What happens when an unstoppable force meets Adriatic League big men? You get Jusuf Nurkic (25th DX, 33rd ESPN), a 19 year old big man prospect who is currently terrorizing European basketball. He is still raw as he has only been playing basketball since 2009, but his stats per 40 minutes closely parallel those of DeMarcus Cousins as a college freshman:
Nurkic is a better FT shooter and gets more steals, Cousins is a better rebounder and gets more blocks, and other than that they are statistically dead ringers for one another. Nurkic also fouls more as he only plays 16.1 mpg vs Cousins’s 23.5.
Physically they are both massive human beings as Cousins weighed in at 292 at the draft and Nurkic is listed at 280. They are both 6’11, but Cousins has longer arms with a 7’5.5″ wingspan vs 7’2″, 9.5″ reach vs 9’1.5″. Nurkic atones for this with a significant advantage in quickness, and neither of them are explosive athletes. It’s arguable that Cousins has superior tools overall, but if so it’s likely by a slim margin. And they are going to share the same draft night age if Nurkic declares, as their birthdays are 10 days apart.
You may be wondering how the Adriatic League compares to the SEC, and whether we can trust such a small sample from Nurkic (the stats were posted in 322 minutes). First to address the latter, these stats are somewhat cherry picked. Nurkic’s Eurocup stats are far worse, as his PER falls off from a mammoth 35.0 down to a humane 22.2 in 210 minutes. His turnovers rise, his rebounds plummet, and he scores less. He also gets fewer steals, but on the bright side he gets more blocks at 3.5 per 40, which is a sign that his lack of athleticism doesn’t cripple him. The split is likely due to both sample size variance and Nurkic facing (literally) stronger competition in Eurocup. It could be argued that his translation to matching up against stronger post players bodes ill for his NBA future, but then again his numbers still aren’t bad for an inexperienced 19 year old going against adult men.
This good news is that the leagues Nurkic is playing in offer a much higher level of competition than the NCAA. He currently plays on a team with 3 former major conference NCAA stars who are now in the prime of their careers. I took their Adriatic League PER, Eurocup PER, a minute weighted average of the two, and compared it to their senior year PER:
Granted, this quick and simple analysis may overstate the gap between NCAA and the European competition that Nurkic is facing, as Ray had a PER in the low 20’s in 12-13 as did Suton in 11-12. But the fact remains that players who starred for college programs during their developmental years generally fail to exceed their college production at this level of competition in the prime of their careers. For inquiring minds: Nurkic’s weighted PER is 29.8 and leads the team. Second is Miro Bilan at 21.8 and Nolan Smith is 3rd. Their team is fairly successful as they have a 15-5 Adriatic Record and a +3.6 point differential, and are 8-7 in Eurocup with a +2.7 PD.
For a quick and dirty comparison: consensus lottery prospect Dario Saric (11th DX, 9th ESPN) plays in the same leagues, and he has posted a 24.1 Adriatic PER and a 16.5 Eurocup PER while being several months older. As usual PER doesn’t tell the full story, as Saric is in a different mold. Saric accrues an Evan Turner-esque combination of points, rebounds, assists, and turnovers as the primary ballhandler, with a questionable shot and tools that cause translation concerns. We have already seen Evan Turner erroneously get selected before DeMarcus Cousins before, so the fact that history may be repeating itself with Saric and Nurkic is delightfully juicy to me.
The most similar NBA prospect to Nurkic who has come from the Adriatic League is Nikola Pekovic. Pekovic was the 1st pick in the 2nd round in 2008, but in reality his draft stock was higher. Teams refrained from selecting him in round 1 due to the belief that he was unwilling to come to the NBA for a mid-1st round salary, and by selecting him in round 2 the Timberwolves were able to offer him a 3 year $13.3 million contract to entice him across the ocean. Later Pekovic returned to the Adriatic League for 10 games during the 2011 NBA lockout at age 25 before returning to the NBA to have his breakout season. Let’s compare each sample as well as Pek’s 19 year old season (where he was really 8.5 months older than Nurkic is currently) to that of Nurkic (all statistics per 40 mins):
|19 y/o Pek||17.6||9.8||0.615||7.3||0.765|
|21 y/o Pek||24.6||13||0.684||8.6||0.797|
|25 y/o Pek||27.1||12.9||0.692||12.9||0.723|
|19 y/o Pek||8.6||0.4||1.6||1.5||3||7.9|
|21 y/o Pek||8.9||1.2||1.4||1.4||2.4||5|
|25 y/o Pek||10.9||1.2||1.2||1.6||3.4||3.4|
First note how incredibly distant from Nurkic’s production Pek was at a similar age. He also shared Nurkic’s exorbitant foul rate, which is a sign that we should likely not fret too much over this. By the time he declared for the draft, Pek was a much more polished prospect as reflected in his shooting percentages and foul rate, but Nurkic clearly has much more upside. He accrues points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks at a faster rate in spite of being far younger. The blocks and steals are especially encouraging since Pek’s defense strongly inhibits his value as an NBA player. It doesn’t mean that Nurkic will necessarily be better on defense as his defensive fundamentals need work, but his potential is clear.
Again, this is somewhat of a cherry pick since we aren’t including Nurkic’s Eurocup stats. But Pek’s stats also fell off in Eurocup play. He has a career 25.2 Adriatic PER and in those seasons in which he played in the Adriatic he averaged a 20.9 Eurocup PER. It’s not as pronounced as Nurkic’s dropoff, but even if you combine the two leagues Nurkic stands out as the more exciting prospect. Pekovic’s weighted PER between the two leagues pre-lockout was 27.9 (Nurkic’s is 29.8), and then he went on to drop a 21.4 NBA PER.
The undeniable conclusion from this analysis is that Nurkic is posting outliery good statistics for a 19 year old European prospect. I am still acquainting myself with the world of European basketball to glean the meaning of this, but at a glance I cannot find many busts who statistically dominated similar competition. Really I am struggling to find any international prospects at all who posted Nurkic level statistics. Jonas Valanciunas seems to be on par, as he posted a 25.2 Eurocup PER at age 18 and 27.0 at age 19. Valanciunas also has better tools, so it makes sense to qualify Nurkic as an inferior prospect. But that also sets the bar awfully high, as Valanciunas posted a strong 20 year old rookie season and has plenty of room to grow; he was clearly the best prospect other than Kyrie in the 2011 draft and I believe he would merit top 3 consideration in this draft.
So why does Nurkic not merit top 5 consideration? On one hand he is raw and needs to cut his fouls and turnovers as well as improve his basketball IQ. But that description also applies to Joel Embiid, and it has not prevented scouts, GM’s, and myself from drooling all over him. Nurkic may have more translation concerns than Embiid since he’s so reliant on his strength, and that’s a topic that I will explore before anointing him as a future stud at a loud volume. But he’s playing at an inordinately high level for such a young and inexperienced player, and it does seem that his tools will enable him to translate enough of his production to become a good NBA player. If he proves to excel at learning and developing, he might provide a monstrous return for whatever team gambles on him.
If nothing else, Nurkic is one of the more unique and intriguing prospects in this class. I ranked him 11th on my recent big board, which was a semi-conservative ranking pending further investigation. I still have plenty of analysis to do before arriving at a confident assessment, since the Adriatic League is much less familiar territory for me than the NCAA. But the more digging I have done, the more captivated I have become with Nurkic, and at this point I cannot fathom how he is not worth a lottery selection.