TORONTO — While the rest of his teammates scattered to tropical beaches or back to their hometowns for some All-Star break R&R, the newest member of the Portland Trail Blazers headed for the gym.

Jusuf Nurkic had been a Blazer for less than three full days when the weeklong All-Star break arrived. After a rough end to his stint with the Denver Nuggets, Nurkic was committed to making things work on his new team. So, a vacation wasn’t in the cards. Instead, he went to Santa Barbara with his personal trainer and his uncle, practicing each day during the break, hitting the gym twice on every other day.

He posted clips of those workouts on his Instagram account, soaked in sweat and draining 20-footers over chairs. The shooting touch and the dedication to improving were positive signs, but the results he showed on the court, where the defenders were NBA athletes and not folding chairs, were even more promising.

“When you are kind of new I am not expecting to have everything go smooth,” he said. “But I am trying to get better every day.”    

It has been surprisingly smooth transition so far. Nurkic put up 13 points, seven rebounds, three steals and a block on a perfect 5-for-5 shooting in a loss to the Utah Jazz before the All-Star break. Then on Thursday, he notched 12 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks against the Orlando Magic. In his first 56 minutes on the court as Blazer, Portland has outscored opponents by 41 points.

Nurkic’s final season and a half in Denver were difficult. After earning second-team all-rookie honors, he lost virtually his entire second season to a knee injury. He was Denver’s starting center to open the 2016-17 season, but he clashed with head coach Mike Malone, dropped out of the regular rotation and eventually asked for a trade. 

When he arrived in Portland he was out of shape, in part, because of lack of playing time with the Nuggets and his accompanying poor attitude that followed. Hence, the week locked in a gym in Santa Barbara.

His situation turned toxic in Denver, but you wouldn’t know it watching him with the Blazers. He cracks wide smiles on the practice court, jokes with Damian Lillard during shooting drills and insists he’s just trying to do whatever coach Terry Stotts asks of him.

“This is the first time after two years I am having fun,” Nurkic said.

At 7-feet, 280-pounds he adds needed bulk to Portland’s frontline. He also offers a scoring presence in the post the Blazers have lacked over the last two seasons. But more impressive than his post work, scoring touch or imposing frame, has been his passing, a skill that has even surprised his new coach. Nurkic has made plays out of the post, dropped of touch passes for dunks and whipped crosscourt passes to open shooters on the move.

“I can’t say I knew that he was going to be that good a passer,” Stotts said. “I felt like he had a good feel for the game. More than anything else, when you start watching video of him before the trade you see the things that he can do. I think now that he’s been given more of an opportunity it’s showing through a little bit more.”

Nurkic laughs off the questions about his passing ability. “Man, I did not forget how to play basketball,” he explains before adding that his focus is mostly on the other side of the court, providing an interior defensive presence for a team that desperately needs it.

There is only so much of his game that Nurkic could hone during his week in Southern California. The rest he’ll try to glean from the Blazers coaching staff and his new teammates. You can see that process in action. During breaks in the game he asks questions on the bench and after practice he sticks around for skill work and instruction as he tries to get up to speed. He says each day he has been able to show a little more what he can potentially offer and the Blazers won’t put limits on how he might be able to help.

“He’s 22 years old,” Stotts says. “His game is not refined or defined yet.”

–Mike Richman 

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