MILWAUKEE – Of all the good things that emerged during the Trail Blazers’ opening trip – and there were many – the play of center Jusuf Nurkic was curiously not among them.
Considered one of the pillars of the Blazers’ foundation alongside Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, Nurkic was perhaps the team’s only unsteady element during an encouraging 2-1 trip to open the season.
If he wasn’t struggling with foul trouble or turnovers, Nurkic was missing close-range shots, or getting beat to rebounds, a frustrating and puzzling combination that came to a head when his driving attempt to win Saturday’s game at Milwaukee was blocked at the rim by Giannis Antetokounmpo in the final seconds.
“I must be better, and I’m going to be,’’ Nurkic said. “It just takes time.’’
Why Nurkic feels he needs time is unclear. He was brimming with bravado
after a summer when he lost 34 pounds, and a training camp where he learned the Blazers’ full playbook. He followed that up with a promising preseason.
But in the first three games he has looked unsettled. He has been rattled by contact, beaten to rebounds, and unpolished inside, which has left him either complaining to officials or shaking his head in frustration on the court.
“I think obviously he is trying to figure some things out,’’ McCollum said.
Nurkic is averaging 13.0 points and 8.0 rebounds while hitting 16-of-37 shots (43.2 percent). He has six assists and 13 turnovers.
Lillard agreed that Nurkic was “having a little bit of a hard time” and excused it as only three games and perhaps a scheduling anomaly.
“We’ve been playing a little bit faster pace, and a lot of that has to do with first three teams played – (the opponents) play a faster pace so it’s been up and down,’’ Lillard said. “So it hasn’t been much throw it to him on the block. He’s been setting a lot more screens and running back (on defense) … it’s been a lot more fast paced than it was when he first got here.’’
Lillard also noted that Nurkic is processing a full playbook compared to last season, when Nurkic was given an abridged version after arriving from Denver in a February trade for the season’s final 20 games.
“It’s a lot of thinking for him right now,’’ LIllard said.
Certainly three games is no cause for alarm, and his teammates pointed to his strong second half at Milwaukee, when he rebounded from a 3-for-10 first half by hitting four of his last seven shots, finishing with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Also, Nurkic said he has been encouraged by his defense, which included a impressive block of Antetokounmpo at the rim in the second half, one of three in the game.
“I’m getting there,’’ Nurkic said. “Slow start. On defense I’m doing what I’m supposed to, effort and all those type things …’’
It is clear, however, that Nurkic is out of sorts. His midrange jumper has been steady, but inside he has been erratic, sometimes a victim of finger-roll finesse and other times just flat-out missing open layins.
When asked if his start is weighing on him, Nurkic shrugged.
“If I could make (shots), it would be different,’’ Nurkic said. “Unfortunately, I’m missing, so I just have to get back to work and trust myself.’’
Nurkic twice referenced trusting himself, and he has appeared to hesitate at times, something that McCollum noticed.
“Obviously he is trying to figure out where he is going to get his touches from, and then trying to find his rhythm,’’ McCollum said.
That rhythm will come, his teammates are sure, because they have seen his body of work in practice.
“He’ll figure it out,’’ Evan Turner said. “Everybody gets frustrated, but it’s about the unit. At the end of the day, it’s whatever you have to do to win. He stepped up in the second half (at Milwaukee) and made some shots and played to his abilities, where he wasn’t too much thinking of how it was going to go. He just let the game come to him. When he doesn’t think about it, he is better.’’
Lillard, who more than anybody has Nurkic’s ear, said he too was encouraged by Nurkic’s second half in Milwaukee, and he will try to keep Nurkic filled with positive thoughts.
“He bounced back,’’ Lillard said. “We just want to keep pumping confidence in him, show that we believe in him and that he’s a big part of what we are doing. I don’t think anybody is worried. We have a lot of confidence in him and we expect good things from him.’’
So too, does Nurkic, who before leaving the Milwaukee locker room vowed to get over what has been a small bump to start the season.
“I need to be more sure of what I do. Stay true to self and figure it out,’’ Nurkic said. “And I will figure it out.’’
Today's Blazers' links:
Damian Lillard let us know what he thought of one of Saturday's crucial late-game plays.
CJ McCollum offered his opinion of the key late-game play on social media.
After his career night, Giannis Antetokounmpo had a special moment with game ball.
The Milwaukee Sentinel recaps Saturday's win by the Bucks ove the Blazers.
The Ringer is already declaring Antetokounmpo an MVP candidate.