When the Phoenix Suns obtained Jusuf Nurkic from the Portland Trail Blazers, we were told it was due to “fit”. With 9 years of NBA experience, coming into the league at 20 years old in 2014-15 for a troubled post-George Karl team coached by Brian Shaw, the Bosnian Beast found himself in a situation that allotted plenty of opportunity. The 16th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft played in 62 games as a rookie and earned All-Rookie Second Team honors.
Throughout his career Nurkic has had to morph and adapt to new coaches and systems. In his rookie season the Nuggets moved on from Brian Shaw after 59 games and put Melvin Hunt in charge. The following season, Michael Malone began his coaching tenure in the Mile High City. Nurk was traded to the Blazers in 2017 where Terry Stotts was the head coach. That would change in 2021 when Chauncey Billups took the reins.
The change has created a player who has the ability to adjust his style of the play to that of the system that has been implemented. Denver deployed a balanced run-and-run attack that relied on their youth to outlast the competition. The young center from Tuzla averaged 6.9 points and 6.2 rebounds his rookie year as Denver tried, unsuccessfully, to outpace the competition.
His days in Portland, where he played with Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Anfernee Simons, were guard-centric offenses in which Jusuf would score in the paint. That morphed as Billups took charge and Nurkic was asked to spread the floor. In his first season with the Blazers, Nurkic took 7 three-pointers. Last season that number ballooned to 119.
Now with Phoenix, Nurkic brings with him a desire to do what it takes to help his team win and basketball experience that is impressing those around him.
“Love his IQ for the game,” Kevin Durant said after practice on Friday. “His physicality. Somebody that’s been around. He’s played in different systems as well. HIs IQ for the game is high. Our chemistry is going to get better with each rep. These practices are important for us.”
It’s a phrase that you hear repeatedly throughout training camp. Basketball IQ. He understands the game, where he should be, where his teammates should be, and how to execute. His passing abilities and court vision has Devin Booker referring to him as the team’s point guard.
Jusuf Nurkic said Devin Booker joked to him that he's the point guard of the team now. Nurkic is looking forward to opening things up for the Big 3 with his screening and passing. Added Vogel is the main thing he's the most excited for with the move, to push him defensively.— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) October 2, 2023
This is where that word “fit” returns to the conversation. We know that Phoenix will be running sets without a traditional point guard, as Bradley Beal and Devin Booker will be the catalysts on the offensive side of the ball. Nurkic’s basketball IQ, however, will add a lethal wrinkle to a team with elite talent on the roster.
“He can read a play before it develops,” Booker observed. “He can be the secondary point guard too if a team traps me and he plays in that pocket. It’s a clean exchange.”
Nurkic isn’t simply using his God-given natural physical abilities to contribute on offense, he’s using his experience and cerebellum to dissect defense in real time. Using the adaptability he has had to rely on throughout his career, Jusuf is providing something Phoenix has lacked. It creates chaos for opposing defenses.
“He’s a beast. He can play make. His IQ for a big is off the charts,” Booker added. “And he talks. He communicates with you. Somebody that you know knows the game like that — knows rotations, knows how to play. I listen to him and I try to implement it.”
We’ll see it in action on Sunday afternoon as the Suns head to Detroit to play former head coach Monty Williams and the Pistons.