Nobody is afraid of the Denver Nuggets.
The 19-31 team and its fans are beset by many issues — Ty Lawson was arrested for driving 25 mph over the limit while being likely drunk; JaVale McGee can’t stay healthy; the team is 1-9 in its last 10; Denver’s team offensive rating is lower than it has been in more than a decade — and the future looks bleak. Pepsi Center ranks No. 27 in attendance, pulling in less than 15,000, semi-involved, mostly dejected fans per game.
However, the team is finding a source of comfort in Bosnian rookie Jusuf Nurkic. The 20-year-old, fresh-faced center has the innate ability to appear permanently exhausted while also being assertive and stouthearted. In early January, he repeatedly attacked DeMarcus Cousins — not an easy assignment — in the low block and flustered the Kings all-star en route to one of his most complete games of the season.
Though he has yet to log 700 minutes, Nurkic comprehensively changes the Nuggets. He has started every game since former starting center Timofey Mozgoz was traded to Cleveland. When he’s on the court, the team’s assist rate jumps up 6 percent, the team’s block percentage jumps nearly 3 percent, the team’s turnover percentage drops and the team’s effective field goal percentage and offensive rating rise.
Despite Denver averaging 44 points in the paint each game (No. 7 in the NBA), it’s uncertain what type of offensive mold Coach Brian Shaw is attempting to form. The Nuggets play at the fifth-fastest pace of any in the league, a frenetic approach to scoring that leaves absolutely no one wondering why they average among the most turnovers in the NBA. Nurkic isn’t going to outrun a whole lot of teams on the fast break, but in a half-court set he contribute; he’s even contributing in rotations that CBS Sports’ Matt Moore called “a flaming ice cream truck veering off a cliff into a pile of garbage” Tuesday.
His shot selection can certainly improve, particularly by taking a smaller portion of his field goal attempts from outside of six feet. But his latent ability to confidently shoot and make jump shots provide a glimpse of what progressions team personnel can expect in the coming seasons.
Meanwhile, opponents shoot a 4 percent lower effective field goal percentage and see their offensive rating plummet 10 points with the Bosnian in the middle of the paint.
The Nuggets are squarely average in scoring, but the team’s defense has been abjectly incompetent, giving up an average of 104 points per game. In the last 10 games, Shaw has watched his squad give up 99 or more points nine times; the team has strung together consecutive games holding opponents to less than 100 points just twice this season.
While the team, as a whole, defends the paint at an average rate, giving up 42 points per game in the area (No. 15 in the NBA), they also allow opponents to grab 44.7 rebounds per game (No. 24 in the NBA). With Mozgov gone and McGee continually missing games, Nurkic can help a front line that doesn’t rank inside the top 10 in either offensive or defensive rebound rate. If the past wasn’t any indication: J.J. Hickson can’t do this on his own!
This is precisely why Nurkic, who, like Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, drastically improves the team’s defense, can help the team improve by playing more minutes. He has played 25 or more minutes just four times this season, while Shaw allows Lawson and Arron Afflalo to play more than 33, and allowed Mozgov to average 25 while he was on the roster.
Denver is chasing Oklahoma City and New Orleans for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. It’s highly unlikely — John Hollinger has them having a zero percent chance — the team will make the cut come April 19, but through their malady-riddled season, they may have at least found a center worth cheering about and playing more.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Huffington Post and VICE, among other publications. He’s been heard on CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. Planos is currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@JPlanos).