Jusuf Nurkic looks back fondly on Nurk Fever, the condition caught by just about everybody in Portland in the second half of the 2016-17 season. The Trail Blazers rescued Nurkic from the Denver Nuggets' bench at the trade deadline, and he repaid them by averaging 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.3 steals in a magical 20-game stretch, helping them turn a disappointing season around and qualify for the playoffs.
"It was an amazing experience, man," Nurkic told CBS Sports. "They gave me the role I always wanted. Coming from Denver, I didn't know what's going on, and I came in here and they were just like, 'Go hoop. Have fun.' That was probably the best experience for me and the city and the organization. We had that run and made the playoffs and then you come into the year and you have a lot of expectations from myself, from the fans, from the league, whatever."
Last season was different. While Nurkic played well enough to earn a four-year, $48 contract from Portland, it was not an extended honeymoon. The Blazers improved significantly on defense, but he started slowly and his great numbers after the All-Star break were largely overshadowed by the fact that, after 49 regular-season victories, they couldn't take a single game from the New Orleans Pelicans in the first round of the playoffs.
The stunning sweep prompted calls for serious changes: fire the GM, fire the coach, trade Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum or both. The organization did none of this, instead electing to bring back almost entirely the same team. Preseason stories out of Portland indicate that coach Terry Stotts wants to diversify the offense; according to Nurkic, the most noticeable differences will be that the team will play faster and shoot more 3-pointers, which is what just about everybody in the NBA is preaching.
"I think Portland is in good shape," Nurkic said. "I think, just, people overreact because, the last two or three seasons, we're not getting somebody, a really big name, in free agency or trades. So I understand that point."
On the phone, when I bring up the fact that Nurkic called this offseason his "greatest summer ever," he quickly adds that it was his busiest summer ever. He said he traveled back and forth from Bosnia to Portland four or five times because of free agency and international competition with Bosnia and Herzegovina's national team. He described all this as very challenging, and it sounded like he would like to give himself more than 10 days off next summer. Going into the season, though, Nurkic expects that the work he did individually and with the national team will pay off. He wants to be an All-Star and be first-team All-Defense. He pledged to commit fewer "stupid fouls," play more minutes and, of course, make the playoffs.
"I mean, the Nurk Fever is back," he said.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.
CBS Sports: How do you put everything that happened last year in perspective?
Jusuf Nurkic: I think you can't just overreact to the four games. At the end of the day, we lost. We give them [Pelicans] the credit. They came prepared and they played good. What we did, through the whole season, it was a good season for us. The playoffs, we didn't do well, and we understand that. We understand we didn't do well, but we know exactly what we can do to get better. For us, and the team and Dame and CJ and the rest of the guys, we understand we can't be in the same position where we were a year ago. At the end of the day, the West has never been probably a harder place. Especially with LeBron actually coming to the West. It's almost like a 'Game of Thrones' kind of challenge. Every night is going to be difficult. Every night is going to be somebody else. Which is amazing: As a player, you want to play those kind of games.
CBS: How different should we expect the Blazers to look this season?
JN: To be honest, it can't be that much different. Obviously the offense in Portland has always been good. Before I came there, they really struggled on the defensive end, and I tried to turn them around, tried to help them. We kind of turned defense in our favor, from 20-something in the NBA to top-eight in the NBA. I think that's a great accomplishment. For us as a team, we understand, some games we might not make a lot of shots, but we understand we need to guard, man.
CBS: Is that why you came out and said you want to be first-team All-Defense?
JN: Yeah, I think people kind of overlook that. Obviously I can't do it by myself. I think a big part of what we do on defense goes to my end and Moe [Harkless] and Chief [Al-Farouq Aminu], but at the end of the day it's a team sport. I'm not looking to be first team just because I want to be on the first team -- it's just because I know I can get there. Obviously we need to play a great season, but I definitely see some goals I can reach.
CBS: What should people expect from your new 3-point range?
JN: I'm comfortable doing that. But I feel like, the way the league is going, everybody is expecting the big man to play every position, I guess, and to try to be able to guard anywhere on the court because there's going to be a lot of switching and mismatches. So, I feel the way I was playing the last couple years, I was shooting the long 2s anyway. So, one step back and I'll shoot the 3s and nothing is going to change. Obviously I'm not going to shoot 10 shots from the 3-point line, but if I'm going to be alone and have the time I'm going to definitely shoot some of them this year. My game is not going to change, I don't want people to just talk about 3s, 3s, overreacting to that. I'm going to make some, but some games I'm not going to make any of them. I'm not going to shoot a lot per game, maybe three a game, something like that, maybe less. It just depends on the game and the matchups I have -- if they're going to keep switching on me, I'm definitely going to be more in the post.
CBS: What have you learned about Damian in the year and a half that you've spent with him?
JN: Oh, man. I don't have a lot of words to explain that, man. The leadership he has and experience-wise, just to be able to play alongside him and he kind of took me under his wing, explaining what's going on and to respect the game is probably the most [important]. Because when you're not in a really good season, most of the guys on the team don't know what their roles are, it can be difficult, especially for young guys in their rookie year. When you come into the organization, they really know what they're doing. Damian is one of the superstars who really has a good personality. He really tries to take care of business, not worry about anything else. When he goes on the court, he just hoops. I think from him, not taking anything for granted is probably the most [important]. Not making excuses and stuff like that. Playing with him is just, for me, it is unbelievable.
CBS: Given what you just said, does it bother you when you hear people say the Blazers should split Dame and CJ up?
JN: Look, what do you get when you split up Dame and CJ? You get a lottery team, 20 wins probably in a year. That's not the goal. For a small-market team, I think that Portland is not appreciating what Dame really is. You're not going to get anytime some player like Dame here. Everybody knows that. The way he treats the city, the way he treats the people, the way he treats the guys around him. Even a person he just met, any day, he treats every person the same. That's what's amazing for me to see. Like, the way he's handled the situation, the media and everything, just overall a really pro guy. What can you ask from him? He's really a leader. He's giving you 30 a night, basically, first-team All-NBA, All-Star every year -- should be. It's just difficult to ask him to do more by himself. When you look at his position, you can point to a lot of guys when they didn't have a superstar, another All-Star, whatever. What did they do? Nothing. They accomplished nothing. But he always pushed somebody else. He always tried to find somebody to make better.
CBS: What will you always remember about Paul Allen?
JN: It's my fifth year right now, and I've seen a lot of stuff, but I'd never seen an owner have trouble with health. Like, you know, you have a lot of money and you have pretty much everything in your life, but then the problems start when you have a real problem in your life. But he was still there, man. He was still for us. He was being at practice, he was being at the NBA Draft. He cared about sports, he cared about people. He changed a lot of people's lives. That's what matters to me. When I'd see him, he'd always be like, 'How are you doing?' He was always a nice guy. To be in a position where he was, you're not expecting somebody like that to be that kind of guy. Just to know him, for me it was an honor because I know what he did for humanity, for the city of Portland, for the Blazers. You can see how much he means to the people, which is amazing.
CBS: You signed long-term in Portland. What have you grown to love about the city?
JN: I think it's really good because Portland has a lot of similarities with back home. The buildings are not that big. The city is not really big. I think because in Portland, the Blazers are pretty much the only sport, they're really crazy about it, which is good. You want to come to the game and the fans are already there and the game is sold out. I think it's pretty much what you stand for. You want to get out there and see 20,000 people in the arena. Even those games that are not probably the greatest games you want to see, they come. They show up. They support us. You know, sometimes when you're not doing very well, you know there are going to be critics at some point, but at the end of the day you know the real fans are going to have your back no matter what.
CBS: After the New Orleans series, did you go back and watch the film or just try to forget about it?
JN: No, definitely, I was watching the clips, man. I was watching the tape, pretty much the whole season. It's not I'm not going to watch -- no, man. In my life, I always get in the hardest place possible. It's not like I was ashamed about it. We didn't finish the season the way we wanted, of course, but at the end of the day, I'm still 23 years old. [Nurkic turned 24 in August.] I can do a lot of stuff. I'm still young. I still need to figure out a lot of stuff on the court. And Dame helped me a lot with that. But, at the end of the day, I need to see the plays. I need to see all the possessions I could to get better myself. It's not about, like, I'm not going to do it. No -- I will do it every day.