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

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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.”

Karl-Anthony Towns: “I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time”

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A few years back, Minnesota looked like a team on a fast rise in the West, mostly because Karl-Anthony Towns looked like a young dominant force starting to come of age in the league.

It hasn’t worked out that way, even though Minnesota finally made the playoffs back in 2018. Andrew Wiggins has not developed into a No. 2 options (even though he is getting paid like a No. 1 option), Towns has not consistently owned the defensive end, and under Tom Thibodeau there were a lot of chemistry issues highlighted by Jimmy Butler blowing up last training camp and essentially torpedoing the season before it started.

In today’s NBA news cycle, driven by rumors and speculation about player movement — and the player movement itself — all those issues in Minnesota has people looking at Towns. That despite the fact his five-year max extension just kicks in this season.

Towns isn’t looking to move. There’s a new coach (Ryan Saunders) who Towns has a good bond with, there’s a new head of basketball operations (Gersson Rosas) who is aggressive and who Towns likes, and the two-time All-Star center told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic he is happy right now in Minnesota.

“The biggest thing when you have that conversation [about a star switching teams] is you say, ‘Is he happy here?’” Towns said. “I’m tremendously happy. I love my front office. I love my coaching staff. I think we’ve made great moves and great changes. I love the culture we have here. If you want to leave, you have to be miserable somewhere. I am not there. I’m planning to be in Minnesota for a long time.”

What makes Towns happy is he can see the plan now — and it’s finally to build around him. Towns is the top dog and this summer the Timberwolves made a push to land D'Angelo Russell to be his No. 2 (since it’s not Wiggins). That, however, fell short as Russell is in Golden State. (For now at least, if the fit with Stephen Curry is not right Russell could be on the move, and Minnesota would be interested.) Still, there was an organized plan of attack and a shuffling around of players to give Minnesota more flexibility. Towns says he is comfortable this is a franchise on the right path. Even if it’s going to take some time to get there.

In a deep West, Minnesota looks to be a team on the outside of the playoff chase that needs a lot of things to go right to get in it. They have some good players, but also a lot of youth and questions.

“We all can’t rush in and think we’re going to win 75 games right now,” he said. “We have to take it day by day. We have to be patient with the process and accept the process and go through the cycles. I think we’re going to have a really good team and we have to go out there every single night and try to accomplish it. My job as a leader, I’ve got to get the best out of every single player.”

Marcus Smart, Thaddeus Young reportedly added to USA Basketball training camp roster

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Elite NBA players have not dropped out of playing for Team USA like this since 2004, when nobody wanted to play for Larry Brown and rumors of potential terrorism in Athens had the NBA’s best backing out.

For the 2019 World Cup in China, USA Basketball has watched James Harden, Anthony Davis, Tobias Harris, Bradley Beal, Eric Gordon, and CJ McCollum all back out, robbing the American team of a lot of star power. Zion Williamson, who was projected to be part of the “select team” of young stars Team USA goes against also dropped out.

The Americans were down to 14 players heading into training camp (12 will be chosen to travel to China), and they needed more players. Enter Boston’s Marcus Smart and Thaddeus Young, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Don’t be surprised if another veteran name or two is added before training camp opens.

Smart and Young are a couple of smart selections, elite defenders who can shut down the best wing players on other teams (and in FIBA competition only a couple of teams have more than one top-flight wing player to handle).

So who is on the USA roster now? Let’s break it out by position:

GUARDS:
Damian Lillard
Kemba Walker
Kyle Lowry (questionable coming off thumb surgery)
Marcus Smart

WINGS:
Khris Middleton
Donovan Mitchell
Jayson Tatum
Harrison Barnes
Kyle Kuzma
PJ Tucker
Thaddeus Young

BIGS:
Andre Drummond
Myles Turner
Brook Lopez
Kevin Love
Paul Millsap

(We could argue about whether Mitchell is a guard or a wing, if Tucker is a big or a wing, but you get the basic picture.)

After Lillard, that roster does lack star power.

But the USA talent pool is so deep that it will overwhelm all but a couple of teams in the tournament. Serbia — led by Nikola Jokic and Bogan Bogdanovic — is the biggest threat to the USA and has good depth. Spain is impressive as well, but older.

The USA is and should be the World Cup favorite, but an improved rest of the world and a depleted USA roster is going to make things a lot more interesting in China.

USA Basketball is scheduled to begin its pre-World Cup camp in Las Vegas Aug. 5, with an intrasquad exhibition game at the T-Mobile Arena on Aug. 9. Then the team heads to Southern California for more training followed by an exhibition against Spain on Aug. 16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif. Then the team heads overseas for the World Cup, which begins in China on Aug. 31.

Tim Duncan joins Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with Spurs

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The Tim Duncan era in San Antonio is over quite yet.

The future Hall of Famer has been added full time to Gregg Popovich’s coaching staff with the Spurs, the team announced Monday.

“It is only fitting, that after I served loyally for 19 years as Tim Duncan’s assistant, that he returns the favor,” Popovich said.

Duncan was around the Spurs practice facility a lot last season, helping out informally. Now it is formal.

Expect more bank shots from the Spurs big men next season.

Duncan was at the heart of the Spurs historic NBA dynasty the past couple of decades. The future Hall of Famer is a five-time NBA champion and three-time Finals MVP, 15 time All-NBA teams, 15 times NBA All-Defensive teams, 15-time All-Star, and way back when the Rookie of the Year. However, his impact was greater than just that insane resume, he was the guy who set the tone and the work ethic for those Spurs teams. Duncan worked as hard as anyone, won as much as anyone, but did it without trying to draw attention to himself. If fact, he wanted to deflect it.

The Spurs will be competitive for a playoff spot in the deep West this season — they still have LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, plus Dejonte Murray gets healthy and returns — but are poised to start a rebuilding process in the coming years.

We will see if Duncan wants to be part of that, or if he is only around while Popovich remains the coach (somebody has to go to dinner with Pop). But he has earned the right to pretty much any role he wants.

The Spurs also announced that Will Hardy will be added to the bench as an assistant coach.

“Will Hardy is a talented, young basketball mind who has earned a great deal of respect from everyone in the organization thanks to his knowledge, spirit and personality,” Popovich said.

Report: Tobias Harris won’t play for Team USA in World Cup, either

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The theoretical lineup of players who’ve withdrawn from consideration for Team USA’s FIBA World Cup roster just gained frontcourt depth.

So far, we had:

Add Tobias Harris.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Harris is a real loss. He’s a good player whose ability to blend with other good players – as he showed with the 76ers last season – would’ve made him particularly helpful on Team USA.

The Americans still have other forwards available – Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma, Paul Millsap, P.J. Tucker. But none match Harris’ combination of talent and frontcourt versatility.

USA Basketball is down to just 14 players for its training camp next month:

The U.S. almost must add more players to the pool.