25-under-25: Jusuf Nurkic at No. 13

PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 22: Jusuf Nurkic
PORTLAND, OR - APRIL 22: Jusuf Nurkic /

The Step Back is rolling out its 25-under-25 list over the next two days. Follow along with our rankings of the top 25 players under the age of 25.

Jusuf Nurkic became something of a folk hero in the NBA universe during his rookie year. His bruising style, flare and showmanship instantly made him a fun personality to follow. After a promising start to his career, however, he took a big step back in 2016.

Nurkic missed most of that season with nagging injuries. When he did play, he was mostly ineffective on both ends of the floor. The emergence of Nikola Jokic was a big factor in his stagnation. The Nuggets frontcourt rotation became jumbled and their bigs didn’t exactly complement one another. The Bosnian’s struggles continued into the 2017 season, until the Nuggets decided to trade him for Miles Plumlee.

And what a comeback Nurkic made in the second half of the season. A change of scenery made all the difference for him. When he escaped the rotational limbo of Denver’s frontcourt, he became a completely new player. He went on a 20 game rampage in Portland, helping the struggling Blazers successfully push for the playoffs. If the Blazers had not traded for Nurkic in February, he might still be languishing on the Nuggets bench. Going to the Blazers and stepping into a starting role gave Nurkic a chance to continue his growth unimpeded.

Nurkic settled in at the No.13 spot in our 25 under 25 rankings, just above fellow bigs Steven Adams and Andre Drummond. If the 20 game stretch he put together before sustaining a fracture in his right leg is a harbinger of things to come, that ranking seems legit. In Portland, he flashed a nuanced game we had never seen in Denver. He demonstrated improvement across the board, dishing assists at a career-high rate, grabbing heaps of rebounds and showing off a soft touch around the basket.

He also showcased his underrated post-up game. During his time in Portland, Nurkic converted post-ups at a rate of 0.93 points per possession. That mark fell within in the 60th percentile of the league, which is solid. He got fouled at a high rate on post plays and often made some good passing reads from the block as well. Nurkic is not a fantastic rim protector, but he’s by far the best player the Blazers have in that role. He helped Portland’s defense go from disastrous to plain bad when he was on the floor, which is a significant accomplishment.

Nurkic’s on/off numbers with Portland reflect his effectiveness and his positive impact on the team. The Blazers outscored opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. On/off numbers obviously contain a lot of statistical noise, but Portland finished with a slightly negative net rating for the season without him on the court.

We saw how valuable Nurkic was to the Blazers when he missed most of Portland’s brief playoff run. The Warriors didn’t light the world on fire from 3-point land in the series until Game 4; they were getting whatever they wanted within the arc and at the rim against Portland’s creaky defense. They also won the rebound battle against Portland in three out of four games. Nurkic obviously wouldn’t have swung what was an impossible series for Portland, but he could have helped cover up some of the Blazers’ biggest weaknesses.

Comparing Nurkic to other young big men on this list is an interesting exercise. Drummond is a much better rebounder and finisher at the rim than Nurkic, but the Bosnian sensation has surpassed Drummond in just about every other facet of the game. While Nurkic is not as good as Adams on defense, his offensive game is far more advanced. Choosing between the three players in the abstract is probably a matter of personal preference. Even so, Nurkic seems to have the most well rounded game.

Nurkic is not in the same league as Porzingis, Jokic, Towns and Embiid of course. On any given night, though, he can hang with any of those guys. Just ask Jokic, whom Nurkic punked back in March. In that game Nurkic dominated the paint and exacted revenge on his former team by eliminating them from playoff contention.

Next: 25-under-25 -- The best young players in the NBA

Nurkic made big strides last season, and earned his way to the 13th spot on this list. With a full offseason as part of the Blazers, he’ll have time to get even more familiar with their schemes and strategies. Let’s hope he takes another big step in the right direction this coming season.