“In a league where a third string center can get $5 million a year just for suiting up, $11 million a season for a 26-year old who averaged 11 points and eight rebounds the last two years he was getting starter minutes really is not a big deal.”
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If you followed the Denver Nuggets through the offseason, you probably heard a little something about Jusuf Nurkic. Nurkic was one of Denver’s first round draft picks this year and a virtual unknown heading into the preseason, which drew the ire of fans hoping to land a major college basketball name that could help turn the fortunes of the franchise around.
But, over the course of the preseason things changed. Even as a raw 20-year old, it was easy to see the Bosnian’s potential. By opening night, even a basketball cynic like me had written about how Nurkic was a hell of a find for Denver and how he’d eventually make JaVale McGee expendable, freeing up that money for better investments.
But, if you’ve followed Denver’s regular season so far, you know that not only does a prosperous future seem hopelessly far away, but you’ve also probably noticed that the minutes for Nurkic just haven’t been there.
After a solid 13 minutes on opening night that saw Nurkic collect a very respectable five points and seven rebounds, he’s averaged just over eight minutes a game since, obviously limiting his impact on the game’s outcome. On the other side of things, McGee played just nine minutes in that opening game, with two points and two boards. Since then McGee has averaged 13 minutes a game. For reference, McGee is averaging 5.7 points and 2.6 rebounds in 12 minutes a game this year, officially. Nurkic is officially averaging 5.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in 10 minutes per game.
If you read that last paragraph and are a little perplexed, you’re not alone. While ESPN’s official stats on Nurkic are slightly skewed (it doesn’t count his did not play in Denver’s first game against Portland against his numbers), He appears to be outplaying McGee on the surface.
But we all know stats don’t tell the whole story, so consider this: Nurkic has looked better than McGee in the early going. Yes, his offensive skills look unpolished and yes, his footwork in the low post leaves something to be desired. Did I mention he’s almost 7-feet tall and only 20 years old? That comes with the territory. What’s pertinent is that he has great rebounding skills (which is the most translatable skill across levels of play in basketball), is matching McGee’s offensive output despite being a work in progress offensively, and can’t possibly be a worse defender than McGee.
Furthermore, the Nuggets are awful. I understand that Bryan Shaw is fighting for his job at this point, but it’s tough to see how McGee makes sense over Nurkic, even from the standpoint of winning games.
So, why then is he playing?
Perhaps, it’s as I speculated before the season: The Nuggets see the writing on the wall and are
shopping McGee. Contrary to popular belief, McGee’s contract is still quite movable. I won’t get into all the reasons why here; suffice to say that the going rate for seven-footers is just exorbitantly high. In a league where a third string center can get $5 million a year just for suiting up, $11 million a season for a 26-year old who averaged 11 points and eight rebounds the last two years he was getting starter minutes really is not a big deal.
The Nuggets on the other hand, have a bargain at center in Timofey Mozgov (see above: he got a
contract worth just under $5 million a season back when he was Denver’s third string guy) and now Nurkic to back him up. They can sell McGee for peanuts and still feel like they made a good decision to free up some money for the future.
If indeed this is Denver’s plan, might I offer one more suggestion: Play McGee all of those minutes. Getting Nurkic on the floor for less than 10 minutes a game doesn’t do much to accelerate his development. Oppositely, Denver (and previously Washington) got a lot more out of JaVale when he was playing 20-plus minutes a game.
If you’re looking to shop this guy, get him out there and make him a more valuable commodity. The Nuggets can afford to get minimal return for McGee, but why not milk him for all you can get? Nurkic can then slide right into those minutes after he’s gone.
I still believe that Jusuf Nurkic will be the best center on Denver’s roster by 2016. With that in mind, I hope the Nuggets finally do what the fan base has wanted since the 2012-13 season, when it became obvious that JaVale McGee would never live up to expectations: Sell him off to the highest bidder so that the team can move on.