since 2009. Like Joel Embiid, he’s still relatively new to the game. As a big player, he takes on more contact than perimeter players. There are signs of immaturity by age with his reaction to foul calls on the court. He doesn’t always get them. That’s simply something that changes with a change of attitude, mindset, and experience.
Overall, he’s still a great lottery prospect. His contributions on the floor for European leagues is dense. There’s a lot of productivity within a limited amount of time. That may be a small contribution to the conditioning issues. Still, one can’t help but think of how solid, or great of an NBA player he can be once he gets it all together. Roy Hibbert wasn’t this great of a post-player coming out of Georgetown, and that is with four years of NCAA play. That is telling of Nurkic’s skill level, and how much he can carry a team on his shoulders.