Jusuf Nurkic walked down a familiar Pepsi Center hallway Monday offering hugs, handshakes and short conversations to old friends along the way. Then he stepped into the unfamiliar visitors’ locker room.
Nurkic has played his former team three times since last year’s trade. But Monday marked his first time back in Denver with the division-rival Trail Blazers, the latest benchmark for Nurkic as he aims to close the circle on his journey from the Nuggets to Portland.
“Everybody knows why we didn’t work (in Denver),” Nurkic said. “To be honest, I’m happy I’m here. The story’s over. I have a new story, and I’m really excited where I am.”
Why didn’t it work out with the Nuggets? After a failed inside pairing with budding star Nikola Jokic last season, Nurkic expressed frustration with being moved to the bench. By the end of February, the 7-foot Bosnian’s two-plus years in Denver were over thanks to a deal that sent part-time starting center Mason Plumlee to the Nuggets.
“Nurk Fever” immediately swept through Portland after the trade, with his 15.2 points, 10.4. rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.9 blocks per game helping propel the Trail Blazers back to the playoffs. After totaling a career-high 33 points and 15 rebounds against the Nuggets to strike a huge blow to Denver’s postseason hopes last season, Nurkic wished his old team a “happy summer.”
But Nurkic’s 2017-18 season has been inconsistent. He entered Monday leading Portland in rebounding (eight per game) and blocks (1.3 per game) while scoring 14.4 points per game. He was reportedly benched for the bulk of the fourth quarter in a mid-November loss to Brooklyn due to a lack of defensive hustle, and sidelined with an ankle injury for part of December. And minutes after Monday’s shootaround media availability, the New York Times’ Marc Stein reported the Trail Blazers are a team that has “tried to engage the Clippers in trade talks for DeAndre Jordan,” perhaps signaling they are open to moving Nurkic.
“He plays better when he has an edge,” Portland star guard Damian Lillard said of Nurkic. “For Nurk, when he’s locked in, he’s focused, when he’s paying attention to the small things, too, instead of the things that jump out, that’s when you see the best version of him.”
Lillard said he noticed Nurkic speaking up more as the Trail Blazers reviewed their Nuggets scouting report, identifying personnel tendencies and terminology. Intrigue always swirls around his matchup with Jokic; Nurkic dominated their first two meetings but Jokic exploded for 27 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a Dec. 22 Nuggets win in Portland.
“We never have bad blood,” Nurkic said. “ … I had him a couple times, but he won the last game. There is good and bad blood (with the Nuggets), but never between us.”
Added Jokic: “He’s my friend. I played with him. There’s a rivalry, of course, just because it’s supposed to be like that. But there’s not anything bad between us.”
As for Michael Malone? Nurkic said “there’s no relationship” between him and his former coach. Malone has also been short when asked about Nurkic, countering a November question on if he was looking forward to the first Jokic-Nurkic matchup of the season with “I’m looking forward to a great game against Portland.”
Later Monday, Nurkic will walk out of an unfamiliar locker room, down a familiar hallway and onto a familiar court. He’ll continue to exchange pleasantries with Nuggets players and staffers.
“When the (pregame) clock goes to zero, there’s no friends anymore,” Nurkic said.