Throughout this Trail Blazers season, an important development has been unfolding on the sidelines: the coaching of Jusuf Nurkic by Terry Stotts.
In probably one of his more dogged and pointed undertakings in his six seasons as coach of the Blazers, Stotts this season has been relentless in his pursuit of excellence from the 23-year-old center.
“I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in practice. In huddles. He will get after him,’’ Damian Lillard said.
Stotts acknowledged that this season, and in particular the past two months, he has taken great effort to reach Nurkic.
“I think I’ve probably given him more attention than other guys,’’ Stotts said.
Sometimes it has been through film study. Sometimes it has been with a sharp reminder. And a few times, it has been a reduction in Nurkic’s minutes.
In all, Nurkic doesn’t dispute that Stotts has been hard on him.
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“He should,’’ Nurkic said. “I’m 23 years old. I’m still growing up. In basketball, it’s my fourth year, and almost like my second in the NBA. It’s a learning process for me.’’
Lillard, who does his own share of mentoring Nurkic, has watched Stotts deal with Nurkic with a curious eye. He says what Stotts has done with Nurkic underscores the most “underrated” facet of Stotts’ coaching – the ability to get the most out of a player.
“With Nurk, (Stotts) might raise his voice a bit, but it’s never like embarrassing him, or saying ‘That was soft!’" Lillard said. “It’s more, ‘Nurk! You are better than that!’ … or ‘Stop doing that! We need you to go up strong!’ And it’s stuff Nurk needs to hear at times.’’
For how dominating Nurkic can be – such as Monday, when he had 27 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in the Blazers’ win over Miami – he can also be frustrating.
Throughout the season, he has forgotten plays. Missed a bevy of close-range shots. And drifted mentally.
Nurkic said in his past – his first two seasons in Denver – those types of transgressions were met with benchings and the silent treatment.
With Stotts, they have been met with stern lectures that are centered around teaching.
“I never have a coaching experience like his personality,’’ Nurkic said. “I’ve never had a coach who has trusted me that much … I had a coach before (Denver’s Mike Malone) who never talked to me or play me; now I have a coach who talk to me about every play, and in the film room with me, to work on the stuff I need. He shows me how I can be better. That’s what it is all about.’’
It is at the core of Stotts’ coaching philosophy: teaching through positive reinforcement and challenging in a positive, rather than negative, manner.
“I don’t like to over-coach players,’’ Stotts said. “I think they get a lot of information from different people – other players, agents, their families – so I try to be to-the-point and helpful.’’
But make no mistake, Lillard says, Stotts challenges Nurkic. Stotts this season has probably been as forceful and pointed as he has been with a player in Portland, outside of Meyers Leonard. Lillard smiles when thinking about Stotts’ tactics with Nurkic, because he knows the perception is that Stotts is always Mr. Nice Guy.
“It’s underrated about Coach Stotts, because he is such a nice dude,’’ Lillard said. “Like, he’s not always screaming and being angry – you see him smiling and being happy all the time. But I think it’s underrated that he is willing to get it out of you.’’
Stotts, however, points out that it all starts with the player. A coach can push and prod all he wants, but ultimately it is up to the player.
“And I give Nurk credit,’’ Stotts said. “He has put in a lot of work with our assistants and in having a serious approach to improving. It always starts with the player.’’
But with Nurkic, there appears to be a key to unlocking his talents, as evidenced by his rocky time in Denver. Lillard says he thinks there is a certain way to handle the 7-footer and Stotts has found it with coaching that blends a nurturing style with moments of cracking the whip.
“I think we’ve all learned that Nurk will respond (to criticism); he doesn’t get in his feelings and all that stuff,’’ Lillard said. “So Coach, he understands that Nurk has the ability to float sometimes, and if you get on him, he will give you something. Coach is good about things like that – not being constantly on a guy’s back, but if something needs to be said, he will definitely say it.’’
Probably the most concrete coaching moment came around the All-Star Break, when the staff restructured his shooting workouts, which had devolved into a series of nonchalant and finesse shots. Nurkic says there is a new rule: He can only practice shots he will take in the game.
“It’s about getting away from the flip shots and staying in control,’’ Stotts said. “Him taking the time to steady himself and get game-like shots. And he has worked hard at it. That work he has put in is starting to pay off now.’’
Since the All-Star Break, Nurkic has seen improvement in every category: his shooting percentage has improved from 48 percent to 55 percent. His scoring from 14.1 to 15.0 and his rebounding from 8.2 to 10.3.
“If we can get that from him,’’ Lillard says, “we are a different team.’’
Nurkic says that point – his importance to the Blazers - has been one of the main themes Stotts has hammered home to him throughout the season.
“Just to point (out) how much I know this team needs me,’’ Nurkic said. “Everybody knows. My teammates they really know how much I can bring. So when I’m at my best, we have a great chance to win.’’
The scary part is Nurkic says he still has room to improve. And Lillard says with the way Stotts is pushing Nurkic’s buttons – by both being demanding but nurturing – that improvement will come.
“Once somebody like him sees they really believe in me, and that Coach is getting on him but it’s ‘You are better than that’ … he feels the love,’’ Lillard said. “He not crazy. He’s one of those guys who if he feels the love and he knows you want the best for him, he’s going to give you everything he’s got.’’