Rising Big Men: Nurkic vs. Gobert

by Spencer Suk & Jordan Lee



Every NBA season, we see a few obscure names emerge from the depths of anonymity.  Some players explode for a stretch when a teammate goes down with an injury.  Others find their niche and role on a new team with a different system.  There are also those who just haven’t been given a chance until now.

This year, a plethora of young big men have been able to rise to the occasion, but a few names separate themselves from the rest: Hassan Whiteside, Donatas Motiejunas, Rudy Gobert and Jusuf Nurkic.  While none of these four players are even close to becoming household names, their performances have been noteworthy and their futures look bright.  

Below, we will discuss why Nurkic and Gobert are two of the more exciting, young big men in the league, as well as debate who the more valuable player is.  In case you missed it, part 1 of this article analyzed and compared Motiejunas and Whiteside.



Jusuf Nurkic, Denver Nuggets

If Bosnian sports agent Enes Trnovcevic didn’t come across a story about Jusuf Nurkic’s 7’0” 400-pound father in the paper, Jusuf most likely would have never played basketball professionally, let alone in the NBA.  As the story goes, Trnovcevic read that Jusuf’s father, Hariz, defeated 14 people in a fight, all at once, while working as a cop in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Trnovcevic met with Hariz the very next day with only one question in mind: “Do you have a son?”

Jusuf Nurkic was 14-years old at the time and had never played serious basketball.  Trnovcevic offered to train him in Slovenia, and the rest is history.  On draft day this past summer, the Nuggets traded down (11th pick) for the 16th and 19th picks, which they used to draft Nurkic and Gary Harris respectively.  In retrospect, Denver may have done this trade because they wanted Nurkic, a very promising prospect not likely to be selected in the lottery.  Every team drafting from 11 to 15 (Chicago, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Phoenix, Atlanta) already had a center, making it unlikely for the raw 20-year old to be taken.

The Nuggets, on the other hand, were in need of a big man after realizing that the MVP of Shaqtin’ a Fool, Javale McGee, was not the answer.  Mozgov had proven to be a solid center, but at 29, he was clearly more valuable on a contending team like the Cavs.  The underachieving Nuggets struck gold in their deal with Cleveland, grabbing two first rounders in exchange for Mozgov, but it’s their belief in Nurkic that made parting ways with Mozgov a no-brainer.

Just like his father, Jusuf Nurkic is enormous, standing at 6’11” and weighing 280 pounds.  But what makes Nurkic so special is his nimbleness considering his burly frame.  He moves his feet extremely well for a seven-footer, which translates especially well on the defensive end.  It allows him to step up on stretch fives without having to worry about getting blown by.  On the other side of the ball, Nurkic not only has great touch around the rim, but also shows potential in the mid-range game.  Though he’s shooting just 34% on jump shots, his stroke looks smooth.  With time and practice, Nurkic should be able to become a more consistent shooter.

Info from basketball-reference.com

Info from basketball-reference.com

Nurkic has all the tools to become one of the more dominant big men in the game on both sides of the ball.  Unlike many other European bigs, Nurkic looks for contact and tries to use his size as much as possible.  He constantly battles for position down low, which explains his incredible rebounding rate (9th in NBA in rebounds per 36 minutes).

However, Nurkic can be a headache to watch at times, constantly reminding us that he’s just a kid.  His discipline on the defensive end was questioned before the draft, and rightfully so.  He constantly reaches instead of moving his feet (something he’s very capable of), the main reason why he is averaging an absurd 7.3 fouls per 36 minutes.

Nurkic’s immaturity shows on the court and the Nuggets are definitely going to experience growing pains with him over the next few years.  Nonetheless, it’s nice to see that Nurkic, despite being just 20 (and a rookie), is not scared of anyone (also thanks to his dad?).  On January 3rd, Nurkic had the best game of his young career in a 29 point blowout win over the Grizzlies. He finished with 11 points, 10 rebounds, 2 steals and 5 blocks in just 23 minutes while standing toe-to-toe with MVP candidate Marc Gasol, blocking him 3 times before confronting him face-to-face.

Three games later, Nurkic was enjoying another great game and let Boogie Cousins know about it.  He finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks before fouling out in the win.



Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Simply put, Rudy Gobert was blessed with a physique that you hardly ever see even in the NBA. Although he isn’t one of the tallest centers ever (he’s still 7’2”), Gobert’s 7’9” wingspan is tied for the fourth largest ever in NBA prospect history.  Consequently, his standing reach, which measures in at 9’7”, is tied for the third largest ever recorded.  Add in his 29” vertical, and you get a man with a 12’0” max vertical reach (which is the exact same as DeAndre Jordan’s max vertical reach).

With his enormous frame, it’s easy to see how Gobert has developed into a disruptive, rim-protecting monster.  Whenever an opposing player attacks the paint, Gobert is there to gobble up the shot.  He is the NBA version of the Troll that Lives Under the Bridge.  Opponents are shooting a measly 37% at the rim against Gobert.  37%!!!  Even the best defensive bigs like Roy Hibbert (40.6%), Andrew Bogut (40.6%), Dwight Howard (45.1%), and Marc Gasol (48.6%) can’t get below the 40% mark.  

Much like in the case of Hassan Whiteside, January has been a month to remember for Gobert. Much of this is due to the fact that Coach Quin Snyder gave the big man more minutes and chances when Enes Kanter went down with an injury.  In his six starts as center, Gobert averaged 9.5 points and 8.5 rebounds to go along with his Anthony Davis-esque numbers on defense: 4.2 blocks and 1.3 steals.

But stats don’t really give you the full picture with Gobert.  To truly appreciate how scary it is to meet him at the rim, you need to go to the highlight reel.

Going strong to the rim is not a good idea against the Stifle Tower.  As his nickname implies, Gobert is simply too tall and long to dunk on.  Shabazz Muhammad, a respectable dunker in his own right, has absolutely no chance on this one.

But the problem is, trying to finesse your way around him in the post isn’t a great solution either.  In the following sequence, Gobert is matched up against Pau Gasol in isolation during a game in 2014’s FIBA Basketball World Cup.  Gasol instantly gains deep position on Gobert with a quick move.  However, Gobert, who has great footwork for someone his size, does a good job of staying between his man and the basket.  As a result, when Gasol gets ready to take a right-handed hook, Gobert times his jump perfectly and uses his insane length to block the shot.  If this block doesn't impress you, take into consideration that Gasol has only had 2 of his 91 hooks blocked all season.

Surprisingly, Snyder elected to keep Enes Kanter in the starting lineup when he returned from injury.  While Kanter is the superior offensive player, Gobert’s impact on the defensive end is too great to ignore.  He ranks 1st in block percentage, 3rd in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (a measure that estimates the amount of defensive points per 100 possessions that a player contributed above a league average player), 4th in blocks per 36 minutes, 21st in total rebound percentage, and 27th in win shares per 48 minutes.

It’s possible Snyder sees something we don’t.  Maybe he feels that Gobert fits in well with the second unit.  Maybe he wants to bring Gobert along slowly.  Regardless, the numbers don’t agree with the coach on this one, and it’s a bit puzzling as to why the Stifle Tower isn’t starting yet.

Who’s More Valuable

Lee: I know Gobert has freakish arms and is an unbelievable rim protector, but I think his ceiling is limited.  He has a very lanky frame, which I don’t like for centers since this makes it hard for them to gain good position on both ends of the floor.  I’ll give up seven inches of wingspan for Nurkic’s sturdier physique (35 pounds heavier) and quicker feet.

Suk: Who cares about Gobert’s weight when he can hold opponents to 37% shooting at the rim. His length makes it easy to contest a shot well without having to foul, whereas Nurkic has to be more physical to stop opposing big men (contributing to his high foul rate).  While he is still just a rookie, Nurkic is only holding opponents to 49.3% at the rim.  Nurkic’s agility helps his one-on-one defense, but he isn’t as effective as Gobert as a help-defender.  

I also question Nurkic’s ability to be a great offensive player.  86% of his shots come within 10 feet of the rim, yet he’s still shooting just 44.6% from the field. Yes, Gobert’s offensive game looks very limited, as he doesn’t do much more than dunk and lay the ball in (60 dunks this year compared to Nurkic’s 9), but his length allows him to shoot 63.1% from the field.  You don’t need much more when you can protect the rim like Gobert does.

Lee:  I agree Nurkic will never be able to protect the rim like Gobert, but that’s the only thing Gobert has on Nurkic.  Like Roy Hibbert, I can see Gobert being a fantastic rim protector, constantly holding opponents under 40%, but not offering much else.  But he doesn’t even have the deadly hook shot that Roy Hibbert loves to use, as Gobert has taken just shot 8 hook shots all season (making 2).  I think Gobert’s offensive game is limited to DeAndre Jordan or Tyson Chandler.

Nurkic, on the other hand, is shooting just 44.6%, but he’s showing that he has post moves.  He’s not scared to take the hook shot (21 of 49) or a mid-range jumper, which is very promising considering he’s just 20 years old.  Nurkic has great touch and soft hands, allowing him to effect the game on both ends of the floor.  For that reason, I think Nurkic’s ceiling is far higher than Gobert’s.

Suk: A center who can protect the rim like Hibbert and dive to the rim for easy buckets like Jordan/Chandler sounds like a player any team would love to have.  Plus, imagine how much better DeAndre Jordan would be if he could shoot free throws like Rudy Gobert (67.3%).

Even if you do think Nurkic’s ceiling is higher (which I’m not sure of), it’s important to note that he’s also not a guarantee.  Nurkic’s attitude problems and immaturity could be an issue (you never know), and he still has to develop a lot to reach his potential.  Meanwhile, Gobert has been impressive all season, as well as during the summer’s World Cup.  In my mind, he is bound to be a very valuable center worth eight-figures annually.

Lee:  I like what Gobert brings to the table and would definitely want him on my team.  I just think Nurkic is going to be special.  We all knew Nikola Vucevic had the potential to become a reliable scorer, but it took four years for him to finally develop an offensive game.  This season, Vucevic has already made 66 hook shots in just 40 games (126 combined in his previous 185 games).  I can see Nurkic's offense developing in a similar manner, which is scary considering that he is already a great rebounder and a better defender than Vucevic.  Nurkic's potential is simply too high for me to pass on, no matter how big the risk.

Nurkic is also two years younger than Gobert, and it looks like the Nuggets have cleared the front court in order to give Nurkic more minutes.  Meanwhile, Gobert has to battle Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter for playing time.  Kanter is on the last year of his rookie contract, so it’s going to be interesting to see what the Jazz decide to do.  Something tells me they are not ready to part ways with their 2011 3rd overall draft pick, who is still just 22 years old, but if they do, expect Gobert to have a breakout year.