Jusuf Nurkic displays dominance in the U20 European Championships

Being relegated to playing in the B Division if the U20 European Championships, Jusuf Nurkic was always going to put on a show. However, I’m not sure even he envisioned the level to which he would dominate this competition.

Bosnia won the competition, which took place in its capital of Sarajevo, and their prize beyond the title is promotion to the A Division of the competition next season. In the title game, Belgium kept close through a barrage of three-pointers — due in part to Bosnia’s insistence to play zone despite a propensity to get lost on shooters. Overall, the Belgians made 14 threes for the game, and because of that Nurkic’s immense impact in the title game almost went for naught.

In the five games leading up to the championship game, Nurkic averaged 23 points, 13.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks per game. On his way to tournament MVP, Nurkic finished second in points, first in rebounding, first in free throws and drawn fouls, first in blocked shots, tenth in assists, and 11th in steals for the entire competition. However, these contributions paled in comparison to his performance in the finals, where Nurkic put up 34 points, added 13 rebounds, dished out 4 assists, drew 13 fouls, and sunk 16 of his 18 shots from the free throw line. Nurkic was omnipresent, and he showed off a much more diverse game here than he had previously gotten to portray in the Adriatic League.

Before we get to that diversity though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his post game. There was no player on Belgium’s roster that could even come close to handling Nurkic’s frame, and he exploited that every chance that he could get. He got himself deep position in the post basically at will, and scored a lot of his points either from made field goals in close or from free throws that he drew because of it. It’s not worth discussing this aspect of his game in detail because of the level of competition, but it is worth mentioning that his desire to go down low and bang in the paint should go unquestioned. It’s his bread-and-butter. He’s strong, and he uses his body to shield away opposing players both when attempting to score and when rebounding (both offensively and defensively). He’s elite for his age at these aspects of basketball, and they should translate nicely to the NBA as he continues to work on his conditioning and body.

Beyond that part of his game, there were encouraging signs of development in other aspects. Let’s start on offense.

Bosnia used Nurkic pretty often to initiate offense in the high post, which is something that he did rarely in the Adriatic League. While there, he actually showed off excellent vision that was heretofore unbeknownst to me. Here’s an example of something like this:

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Here, Nurkic is trailing the play as their point guard brings the ball. He sees that the Bosnian player on the right block has his man sealed off. Before he gets the ball, he’s already seen that his teammate on the right block has sealed off his opponent and pinned him away from the hoop. Upon receiving the ball, Nurkic makes the immediate decision to make the pass. He doesn’t even bring the ball down to his chest; it’s just an immediate, quick, reactionary thought that shows how well Nurkic sees the court and how plays develop.

Another place that Nurkic has shown improvement is in his midrange game. He actually took six threes during the tournament — making two of them — but it’s more in the midrange where he’ll be able to attack in the NBA. Nurkic has a soft touch and quick release, and these fundamentals should help him as he continues to grow as a player. Here’s an example from the title game:

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You’re not getting that kind of roll unless you’re getting good rotation on the ball. Nurkic also shoots the ball from a high release point, which when combined with the high arc on his shot, should make it unblockable. These fundamentals also trickle down to the free throw line, where Nurkic shows good touch for a near-seven-footer.

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At this point in time, it’s probably fair to call Nurkic a “rhythm shooter.” When he feels good and is confident about it, you can feel confident that it’s going to fall. When he’s not, he has games like his performance against Estonia where he only shot 3/8 from the line. Overall, he shot 76% from the line in the tournament on 51/67 attempts. Given the nature of his game and his ability to draw fouls, keep his percentage up around that mark will be essential to his success, and I would expect it to continue as he becomes more comfortable with his shot.

His biggest offensive problem at the moment though would be surround his inclination for turnovers. Nurkic was always going to have some problems in this tournament with them, given that Bosnia’s entire offense revolved around getting him the ball and letting him make plays. While he has good instincts for passing the ball, he was forced to do so much himself and put so much on his own back that turnovers were going to be an inevitability. His general decision-making at times wavered though. Here’s an example of that:

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Here, he makes up his mind before getting the ball that he’s going to drive to the left. The problem is that the defender reads it well, and traps him against the baseline. It seems that Nurkic has no other options in his head, and tries to make a play on the run without thinking beforehand. This leads to an awful turnover where he basically passes it to the Belgian defender, who then starts a fast break.

It’s also worth mentioning that another of Nurkic’s turnover problems starts with his tendency to bring the ball to his hip in the post, then bring it up for a lay-up. This often leads to strips as he’s going up. A coach will need to work with him on keeping the ball underneath his chin prior to going up for buckets.

Switching gears now, let’s talk about Nurkic’s defensive game, which was more of a mixed bag. Nurkic did pick up two quick fouls late in the first quarter, one was a 50/50 block/charge that could have gone either way, and the other was a clean block by Nurkic that the referee just missed. This forced Nurkic to sit for about 6-7 minutes of game time at the end of the first and the beginning of the second. Really, I’m pretty sure this just recharged the mammoth center, but given Nurkic’s foul problems in the Adriatic League I felt it was worth pointing out.

It’s also worth mentioning that Bosnia played a zone for about the last two-thirds of the game, which limited the amount that can be gleaned on this end. But I’ll start with the good before discussing the bad. The good revolves around Nurkic’s mobility, which has been something of a question mark. Nurkic moved well pretty well in space while Bosnia was in man defense, although the condensed offensive area here certainly helped in that regard. Here’s an example of Nurkic playing out on a guard.

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Here, Nurkic is defending the roller. Nurkic gives the man some space, and then gets up on him quickly after the defender notices that there is no way he’s getting around him. Then, after the pass is made back to the wing who has shot up from the corner, Nurkic recovers nicely as he rotates back to the man at the rim as that guy shoots forward to contest the attempted three. Nurkic then gets position on that man, and gets the rebound. That’s about all you can expect from your big man there in that situation.

Here’s another example of his mobility, this time in the paint.

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After getting slightly off-balance on the perimeter, Nurkic uses his good agility in the paint to recover back and swat the shot out of bounds. The offensive player doesn’t take the most direct route to the hoop, but I’m most impressed with the fluidity and efficiency of Nurkic’s movement here. He goes from the elbow to the semi-circle in two giant steps, then takes two load steps to hop up off of two feet and block the shot all in about a second and a half. The block is nice, but the agility is the most important part of this play for a guy that weighs 285 pounds.

Now that we’ve seen some development in his movement, let’s talk about the bad. Mostly they have to do with his defensive instincts and his penchant for falling for fakes. Here’s an example of him falling for an up-fake and nearly landing on his neck after trying to block the shot:

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Learning to be patient on defense is going to be the biggest hurdle that Nurkic has to climb, and it’s evident here. This isn’t even a particularly good pump-fake, and the big man jumps out of his shoes trying to block it. Some of that may just be coming from it being at the beginning of the game and him being amped, but NBA players are going to get him consistently in foul trouble with these types of moves. Nurkic needs to remember how big he is and how difficult it is to naturally finish over a person that size. In this case, there’s no reason to jump to contest a shot like this. Simply putting his hands up would have sufficed here.

Despite some of the negatives I picked out of this game, the overall package here was quite staggering for the 20-year-old Bosnian. While you need to remember that the competition level wasn’t great, it’s good to see Nurkic developing in ways going beyond the physical brand of basketball that he plays in the Adriatic League. Nurkic actually used this setting as a way to improve — as opposed to simply doing what he’s completely comfortable with — which is all that you can ask for from a prospect.

Given that he’s coming over to the states next season, the next question is most likely whether or not I think he can carve out minutes. While I think he might be useful in 5-7 minute bursts off the bench immediately, it’s probably worth it for the Nuggets to take the year, work on his conditioning, and try to iron out some of his bad habits. Obviously, the best way to iron out those habits is through game time, but given the Nuggets roster and the players in front of him, that’s probably not likely. Timofey Mozgov will probably get the lion’s share of minutes, while JaVale McGee and J.J. Hickson are eased back into action following their injuries. Nurkic may get some time early on, but this year will be all about development off the floor for him.

In conclusion, I have high hopes for the big man, and this tournament did nothing but reinforce those thoughts. A comparison for him is something of a bigger, more dynamic Nikola Pekovic at that age. But before he gets to that level in the NBA, he’ll need to iron out the hitches in his skill set.

Sam Vecenie

Sam Vecenie is the editor-in-chief of Upside & Motor, as well as an editor at Hardwood Paroxysm. He likes to spend endless hours watching random NCAA game film, and scouring the internet for international basketball. You can find his other work at SBNation's college basketball platform.