It is the word that Mat Ishbia and James Jones used on Phoenix Suns Media Day when referencing the acquisition of Jusuf Nurkic from the Portland Trail Blazers in late September. While their outgoing center surely possessed great physical attributes and abilities, what they were looking for in return was someone who excelled at using his mind; someone with a high basketball IQ.
On Thursday night at the Moda Center in Portland, we witnessed that vision in action.
I know, I know, it is only the preseason. There is only so much you can take away from a performance that technically doesn’t count. This isn’t the NFL preseason, however, and the offense isn’t playing against a vanilla defense attempting to avoid tipping their hand, knowing their season is only 18 games long. This is the NBA and players are competing whilst learning on the fly to find the nuances of each other’s games. For a team that has 13 new faces, these games are chemistry builders.
In other words: don’t you take this one from me!
All eyes were on the battle between Jusuf Nurkic and Deandre Ayton. Finesse vs. physical, talent vs. skill, ability vs. intellect. Ayton reminded us early on that he possesses the former traits, out jumping Nurk right from the tip and athletically pogo-sticking over Nurkic for rebounds. A thunderous slam was the exclamation point for Ayton who appeared to be focused and determined to make his former team feel his domination.
DA excelled for his team and as the first quarter came to a close, Phoenix trailed 40-37. I’m sure Frank Vogel will have some things to talk about with his team at their next practice. The former Sun had a quality start to the game in front of 17,000 at the Moda Center.
As the second began, so too did the clinic of “fit” for Nurkic. Like a microburst during a monsoon, the Suns offense began to click on all cylinders, and Jusuf Nurkic was at the heart of the storm.
A rebound turned into a touchdown pass as Nurk hit KD running a post pattern down the court. 2 points. 20 feet from the basket, he allowed Kevin Durant to curl on a dribble hand off, hitting him as he cut into the lane. 2 points. From the same spot KD faked the dribble hand off and cut backdoor along the baseline. Nurk hit him in stride. 2 points.
Play after play, the Bosnian Beast was manipulating the defense and finding their weaknesses.
This is *it* right here, in a big reason Nurkic is valued— Stephen PridGeon ☯️ (@StayTrueSDot3) October 13, 2023
Suns catch the Blazers now at the level on Booker, to which Booker hits the short-roll & Nurkic is right at home
Excellent cut from Little to burn the help underneath, in the advantage, & look who's *wide* open pic.twitter.com/Obprwrm0VA
His teammates benefited as they found themselves wide open with the ball in their hands. All they had to do was square their shoulders and hit their shot. They did. Phoenix went 15-of-28 in the second quarter, including 5-of-10 from beyond the arc, ending the quarter on a 25-5 run. They entered the locker room up 19 points.
Nurkic had 8 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 assists in that second quarter, finishing his night with 21 minutes played, 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. DA? His second quarter was one that saw the Suns attack him on defense, forcing him to think and react simultaneously. He was 1-of-1 in Q2 with 3 rebounds. The second quarter disappearing act, something we’ve experienced time and again, led to Blazers fans asking in their sub-Reddit, “why aren’t they getting Ayton the ball”.
The victory laps ensued.
Jusuf Nurkic vs. Deandre Ayton tonight (in one half):— Suns Are Better (@SunsAreBetter) October 13, 2023
Nurkic: 17 PTS, 8 REB, 5 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK, 83.3% TS%
Ayton: 5 PTS, 5 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK 51.2% TS%
It’s official. The Suns won the trade. pic.twitter.com/84Wy9H0QO4
Is it too early to have a verdict in the case between Nurkic and Ayton? Absolutely. Thursday night was ‘Exhibit A’ in an ongoing discussion that will occur throughout the season and beyond. The reactions from the Phoenix faithful were a culmination of frustration experienced over the past five seasons. Even the Ayton stans were denouncing him like St. Peter before the rooster crows.
We were reminded rather quickly by the Blazers fans in our lives (if you don’t have one, get one. They’re fun and they know basketball) that what we witnessed was an anomaly for Nurkic. He isn’t normally that engaged offensively. Yes, he can pass, but don’t expect it to look so “Jokic-esque”.
Again, don’t you take this from me.
Perhaps they are right, that this is only the preseason and the fluidity we witnessed is the exception rather than the rule. Maybe he was amped up in returning to Rip City and in the arena in which he played for seven seasons. But I don’t believe that to be the case. Booker and Durant have both commented on Jusuf’s basketball IQ and how it excels their ability to be effective on offense.
Point Nurkic? Even the big man joked on Media Day how that is what Booker is expecting from him this season knowing that he has the ability to be a precise distributor of the basketball. It might be only preseason, but what Nurkic did in the first half is something that his counterpart did only 11 times in 348 games while in Phoenix. He recorded five assists.
Jusuf Nurkic, albeit in a preseason game, had 5 assists in 21 minutes played.— John Voita (@DarthVoita) October 13, 2023
Deandre Ayton, in 348 regular season/postseason games had 5 or more assists 11 times (3% of games).
None of us are sure what to expect in the long term with Nurkic, but if the second quarter on Thursday night is any preview, James Jones’ decision to acquire “fit” is clearly the correct one. Having a center who can dissect opposing defenses and is surrounded by Booker, Beal, and Durant is yet another wrinkle that makes Phoenix extremely difficult to defend.
You’re not taking from me how I felt in the second quarter watching the Suns click. Like the first quarter against Detroit, Phoenix can build a lead on you and do so in the blink of an eye. It’s something we should expect throughout the season: offensive onslaughts in which the ball is popping around, finding shooters’ hands, and tickling the twine as it goes through the cylinder.
Beautiful basketball with Point Nurk impacting the game. I’m here for it.