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Does Jusuf Nurkic need to be better?

The Suns big man is playing within a narrow role, but he’s not exactly thriving.

In-Season Tournament - Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Nobody ever expected Jusuf Nurkic to be a star for the Phoenix Suns.

The 29-year-old Bosnian big man came to the Suns as part of a deal to essentially replace one of the most polarizing players in franchise history, former #1 overall draft pick Deandre Ayton. But whereas Ayton was projected as a generational talent expected to star for the Suns, Nurkic is viewed as a role player only rarely asked to be even a tertiary scoring option.

That said...Nurkic isn’t exactly killing it this season, even by his more modest standards.

There’s a fairly strong statistical case to be made that he’s having his worst season since the 2016-17 campaign, which saw him traded mid-season from Denver to Portland. His 54.5% true shooting percentage (as of Dec. 7) is close to bang on for his career, but disappointing in the context that he was at close to 59% for the past two seasons. His rebounding per 100 possessions is at 16.1, below his career average of 17.4.

So where is Nurkic going wrong from last year? Well, he’s shooting quite poorly from the two most important spots: up close and from downtown.

Last year, Nurkic shot about 65% inside of three feet. This season, he’s at 57%. Last season, Nurkic shot about 36% from beyond the arc. This year, he’s at 26%. His shooting from those two ranges represents about 70% of his total shooting, so to be substantially down in both places is not great.

There’s an argument to be made that Nurkic doesn’t really need to be better. His splits in wins and losses are very comparable, just about 12/9/4 in both scenarios. His TS% in losses is 53%, in wins it is 56%. That’s a little something, but not a lot in a shooter at this volume.

The on/off data, albeit a fairly small sample at this point in the season, also suggests that the Suns are a better offense with Nurkic on the floor and a better defense too. To be fair, that could also be a function off the Suns’ bench too.

But what about the future? NBA championships are often won on the edge of a knife. I don’t think any Suns fan legitimately thinks the Suns are so good as to be one of those powerhouse teams that is going to power through the postseason losing only two or three games en route to the championship.

In tight, high-stakes games, having a big who can be efficient in his limited offensive usage could be key. Without that, there is even more pressure on the Suns’ primary scorers to be ultra-efficient from all over the floor. Most recent NBA champions (the Nuggets being a notable exception) have featured centers who were not leading scorers for their teams but were fairly efficient scorers. Kevon Looney with Golden State. Brook Lopez in Milwaukee.

In the end, criticism of Nurkic’s scoring feels like picking a nit. He’s not here to be a bucket getter and the “problem” (such that it is), is likely being magnified by the injuries to expected leading scorers that the Suns have already struggled with in this season.

But I can’t help but feel it might be that little thing that tips the scales at the wrong time. I’d like to think I’m being entirely paranoid. I suppose time will tell.

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