DAN BICKLEY

Jusuf Nurkic has lived up to hype as Suns’ answer to Nikola Jokic

Mar 6, 2024, 5:01 PM | Updated: Mar 7, 2024, 6:45 am

Inside the NBA, Jusuf Nurkic is growing in stature. Around the Valley, he is growing in popularity.

He’s come a long way since the middle of January, when Shaquille O’Neal called him soft.

Nurkic made headlines with a 31-rebound performance in a loss to Oklahoma City. The number is jarring, the rebounding equivalent of a 60-point game. It’s too large to be ignored, too big to be a fluke.

Nurkic made a bigger statement Tuesday in an overtime win against the Nuggets. You will find no glory in his statistical line (seven points, 12 rebounds, two steals and two blocks), but it was clearly his finest moment of the season.

It was also the worst performance I’ve ever seen from the two-time MVP Nikola Jokic, who had one fewer assist than Nurkic’s six while committing seven turnovers.

You’ll rarely see Jokic look so uncomfortable on a basketball court. After the game, the Denver star called Nurkic “a monster” on the glass, and one of the toughest matchups he encounters in the NBA. And by the time I went to bed, I was no longer terrified of a first-round playoff series against the defending champion Nuggets.

Yeah, I know. It’s only one game. The Suns must prove they can remain locked in from start to finish, on both ends of the court, playing offense and defense with focus and pace. Sustainability is their enemy.

But Nurkic, who scored a season-high 31 on Denver earlier this season, represents a larger victory for the organization. No matter how the season concludes, they have clearly aced the trade of Deandre Ayton, acquiring a real impact center in return, along with sharpshooter Grayson Allen.

Allen has provided great value. He has flipped the script on his villainous reputation, producing the most polished season of his career. Heretofore a dirty player with a smug Duke pedigree, Allen has become one of the more likeable Suns in 2023-24, a guy who looks like a movie star and shoots like a superstar.

Nurkic also came to Phoenix with a reputation: Big guy, good dude, but don’t expect too much.

He’s been far better than that.

Nurkic has embraced the role of tough-guy agitator. He gets involved quickly if a teammate needs a show of muscle. He is giving the Suns an enforcer and a swagger they sorely need. His value will never be greater than if the Suns and the Nuggets meet in the upcoming playoffs.

Nurkic is a former teammate of Jokic. He knew Jokic at a young age. He is bigger than Jokic and has no fear of Jokic. All of that was display in Tuesday’s pivotal win.

For comparison, rewind to last year’s playoffs, when Jokic went savage on Ayton. He would take the ball in the post and repeatedly throw a shoulder into Ayton’s chest, backing him down, shoulder after shoulder, until the point of submission. Just like Giannis Antetokounmpo did during the 2021 NBA Finals.

Nurkic can absorb all of that physicality without flinching. Just he like he did on Tuesday, when Jokic compared him to the toughest centers he faces in the NBA.

“Definitely up there,” Jokic told reporters. “I think him, probably Joel (Embiid), Steven Adams … I don’t want to miss anybody. But those three are kind of top, off the top of my head.”

That’s high praise for a rarity in this basketball town: A big man who has finally lived up to the hype in Arizona.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6 a.m. – 10 a.m. on Arizona Sports.

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Jusuf Nurkic has lived up to hype as Suns’ answer to Nikola Jokic