Every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, we pose a question to a rotating panel of ESPN fantasy basketball experts to gauge their thoughts on a hot topic. Today's contributors are ESPN's Bradford Doolittle, Joe Kaiser and Kyle Soppe.
Jusuf Nurkic made his debut Wednesday with the Portland Trail Blazers, following his recent trade from the Denver Nuggets, and looked good with 13 points, 7 boards and 3 steals in 21 minutes off the bench. He showed promise during his tenure with the Nuggets but never became a reliable fantasy option. Do you think Nurkic (available in 61.1 percent of ESPN leagues) will settle in for fantasy owners this season and beyond with the Blazers?
Joe Kaiser: I've been a big fan of Nurkic since he entered the league and started showing his upside as a legitimate fantasy star early in his career. Things didn't work out in Denver, but I think he'll be a better fit in Portland, where they need his size and will depend on him to play 25-plus minutes a night. His Blazers debut was impressive, but what especially stood out was that it came in only 21 minutes off the bench.
Once the 22-year-old gets accustomed to Portland's offense, I expect him to be a starter with the upside to average a double-double and 1-2 blocks per game. Next season, I see his fantasy value being in the same range as fellow young centers Clint Capela and Steven Adams.
Bradford Doolittle: Unless the Blazers trade for Nikola Jokic, Nurkic should be a fairly good bet. He's been a consistent producer through his career when healthy, and his defensive RPM (plus-1.96) is better than either Jokic or Mason Plumlee. That suggests the defense-starved Blazers will leave him on the floor for at least the 28 minutes per game that Plumlee was getting. It is a bit of a different look for the Blazers and we'll have to see how Nurkic works with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
Neither Nurkic nor Plumlee is anything like a floor-spacer. Plumlee was at his best on the move -- cuts, rolls, transition -- while Nurkic is more of a plodder and back-to-the-basket threat. He's not nearly the playmaker Plumlee was, so if he upgrades Portland in the middle, it may be a trade-off of offense for defense. Given the Blazers' bedrock offensive foundation of Lillard and McCollum, I'd be surprised if Nurkic maintains his career 22.7 percent usage rate. I think he'll end up somewhere around 12 points per game, nine boards, and about 1.8 blocks. Hopefully, the lowered usage will keep his field-goal percentage around 50, though his free throw shooting might torpedo everything.
Kyle Soppe: Yep, I'm on board here. Listen, he was a first-round pick in 2014 for a reason and the needs of his employer finally fit his skill set. With Nurkic playing limited minutes, the Nuggets were averaging the third most paint points per game in the NBA, so there really was no motivation to unleash Nurkic on any sort of consistent basis. The Blazers...not so much. They score the ninth fewest paint points despite scoring the ninth most points per game this season, so a player who has taken nearly 87 percent of his career shots from inside of eight feet has a real role that isn't going anywhere.
The primary concern for any player who is expected to see a significant minute bump is his ability to produce for an extended period of time: that's not a worry here. In 20 games this season in which Nurkic has played at least 20 minutes, he is averaging 12.7 points on 58.7 percent shooting and 8.3 rebounds. That stat line is essentially Gorgui Dieng (84.9 percent owned) or a more efficient version of Zach Randolph (74.9 percent owned) that is 13 years younger. If you need some interior production, this is as strong a free agent as you're going to find on your waiver wire.