Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic: A predicament the Nuggets hope they face

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Nikola Jokic hurried out the locker room door.

Jusuf Nurkic leaned back comfortably in his chair.

Jokic was headed to Toronto to play in the Rising Stars Challenge, two days after his Nuggets beat the Pistons last month. Nurkic, who participated in the event for the top first- and second-year players as a rookie last year, wasn’t invited to return.

So, Nurkic – following a rare productive game this season – was left to answer questions in front of his locker following Denver’s win.

As Jokic is having the best rookie season outside the attention-grabbing Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, Nurkic has struggled with injury and poor play.

Nurkic looked like Denver’s center of the future last season. Jokic now fills that role.

If Nurkic gets back on track, the Nuggets could face a pleasant, challenging and franchise-shaping dilemma with their young bigs.

“They both have very bright futures, and they’re a big part of our organization going forward,” Denver coach Michael Malone said of Jokic and Nurkic.

But can they thrive together?

In Nurkic, Jokic, Emmanuel Mudiay and Gary Harris, the Nuggets are the only team with four players currently age 21 or younger who’ve played at least 1,000 minutes either this season or last. The Timberwolves – Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Towns – are the only other team with even three.

Minnesota’s young core, which features the reigning Rookie of the Year (Wiggins) and the presumptive Rookie of the Year (Towns), rightfully receives plenty of positive attention. But Denver’s probably deserves more than it gets.

The catch: Two of the Nuggets key players might not be able to coexist.

Jokic and Nurkic have played just four minutes together all season – three against the Grizzlies’ Zach RandolphMarc Gasol combo and one the Pistons’ Aron BaynesAndre Drummond combo. Needless to say, those types of matchups don’t come around often.

Denver picked both players in the 2014 draft – Nurkic at No. 16 with a pick acquired by trading down with the Bulls and Jokic at No. 41. Nurkic, who was playing in Croatia, jumped to the NBA immediately. Jokic stayed in Serbia another year.

After JaVale McGee got hurt and Timofey Mozgov got traded, Nurkic became the Nuggets’ starting center last season. The 7-foot, 280-pounder used his strength well on both ends. He bullied players in the post to create position then finished with a nice touch. He bumped opponents defensively, blocking plenty of shots but also collecting plenty of fouls. He also moved his feet well enough to defend the pick-and-roll and beat players for position on the other end. Nurkic first cracked the 20-minute mark on Dec. 30 of last season. From then on, he averaged 7.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks, 1.3 steals and 3.4 fouls in 20.6 minutes per game.

Nurkic showed plenty of promise for a rookie, a young one at that. But he underwent surgery on his left knee in May and didn’t return until January.

By then, Jokic – who signed a four-year, $5,551,000 contract with a team option in July – showed why he deserved to start.

Jokic is a great passer for a 6-foot-10, 21-year-old. His shooting range extends beyond the 3-point arc, and he’s also dangerous in the mid-range and crafty in the post. Simply, Jokic – who has averaged 9.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.0 steals in 20.7 minutes per game – is outperforming the level Nurkic reached as a rookie. And everyone was pretty happy with Nurkic.

Meanwhile, Nurkic has been in and out of the lineup due to his struggles and more injury problems. To compensate for his reduced minutes, he has forced way too many shots when on the court. His usage percentage has soared from a slightly above-average 20.7 to 27.2 – which ranks ahead of Chris Paul, Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight. However, Nurkic’s shooting percentage has plummeted to 39.1.

Still, Nurkic made the All-Rookie second team last season. This might just be a lost year for him, his early-season injury preventing him from ever finding a rhythm. If that’s the case, he could pick up next season where he left off as a rookie.

Jokic should make the All-Rookie first team. It’d be shocking if he doesn’t make at least the second team.

That’d give the same team centers on an All-Rookie team in consecutive years for the first time since Shawn Bradley and Sharone Wright with the 1994 and 1995 76ers. Before that, it wasStanley Roberts and Shaquille O’Neal with the 1992 and 1993 Magic.

Neither pairing lasted long – or at all. Philadelphia traded Wright during his second season. Orlando dealt Roberts the same offseason it drafted Shaq.

The only other time a team put centers on an All-Rookie team in consecutive years was the Rockets’ grand Twin Towers experiment with the 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson and 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon, who made All-Rookie teams in 1984 and 1985. Houston beat the Lakers in five games in the 1986 Western Conference Finals – dropping Los Angeles to 8-1 in conference finals in the 80s – and teams scrambled to match up with the Rockets’ giants.

But that was a different era.

Teams are more adept at spreading the floor and turning a big man, let alone two, into a liability. Jokic and Nurkic are collectively slow, and teams will run on them. Jokic isn’t a great defender, and while his offensive vision could eventually translate to the defensive end, putting him in space more often now is asking for a problem. Though Jokic can spot-up beyond the 3-point arc, Nurkic’s presence in the paint would limit Jokic’s space in the mid-range, where he’s effective as a shooter and a passer.

Complicating matters, the Nuggets have a few other bigs in Kenneth Faried, Joffrey Lauvergne and Darrell Arthur. Faried, a power forward without much shooting range, is in the first year of a four-year extension. Lauvergne is a solid rookie who is mobile enough to play power forward, but he might be better suited to play center himself. Arthur has turned himself into a helpful rotation player, and he has a player option for next season.

But if all goes right, Jokic and Nurkic will factor most prominently into Denver’s big-man considerations. They’re the youngest of the group, and they’ve reached higher levels than anyone else.

Malone admits it will be difficult to pair Jokic and Nurkic together often, and it’s not a problem yet. Jokic (20.7 minutes per game) and Nurkic (14.0) fall far short of combining for 48 minutes.

The hope, though, is Nurkic reverts to form. If he does and Jokic continues to get more comfortable with the NBA, they’ll each deserve more than 24 minutes a piece. That’ll mean playing together regularly, and Nurkic is optimistic.

“I think so, we can fit,” Nurkic said. “But we need to play. We need to play sometimes, to be together. But we young. We can learn a lot.”

The Nuggets could always explore trading one, though teams usually hang tightly onto rookies as good as Jokic. And it’s probably better to hold Nurkic until his value rebounds – which can probably happen only if he’s playing enough to where his minutes overlap with Jokic.

“No matter what’s going on, both of those guys need to get better,” Malone said. “We need Nurkic and Jokic to continue to get better – not just for themselves, but also to your point, to possibly be able to play together and play together effectively and efficiently.”