Jusuf Nurkic’s Early Stats Place Him in Elite Company

Oct 29, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) dribbles the ball as Portland Trail Blazers forward Mason Plumlee (24) defends in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 29, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) dribbles the ball as Portland Trail Blazers forward Mason Plumlee (24) defends in the first quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Jusuf Nurkic is off to an excellent start to 2016-17 for the Denver Nuggets. His early-season stats are similar to those of some of the NBA’s elite centers.

Seven games into the NBA season is hardly a large enough sample size to accurately forecast the rest of 2016-17, much less the next several years. However, Jusuf Nurkic is vastly improved early in his third season, and the numbers are placing Nurkic among some of the NBA’s top centers. Last season Nurkic’s problem was being healthy and effective for the Denver Nuggets. He played in a mere 32 games and shot less than 42%. For now, it looks like those days may be behind him.

This young big man was technically drafted by the Chicago Bulls and later (on draft night) was traded to Denver in a trade involving Doug McDermott. It may be too early to say it, but the Denver Nuggets may have gotten the better part of that trade.

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He has already set new career highs in points (23 at New Orleans) and rebounds (18 at Toronto) this year, setting the table for what could be an excellent season.

Let’s take a deeper look at what the 22-year-old Bosnian has produced so far.

Oct 16, 2016; Portland, OR, USA; Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) is fouled by Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) and forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8) during the first quarter at the Moda Center. Mandatory Credit: Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

Jusuf Nurkic’s Early Season Numbers

Through seven Denver Nuggets’ games, Jusuf Nurkic has significantly increased his production, specifically in scoring and rebounding. In his first two seasons, Nurkic only played in 94 games and averaged 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. To begin 2016, though, Nurkic is nearly averaging a double-double with 13.0 PPG and 9.4 RPG.

Part of this production increase is due to his increased minutes. Nurkic has started all seven games and is playing 25.6 minutes per contest — up eight minutes per game from his first two seasons.

Head coach Michael Malone is clearly expecting more from Nurkic this season, having inserted him into the starting lineup. Although Malone has tabbed Nurkic as a starter, the third-year player deserves some credit, as well.

During his rookie and sophomore seasons, Nurkic was fouling at an absurd rate of 6.5 fouls per 36 minutes. How does that compare to this season? His foul count has dropped to just 3.8 fouls per 36 minutes this season. Smarter defense is leading to his ability to stay on the court, and that is helping him be more valuable on the offensive end.

In addition to his increased minutes contributing to an offensive spike, Nurkic is also shooting the ball much better. Nurkic is shooting 52.2 percent from the field this season, up from 43.5 percent over his first two seasons combined. The improved efficiency is in large part to his shooting from three to nine feet from the basket. According to Basketball Reference, Nurkic is shooting 52.6 percent from that distance this season. In contrast, he shot just 32.4 percent from that same distance during his first two years.

Nov 5, 2016; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) reacts after getting called for a flagrant foul during the third quarter of the game at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Detroit defeated Denver 103-86. Mandatory Credit: Leon Halip-USA TODAY Sports

Putting Jusuf Nurkic’s Stats in Context

Jusuf Nurkic’s is clearly performing well to begin 2016-17, but what does this mean? Is he merely improving at a decent rate? Or are his numbers impressive in context to the rest of the NBA? I’d argue the latter.

So far, there are only six other players averaging Nurkic’s numbers (13.0 PPG & 9.4 RPG) as of November 8 . Here they are, along with their 2016-17 salaries to see what this type of production earns a player in today’s NBA:

  • Anthony Davis – 30.9 PPG, 11.5 RPG, $22.1 mil
  • Blake Griffin – 19.3 PPG, 9.7 RPG, $20.1 mil
  • Dwight Howard – 15.6 PPG, 13.0 RPG, $23.2 mil
  • Andre Drummond – 13.9 PPG, 14.3 RPG, $22.1 mil
  • Jonas Valanciunas – 13.8 PPG, 11.0 RPG, $14.4 mil
  • Hassan Whiteside – 17.5 PPG, 13.8 RPG, $22.1 mil

Nurkic, by contrast, is making just $1.9 million this season and will make $2.9 million next season. If Nurkic is able to maintain relatively similar stats throughout the season, the Denver Nuggets will be getting Valanciunas-like production for $12.5 million less than what the Toronto Raptors are spending! Back to Valanciunas in a minute.

One other statistical nugget of note: Nurkic is one of just five players to grab at least 18 rebounds in a game this season. Drummond (3x), Howard, Tyson Chandler (3x), and DeAndre Jordan are the others. Only Nurkic, Jordan, and Chandler have performed that feat on the road. Again, that’s not bad company for Nurkic to keep.

Oct 31, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas (17) takes a shot for a basket past Denver Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkic (23) in the second half at Air Canada Centre. The Raptors won 105-102. Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of Jonas Valanciunas …

The Nurkic-Valanciunas comparison might be one to keep an eye on all season, and it could be one to watch for many years.

The Raptors beat the Nuggets on October 31, but Jusuf Nurkic had the better game. The Nuggets’ center earned a double-double of 13 points and 18 boards to go along with five blocks, while Valanciunas had 12 points, nine boards, and one block.

Nurkic’s early season numbers are quite similar to what Valanciunas produced over the course of the 2015-16 campaign. Here are their numbers per 100 possessions:

  • Nurkic (2016-17) – 24.3 points, 17.6 rebounds
  • Valanciunas (2015-16) – 25.5 points, 18.2 rebounds

Player Efficiency Rating (PER) tells a similar story, as well. Valanciunas finished last year with a 22.6 PER, and Nurkic is right there at a 20.5 PER through the first seven games this season.

Nurkic needs to show this production over the course of a season like Valanciunas did for the Raptors last year. If he does, The Bosnian Beast should see a sizable contract coming his way in the near future.

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