The Denver Nuggets are a team seemingly on the rise. Thanks to some savvy trades and high-value draft selections, there’s no lack of young and intriguing talent on the roster. Guys like Emmanual Mudiay, Gary Harris, Juancho Hernangomez, Nikola Jokic, and Jamal Murray give Nuggets fans plenty to be excited about, but there’s one young player who has seemed to have fallen out of the minds of Nuggets fans and media alike.
Due to injuries, attitude concerns, and the stellar play of Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic saw his spotlight fade throughout the course of his sophomore season. Thanks to an offseason of health and hard work, and on the heels of a very impressive preseason, Nurkic looks poised to bounce back in a big way for the 2016-2017 season.
In the midst of a turbulent 2014-2015 season, Jusuf Nurkic burst onto the scene for Brian Shaw’s Nuggets. His intensity and passion for the game endeared him to Nuggets fans almost immediately. His performance on the court, while marred with the type of inconsistency you’d expect from a young big man, was also chock full of strong play, particularly on defense. Nurkic forced himself into the starting lineup, amassing 27 starts en route to making the All-Rookie 2nd team. Memorable showings against Marc Gasol and Demarcus Cousins had Nuggets fans salivating at his potential. Things were looking very good for Jusuf Nurkic.
Coming off of his strong rookie season, Nurkic learned of a partially torn patella tendon in his left knee. His surgery in May of 2015 meant that he’d be spending his first NBA offseason rehabbing. Nurkic continued to recover from his injury throughout the first two months of the 2015-2016 season, finally returning to in-game action in January against the Warriors. His time away from the game had clearly affected him, as his efficiency numbers plummeted: his shooting percentages in January and February were 34% and 38%, abhorrent numbers for an NBA big man. He also struggled to find consistent minutes, averaging less than 15 mpg for both months. As February came to a close, Nurkic found himself riding the bench amidst reports of behind-the-scenes issues between him and Nuggets head coach Michael Malone.
But as the 2015-2016 season came to a close, something seemed to click for Nurkic. His intensity and passion returned and he saw drastic increases in minutes, averaging 19.9 minutes per game in March and 25.6 minutes per game in April. While Nurkic’s efficiency on offense still left a lot to be desired, his defensive presence returned in a big way for the Nuggets.
Nurkic rode this momentum into the offseason, losing 35 pounds of bad weight and putting forth a strong showing for Bosnia and Herzegovina in Eurobasket qualifying. He continued his strong play throughout the NBA preseason. Starting all 7 games he played in during the preseason, Nurkic averaged 12.6 points and 10.7 rebounds per game, solid offensive numbers when paired with the excellent interior defense that has become Nurkic’s calling card. While his efficiency on the offensive side of the ball still leaves a lot to be desired, Nurkic has clearly rounded back into the form that made him such an exciting rookie.
With a pair of talented young big men in Nurkic and Jokic, Michael Malone will need to be creative in how he gets both of them on the court. They spent much of the preseason along side each other in the Nuggets frontcourt, providing mixed results. If the two can co-exist on the court, it will make Malone’s job much easier.
Either way, one thing is clear: It’s time to get excited about Jusuf Nurkic again.