The Phoenix Suns have not been shy this offseason to say the least. Starting the period with firing long-term head coach Monty Williams after a disappointing second-round exit against the eventual champion Denver Nuggets, trading Chris Paul and co. for superstar Bradley Beal which started a complete roster overhaul, Mat Ishbia implementing his control in granting future plans for the team including a brand new G-League team, and now the patented Deandre Ayton trade.
We all knew this trade was coming eventually, but it was still a shock when it happened especially since it helped facilitate a deal that sent arguably one of the best shooters of all time to the Suns’ recent nemesis in the Milwaukee Bucks. However, for Suns fans, the most pressing outcome of this trade resulted in former number one pick and franchise center Deandre Ayton becoming a Trailblazer alongside newest rookie Toumani Camara who showed flashes of being a good rotational player in summer league.
Now what did the Suns get out of this besides the end of a saga that now has Devin Booker as the only remaining player from the not-so-long-ago 2021 NBA Finals? Phoenix as the third team in the Lillard Blockbuster received veteran center Jusuf Nurkic along with Nassir Little & Keon Johnson from Portland. The Suns also received the notoriously criticized Grayson Allen, which I will talk more about in a future article. I am actually thrilled the Suns are acquiring Allen who will bring a similar tenacity that has been missing to a Jae Crowder while being a phenomenal shooter and starting 70 games for the Eastern Conference contender Milwaukee Bucks.
However, this piece is about Jusuf Nurkic, and how his talents will mesh into the Suns winning their first championship for The Valley. To preface, I think it is important to address the concerns with Nurkic at this point in his career and consider his injury history. The skillset he brings to the team though is undisputedly unique and will serve as a brilliant complement to the elite scoring trio of Devin Booker, Kevin Durant, and Bradley Beal. The front office thought so as well, with Arizona Sports’ John Gambadoro reporting their interest in Nurkic by using Ayton as the asset to land him in the desert:
Let me address some of the Deandre Ayton rumors. The Suns have not been willing to move DA all summer because they think he fits well and there were no offers that would change that. If Nurkic was on the table I would be surprised if the Suns didn't look into it because an— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) September 21, 2023
No one is discrediting the talent of Deandre Ayton, and he will prove how skilled of a player he is as one (if not) the top option in Portland. However, one common flaw that Suns fans have endured is his inability to make reads out of the post on time. When used as a security blanket, Ayton could not adapt enough to being able to know where he was on the floor to either put the ball up or dish it off to a shooter. Nurkic on the other hand does not have that issue and excels at that whether it is out of a PNR set or out of the post. It probably did not hurt that he started his career in Denver where he was in the same class as the premier big-man playmaker in MVP Nikola Jokic.
Taking a look strictly at the numbers, they do not fly off the page in terms of playmaking with sitting around 2 and a half assists on his career. However, Nurkic’s skill in making reads certainly passes the eye test. I can pretend I know half the terminology involved with various sets and why specifically Nurkic excels in with hitting cutters and being the screener in these situations, or I can link the Twitter thread made by the uber-talented basketball guru in David from the IV Point Play.
A challenge PHX face this season is to build an offense that maximizes the 3 stars. One that doesn't result in guys just standing around & becoming easier to guard.— David (@theIVpointplay) September 28, 2023
I think you will notice a considerable difference with the Nurkic trade in assisting with that.
Here's SNAP. pic.twitter.com/j7Z3R0M2gh
Pretty easy to see here the appeal the self-proclaimed “Bosnian Beast” can have on this team as a facilitator when you plug in some of the Suns’ talent in these clips. The Suns have run a ton of these elevator sets and DHOs in the past, so it will be intriguing to have the newly upgraded roster filled with savvy vets and elevated wingspan athletes (not to mention the top 3) cutting off of Nurkic screens and post-touches.
Taking a look at the PNR success of Nurkic’s PG (and newest Buck) Damian Lillard last year, it is easy to see that the duo was effective with Lillard being in the 94th percentile in success rate according to NBA.com. Now moving to a team with more than enough capable ball-handlers who can make the right decisions off a screen, I do not see this change in personnel being a major problem.
Nurkic was highly regarded as one of the NBA’s elite paint defenders before a couple of external events occurred that affected his overall production. The first is the aforementioned elephant in the room, with suffered a broken leg back during the 2019-2020 season. The next is the firing of Terry Stotts, and bringing in current Portland head coach Chauncey Billups who completely revamped their defensive scheme which included Nurkic’s role being altered.
What is interesting is that it seems that the injury did not affect Nurkic’s effectiveness as a defender, and he jumped from the 72nd percentile in league-wide efficiency in 2018-19 to the 81st in the year after returning from the injury. In the two years of post-Billups hiring, Nurkic was 55th and 37th respectively. However, it is also important to consider that overall team performance plummeted and the newer scheme had Nurkic guarding the perimeter at a higher clip instead of being more of a paint specialist and anchor on defense.
Bringing up Deandre Ayton again, you do have to give him a ton of credit for the versatility he displayed in his years in Phoenix. However, even he showed major signs of regressions which could be attributed to many things including a change of personnel and many intangibles that we do not have to go into at this moment.
Looking at the facts, however, Nurkic is a 7ft, 290 LBS player who knows his role and how to contribute to playoff basketball playing in 16 career games. Also, this is not a guarantee, but you have to think any engagement issues or not seeming “locked-in” goes out the window with a strict coaching staff and playing with three superstars that have the common goal of winning a chip for their legacies and the city of Phoenix at all cost.
Having Frank Vogel in town is also a major plus and will be a real indicator that Nurkic still has what it takes to anchor a championship-caliber team. The lack of pressure with defense provided at each of the other positions and an upgrade of defensive-minded wings/bigs such as Keita-Bates Diop and Drew Eubanks will allow him to focus on paint protection and rim deterrence. See the below Tweet for confirmation on the Suns’ plans for Nurkic (also shoutout to Gambo for being extremely accurate not only locally, but nationally as well).
Vogel needs a defensive minded Center to build his defense around and Nurkic does fit that mold. This would be contingent on a Lillard trade and I expect do expect that to happen very very soon.— John Gambadoro (@Gambo987) September 21, 2023
Although this is not a specialty for Nurk, at least having a capable three-point shot especially on pick-and-pop situations and trail threes could add another layer of potency to the Suns’ offense. Going back to DA, there were times when he showed flashes of potential from beyond the arc but never presented enough volume to make it a consistent part of the offense. In addition, just based on visuals alone, Nurkic looks way more comfortable firing from three having more fluid shooting mechanics than Ayton did.
Jusuf Nurkic shot a respectable 36% from three last year on 2.3 attempts per game, which is about where the Suns would need it to have defenses respect the look and open up the offense even more. Especially with the amount of elite mid-range shooters on the squad already, having an additional defender out on the perimeter to account for the big could open up even more opportunities to operate within the 15-22 foot range. See the below Twitter clip for a glimpse of how this could look:
This video perfectly encapsulates why James Jones traded for Jusuf Nurkic.— Xin Varlock (@XinNBA) September 30, 2023
Three point shooting ✅
Outlet passing ✅
Aggressive post ups ✅
Boxing out ✅ pic.twitter.com/hTNBPw4pHS
Again, it would be unwise to make this a major part of the offense, but just alluding to the fact that this is yet another way the Suns can make you pay is beneficial to the team. We can just chalk this up to additional scare factor points, but something to know in the back of your mind when you see Nurkic pulling threes this season.
Although this is pretty obvious, a ton of the reason why the Suns did this deal is overall fit and to move off the talents of Deandre Ayton. A major part of this is that the Suns were searching for someone to be able to embrace their role as an anchor and be a self-starter without necessarily being fed the rock a ton to get going. I do realize there are concerns for that with Nurkic, but I want to chalk most of that up to the situation as he was on a team stuck in basketball purgatory. It was no secret that Lillard would eventually want out (as much as he convinced the league he was staying) as well as the rebuild was firmly underway bringing in the next generation of Trailblazers such as Shaedon Sharpe and most recently Scoot Henderson.
This could by default be an addition-by-subtraction situation, but also I believe Phoenix believes Nurkic could be the ideal starting center for this roster to help maximize the roster. Sure there are plenty of risks in downgrading talent on paper, but there are a ton of things that Nurk does better than DA including rim protection and playmaking for example. This trade will provide better insight into how the new Suns can operate with an entirely different look at center (not to mention Devin Booker can finally have another option to utilize).
Any Suns fans who have watched within the last few years can also attribute to seeing the offense flow just a little better when the Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky of the world were in the game, in which Nurkic matches the mold of these players more than a Deandre Ayton. It is not a lock, but it will be extremely interesting to monitor Nurkic’s fit throughout the season.
Besides of course this previous season with Nikola Jokic leading his Nuggets to their first championship (in what I got to witness in full jealousy being in Denver), the starting centers for championship teams have not been flashy, and players that just know their roles and how to add the most value possible to their teams (Kevon Looney (2022), Brook Lopez (2021), Dwight Howard (2020), Marc Gasol (2019).
Just something to note and a lot of this does not matter as much in a new positionless basketball era. However, as we have seen in situations such as the Brooklyn Nets, fit can be more significant to winning than talent alone.
With all of this being said, I am extremely excited to have the Bosnian Beast in The Valley and think he brings an entirely new skill set to the team that can synergize well with the talent around him. It is also now officially basketball month, and the only thing scarier than Halloween is the trio of Book, KD, and Beal ready to wreak havoc on the rest of the league.