36 unbothered: Jusuf Nurkic changes the Suns’ identity at center

Oct 9, 2023, 7:30 PM

Jusuf Nurkic, Phoenix Suns media day...

Jusuf Nurkic speaks to reporters during Phoenix Suns media day on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023. (Kevin Zimmerman/Arizona Sports)

(Kevin Zimmerman/Arizona Sports)

Devin Booker left the Phoenix Suns’ second elimination game blowout loss in the conference semifinals without saying a word. At least to the media.

He went into the offseason without addressing what happened, both after the game and at exit interviews the next day, only posting a vague social media post “36 unbothered” afterward, two days following the firing of head coach Monty Williams. What was first speculated by fans as a reference to his and Kevin Durant’s added-up jersey numbers was later corrected by Booker: He was just cruising through 36 holes of golf.

Regardless, he unknowingly created a nickname for the Suns’ superstar duo in the process.

To keep us occupied until the Oct. 24 season opener against the Golden State Warriors, which is 23 days away from Sunday, Empire of the Suns podcast co-hosts Kellan Olson and Kevin Zimmerman will be joined by Arizona Sports contributor Erik Ruby to dish on 36 key storylines for Phoenix’s 2023-24 season.

Previously –

Day 36: Devin Booker enters his prime
Day 35: The Suns have put in the work this summer
Day 34: Suns do have some continuity with returning bench players
Day 33: Kevin Durant gets integrated
Day 32: Bradley Beal proving something
Day 31: How the Big 3 develop chemistry

Day 30: Mat Ishbia’s first full season as owner
Day 29: How does Suns’ place of play change without Chris Paul
Day 28: Suns can maximize Yuta Watanabe in proper role
Day 27: Deandre Ayton finally is traded
Day 26: Who is Suns’ biggest threat in Western Conference?
Day 25: Matrix and STAT in Ring of Honor
Day 24: Phoenix Suns’ most appetizing lineups combinations
Day 23: The importance of Kevin Young’s return to the Suns
Day 22: The revamped Suns sunburst jerseys

Day 21: TV antennas and Phoenix Suns basketball for all
Day 20: Is there room on the Suns to unlock Bol Bol?
Day 19: What Grayson Allen brings to Suns
Day 18: Suns’ championship expectations
Day 17: Drew Eubanks could bring pop to Suns’ center group
Day 16: Olympic implications

Day 15: Jusuf Nurkic changes the Suns in the middle

Erik Ruby: Before we talk about what Jusuf Nurkic can bring to the Phoenix Suns on the court, let’s quickly touch on how his impact will be felt off the court.

Deandre Ayton was going to have a lot of baggage with him if he was playing in Phoenix this season. All eyes would be focused on how he performed and questions about his long-term future with the Suns would be a constant. That type of locker room dynamic could wear on a team over the course of a season, especially when that team has gone all-in on the now and has three of the best in the game wearing the same jerseys.

Moving DA to Portland, even if you believe he is better than Nurkic, allows this team to have a clean slate and focus on what they do best, hoop. The new man down low has made it abundantly clear that he is willing to buy into his role, not complain about touches and be the best fit for this team, not just the best at putting up stats.

Speaking of hooping, Nurkic brings a few new weapons with him that can help maximize how the Suns showed they wanted to run their offense in the first preseason game. He is a significantly better passer than Ayton and can be used as an outlet to have stars/role players cutting and moving around him. Plus, he is more willing to stretch the floor and shoot from beyond the arc.

Phoenix could definitely miss the athleticism and potential that Deandre Ayton brought to the floor, however, they determined that the risk was not worth the reward.

Kellan Olson: There are two inherent risks with Nurkic as the starting center for the Suns. Both have to do with staying on the floor.

Number one is in the more literal sense of his health. Nurkic’s injury track record for the last half-decade is rough. The “if healthy” label on any team gets exhausting but it is worth tabbing for this team, especially with him at center.

If he’s healthy in April, there’s plenty of merit to the case of worrying about Nurkic getting targeted defensively to the extent that Phoenix will have to look elsewhere in closing time of playoff games. Nurkic is a good rim protector in the sense that when he is in position, he can deter shots at a high level and be a physical presence for drivers to attempt to finish through. The issue is Nurkic’s lack of mobility, which requires his awareness and positioning to be very good to keep the basket protected. He has to really nail down the sweet spots of his coverage.

If both those boxes are checked, Nurkic’s screen-setting and passing within the offense are terrific accentuating skills for the Big 3 to benefit from. If they’re not, the Suns will have to look elsewhere, and that would be asking for a lot out of the depth.

Kevin Zimmerman: The point of the Ayton trade was that Nurkic fit the team and the Suns also got two potential rotation players in addition, doing mad work in terms of re-filling out the depth when we entered the CP3-Ayton-Booker-Durant conundrum to begin this offseason. Nurkic in a vacuum has question marks.

That doesn’t mean I’m not a huge fan. He has a physicality and a “last person you’d want to pick a fight with” vibe that is part of reshaping this Suns team’s image. He’s a great passer and a hard screen-setter. He might even be underrated in terms of being a capable defender under Vogel.

He also will be played off the floor at some point in the postseason. I guess Ayton was in the past two for reasons that had nothing to do with his physical capabilities. The Suns basically know what they’re getting in Nurkic, the good and the bad. The Ayton trade in that sense was about deleting a variable from the equation. They never knew which Ayton would show up. With Nurkic, that’s not going to happen.


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