When the Trail Blazers emerged from the halftime locker room last week during a dreadful performance in Sacramento, all but one of the players headed to the court to warm up.
Jusuf Nurkic, the team’s young and promising center, was the only one to avoid the court, instead plopping himself on the bench, his warm-up hoodie snug over his head.
From the court, team captain Damian Lillard took notice, and walked to Nurkic on the bench. It had been a rough half for the Blazers, and an even tougher outing for Nurkic, who at that point had more turnovers than points.
Leaning in, Lillard tousled Nurkic’s hoodie, then took a seat next to him. What would follow is another layer in what is a powerful and unique relationship between two of the team’s pillars.
“I know what it’s like to be young and counted on,’’ Lillard later explained.
The relationship is powerful in how it has impacted Nurkic.
“Damian Lillard,’’ Nurkic said, “is the best thing that has happened to me in my life.’’
And the relationship is unique in that Lillard’s mentorship is coming from an interesting perspective. When Lillard first joined the Blazers, he said he looked to star LaMarcus Aldridge for guidance and support, but was left to figure it out on his own.
It’s why Lillard describes this undertaking with Nurkic as “different” from any of his other endeavors with teammates. This one is deeply personal.
“It’s going to sound crazy,’’ Lillard said, “but it’s almost what I wish I had with LaMarcus.’’
The awkward Lillard-Aldridge dynamic has long been rumored and insinuated, but never openly discussed like Lillard did this week.
Lillard says the two never had a problem, and that Aldridge has already heard everything he says in this article. Lillard’s point in bringing up his experience with Aldridge is that it helped shape his approach in how to mentor Nurkic.
“Me and LaMarcus had a good relationship. We never had a single argument. We really got along,’’ Lillard said. “I’m just saying the stuff I want to go out of my way to do for (Nurkic), is the stuff I wish I got from LaMarcus.’’
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Aldridge’s reticence never bothered Lillard; the more he was around Aldridge, the more he understood him as an introvert, who was more comfortable leading by example than through encouragement or inspiration.
But at the same time, Lillard couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like in his early NBA years to have guidance and assurance that he was on the right path.
“I wish it was like more of a brotherhood, more of a line of communication, with me as young player and him as an All-Star,’’ Lillard said.
There was always an unmistakable unease around Aldridge and Lillard, mostly created by Aldridge’s jealousy of the attention and adulation showered upon Lillard by the fanbase and the franchise. Lilllard, who is as perceptive as he is personable, admittedly “walked on eggshells” around Aldridge, acutely aware of the elder’s sensitivity, and in hopes to avoid “stepping on his toes.”
“It wasn’t his personality (to reach out),’’ Lillard said. “But as a younger player, I came into the league wishing … and thinking he was going to take me under his wing, like his lil’ bro.”
One of those times was when Lillard was in his third year. It was the playoffs, in Memphis, and the Trail Blazers guard was struggling mightily against Mike Conley and the vaunted Grizzlies defense.
By that time, still young at 25, he had established himself as a two-time All-Star, a playoff hero, and one of the pillars of the franchise. But in this playoff series, the Grizzlies' pressure, as well as his performance, cause some rumblings inside of himself. Either Aldridge didn't sense it, or he figured Lillard had it covered, but there was no emotional support from Aldridge.
“There were times when I needed it, it just didn’t happen,’’ Lillard said. “It didn’t make me no less of a player. I figured it out. But it would have calmed things in my mind in games.’’
Lillard said in his heart, his confidence never wavered. He believed in himself and he knew he always found ways to succeed, and he figured he would again in that series. Still, he admitted he cast a hopeful eye to Aldridge, looking for assurance, advice, encouragement, an invitation to dinner ... anything. But Aldridge never bit.
“I had confidence in myself, but I wanted (Aldridge) to be like, ‘Man, let’s go eat. You are going to be good. You are going to be an All-Star,’’’ Lillard said. “I wanted him to talk to me like that … but (he didn’t).’’
The Blazers lost that Memphis series, and months later, Aldridge left the Blazers to sign a free agent contract with San Antonio. After Aldridge left, Lillard knew it was his time to lead, and he knew his leadership would be much different than Aldridge’s approach.
So when Nurkic arrived in a trade last February, stinging from his treatment in Denver, and thirsting for affirmation, Lillard saw shades of his younger self.
So he gave Nurkic what that young Lillard wanted. He gave him his attention. His knowledge. His support.
“I just know what it might be like to not have that,’’ Lillard said.
That night in Sacramento, when Lillard approached Nurkic at halftime and tousled his head while offering encouragement, didn’t end well for the Blazers or Nurkic. The lowly Kings beat Portland 86-82 while Nurkic scored just four points on 2-for-7 shooting.
But the night wasn’t over with the halftime pep talk, or the final buzzer.
“I talked to (Lillard) the whole way back on the plane,’’ Nurkic said. “The whole flight.’’
Nurkic said they talked about the Kings game. His early season struggles. What the team was going through, and what Nurkic needed to do moving forward. He said their talk was a blend of encouragement and criticism.
It has been that way from the start, Lillard both embracing Nurkic while also establishing a firm line of accountability.
In their first meeting as teammates after the February trade, Lillard in the locker room provided Nurkic with his cell phone number and a team-wide directive.
“The first thing I remember him saying is: ‘We don’t make excuses here, man,’’’ Nurkic said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I need that.’’’
Nurkic came to Portland with a somewhat sullied reputation as a pouter and malcontent with bouts of laziness. Nurkic said, if anything, he was usually quick to make excuses.
“It’s a bad habit, and habits are hard to change,’’ Nurkic said. “Probably the hardest thing to change in life is habits. If you have a bad one, it can stick with you. After he told me that, I really focused on that.’’
After Nurkic took Portland by storm last spring, and helped vault the Blazers into a late run into the playoffs, he has experienced an uneven start to this season. Some games he looks like one of the NBA’s elite centers, and others he looks unpolished and undisciplined.
Through the ups and downs, Lillard has been able to study Nurkic and know the right buttons to push.
Nurkic says he texts Lillard often, and earlier in the season after a rocky opening trip, Lillard could sense through those messages that Nurkic was experiencing some doubt. Lillard put him at ease, telling him he would make sure he was more involved in the offense. He also told him to stop over-thinking the game.
“He reminded me it’s just a game,’’ Nurkic said. "That it's supposed to be fun.''
The next night, Nurkic played freely and was dominant in a win over the Lakers, finishing with 28 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists. After the game, he credited his resurgence to having fun again, and thanked Lillard and CJ McCollum for helping guide him through his lulls.
It has not been all hugs and pats on the back, though.
When Nurkic was forced to the bench just 1:24 into the game after picking up two fouls at home against Memphis, Lillard spit daggers.
Nurkic chuckled at the memory.
“After I got the two quick fouls, he was (lowers his voice to mimic Lillard) ‘Come on Nurk, man. You have to be smarter than this,’’’ Nurkic said. “He comes at me hard. Which is good.’’
Later, in a home game against Brooklyn, a tiring Nurkic blew a defensive assignment, and Lillard snapped at him.
“He started telling me ‘why this, and well that, and he this …,’’ Lillard remembered. “He started coming with excuses and I told him, ‘I ain’t trying to hear that (expletive). Do what you are supposed to do. We depend on you.’’’
And during Monday’s win at Memphis, Lillard stood in the middle of a third-quarter timeout huddle to demonstratively lecture Nurkic, holding up coach Terry Stotts’ address to the team.
Nurkic says he welcomes that type of feedback because he trusts Lillard and knows he has his – and the team’s – best interests at heart.
“There’s no lying. That’s the best part about him,’’ Nurkic said. “He’s straight and he will tell you. For me, that’s like a dream come true. To have a superstar in the league as a leader, a friend and a teammate – all of those ways – it leads me to be a better person, better teammate and better player.’’
The first time Lillard and Nurkic met, it was not friendly.
It was last November, at the Moda Center, when Nurkic was with the Nuggets, and the two had a slight dustup on the court.
The two teams had played the week before in Denver, and after Lillard led a late comeback that included the game-winner, he made a passing judgment on what was then Denver’s foreign tandem of big men, Nurkic and Nikola Jokic.
“These two big dudes in Denver,’’ Lillard remembers thinking, “they might be soft a little bit.’’
But on this night in the Moda Center, Nurkic was fouled by Blazers center Mason Plumlee. As Nurkic went to the free throw line, Lillard went to talk to Plumlee, and his path crossed Nurkic. The Bosnian center nudged Lillard, who squared and pushed Nurkic in the chest.
“He bumped me, and I pushed him, and we said something to each other,’’ Lillard said.
The player he thought was soft left an impression.
“I remember thinking, ‘Ah, this dude … there’s a little something to him,’’’ Lillard said.
Three months later, Nurkic was walking through the Blazers’ locker room doors for the first time. He locked eyes with Lillard and tapped his wrist, aping Lillard’s signature “Dame Time” move.
“I had read what people said about him, that he had a bad attitude … but when we first got him, he was like a big teddy bear,’’ Lillard said.
Soon, he saw how Nurkic played. It was unselfish and skilled. Then he saw how enthusiastic and positive Nurkic was as a teammate, often the first one off the bench to cheer a teammate.
“After that first game in Utah, I thought ‘if we can get the most out of this guy, we could be pretty good,’’’ Lillard said.
So he watched him. And counseled him. And he noticed signs that reminded him of how he felt as a 23-year-old player. It sparked memories of the void he felt with Aldridge.
“With Nurk, I know how good he is, how good he could be, I know what he means to the team, so I don’t want to let that opportunity slip,’’ Lillard said. “I don’t want him to feel any less important. I don’t want to be like (sucks teeth) ‘he good enough he will figure it out.’
“I want to help him figure it out and let him know I’m a supporter,’’ Lillard said. “If I want the best for this team, I feel like it’s my job to support him, but also hold him accountable.’’
Nurkic says he not only sees, and hears, Lillard’s leadership, he feels it.
“I definitely feel it. I definitely feel it. I’ve never had somebody like this, somebody like Dame,’’ Nurkic said. “He is there for me, no matter if I’m good or bad. He is an amazing person, and he will make me better.’’