Rook Looks Vol. IV: Smart & Nurkic

By Chris Horton @HortonBBallSite

In the fourth edition of the Rook Looks series we analyze two volatile rookies: Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics and Jusuf Nurkic of the Denver Nuggets.

Marcus Smart, PG Boston Celtics

In Boston they call him “Smaht”. I just call him a bulldog. Boston Celtics rookie point guard Marcus Smart is as tenacious as they come. That tenacity reveals itself in the form of tough-nosed defense, dive-on-the-floor hustle, clutch shots, and an occasional Bonner punch. If you followed Marcus Smart during his two years at Oklahoma State University none of this is surprising. What is surprising is his offensive game as a Celtic.

At Oklahoma State, Smart flourished while creating his own shot in the paint. In his final season on campus, Smart averaged nearly 10 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes, a staggering number. Although Smart’s quickness advantage would be neutralized a bit as he entered an NBA full of lightning quick point guards, his exceptional size (6’3’’ and 225 pounds) and strength still figured to make him an effective attacking guard. This has not been the case. Smart is averaging less than three free-throw attempts as a rookie. From what I saw over the course of February and March, even a good portion of those fouls come as Smart is shooting jump shots.

The change in Smart’s game is puzzling. It surely is not a quickness or athleticism issue. It’s not even a system issue. Although Smart spends the majority of his time off the ball as Evan Turner and now Isaiah Thomas initiate the offense, Smart seems to just favor the three ball. In transition, Smart is always in a race to the arc; in the half court, it’s like Smart thinks the paint is lava that he must avoid at all cost. With the free reign that Turner and Thomas have to penetrate in Coach Brad Steven’s offense, it is hard to imagine that Smart doesn’t have the same opportunity. During the seldom occasions when Smart is wearing his lava-retardant pair of Adidas and ventures into the paint he prefers looking for passing options rather than creating his own shot.

Smart spent the summer working on his three-point range in preparation for the NBA draft. Smart made such strides that he seems content with that being the single biggest part of his offensive arsenal. This is only frustrating because Smart has the tools to have a much more diversified offensive repertoire. If Smart attacked the rim more, his three-point percentage would only get higher as he takes more quality attempts and less contested ones. On the season, 59% of Smart’s field goal attempts come from three land where he is shooting a respectable 33.5%. In contrast, the best shooting point guard in the league, Stephen Curry, only attempts 48% of his shots from deep. When compared to the league’s guards as a whole, Smart shoots less frequently from everywhere inside the arc than his counterparts and far more frequently from beyond the arc, as shown below.

Only in rare cases (and one case this year) can you be effective when such a disparate amount of your shot attempts come from the three-point line. But since Marcus Smart is not Kyle Korver, this reliance on threes is actually making him inefficient offensively. Smart ranks 36th among rookies in Points Per Shot (PPS) at 1.09, where he is actually tied with Rook Looks alum and three-point hunter, Nik Stauskas. The 1.09 PPS mark puts Smart 51st amongst point guards, just slightly ahead of another Rook Look alum, Elfrid Payton, whose utter lack of shooting prowess can be found here. You know you’ve reached the height of inefficiency when your shot selection is the sole cause of your PPS to be nearly the same as someone who can’t shoot at all.

Thankfully, shot selection is correctable, especially when you have the tools that Smart has to attack the basket. Smart may never reach the 10 free-throws per 40 minutes of his college days, but I fully expect that number to increase every year as Smart matures in this league and finds balance to his offensive game.

Where you have to already fall in love with Marcus Smart is on the defensive end. He combines the tenacity already mentioned with athleticism and incredible length. Smart has a six foot nine inch wingspan, which is only a quarter inch shorter than John Wall’s and even longer than Celtics teammate and small forward Evan Turner. This length, along with his strength, allows Smart to guard multiple positions. Smart was able to give Klay Thompson fits in the half-court, chase JJ Redick manically around screen after screen, and even hold MVP candidate James Harden to 4 for 21 shooting. Performances like this are earning Smart league-wide respect.

As important as his physical gifts are, Smart is a great defender because his mental approach to the game is one that is uncommon. Physical prowess can make you a good individual defender (and Smart is already a great one), but basketball IQ is what allows players to be successful as team defenders. Smart is just as likely to rotate over and take a charge as he is to force a low percentage shot attempt on his own man. Whereas fellow rookie point guard Elfrid Payton wows defensively with his length, hands, and timing, Smart gives you a far different feel. It’s grittier, nastier. Smart is going to get up in you, harass you, make you miserable. No easy buckets.

Smart’s defensive knack along with improved three point shooting led him to be named Rookie of the Month in February. When Smart combines these skills with a more efficient offensive game, don’t be surprised if more awards follow.

Here is how my pre-season KPIs have changed:

Jusuf Nurkic, C Denver Nuggets

Bosnian born with a Michigan Fab Five swag and attitude, Jusuf “Nurk” Nurkic is European but Americanized, young yet traditional. At only 20 years old with nearly a full NBA season under his belt, Nurk is a young man cast in the mold of a throwback center. Nurk is a 6’11’’ 280 pound bruiser who loves to mix it up inside and bully modern finesse bigs with his grown man strength.

Offensively, there’s a lot to like about Nurk. He combines the brute force that earned him the Bosnian Beast moniker, with a feathery touch around the basket. Because of his advanced savvy, Nurk can be effective without plays being run for him. When he isn’t using exceptional leverage to jockey for post position, Nurk patrols the baseline, where he is surprisingly sneaky (philosopher Donald Glover might venture to say, he’s sneaky like a Cheshire cat or sneaky like a baby sneaker). As his teammates penetrate, Nurk has a knack for finding pockets of space that either leave him free for easy shots in the paint or offensive rebound opportunities. This skill is essential in today’s perimeter-oriented NBA when fewer and fewer teams are running their offense through a big man. Nurkic’s Nuggets, for example, attempt over 24 three-pointers per game which would have been the 3rd highest total in the NBA as recently as 2013, but is now only good enough for 12th most in the league. While Nurk won’t be stepping out to partake in the three-point shooting madness, he can make the Nuggets a better three-point shooting team and therein, a more efficient offense as his post-game continues to develop. Still devoid of a dominant signature move, ala a Shaq jump hook or patented Kareem Sky Hook, Nurk does not yet command a double team despite having the requisite size, physicality, and feel for the game.

On the other end of the floor, Jusuf Nurkic is a bit more confounding. What Nurkic has in size, he seems to lack in athleticism. To be fair, every 6’11 big man can’t be Willie Cauley Stein. I won’t say that Nurk looks like he has cinderblocks attached to his feet, but he definitely looks like he’s carrying bricks at times. In a February game, Nurkic and Thunder forward Mitch McGary had a race without the ball from baseline to baseline. McGary beat a sprinting Nurk by a Bosnian mile and received a feed for an easy dunk. Without having the foot speed to compete with Mitch McGary, you can only imagine what a delight it is for NBA point guards to see Nurk when they are coming off a ball screen. Nevertheless, one of the Nuggets many approaches to pick and roll defense included switching so Nurk could man-up the other team’s all-star caliber point guard. This happened more than a few times (and ended similarly each time). With the exception of Joakim Noah and maybe a couple others, this is always a losing proposition for an NBA big man; and for Nurkic, pick and roll defense is a glaring deficiency.

The most difficult thing to assess about Nurkic was his effectiveness as a rebounder. Nurk has a long, but average wingspan for his position at seven feet two inches. When you watch centers like DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside you can’t help but to notice how long they are. Nurk doesn’t strike you with the same feeling. He plays as a less long, less athletic rebounder, more of a yeomen, carving out space with strength and collecting boards at or below the rim. While Nurk does not have the rebounding radius of his longer, bouncier counterparts; he compares nicely to a few prolific contemporary rebounders.

Stats don’t always jive with what our eyes tell us, but in this case they certainly do. Nurk is far more Zach Randolph than DeAndre Jordan. Z-Bo’s lack of leaping ability has never stopped him from gobbling up double digit rebounds and Nurk has the tools to be similarly productive when given more minutes. In fact, during February and March Nurk averaged 16.7 rebounds per 100 possessions compared to Randolph’s 13.4.

Arguably the most important skill for big men looking to establish their worth in the league is rim protection. Again, Nurk is slightly perplexing. As stated, Nurk is not a freak athlete. Still, Nurk has good block numbers. Consider the chart below.

What Nurk lacks in sheer athleticism, he makes up for in unrelenting effort. He chases every weak-side block opportunity, even to his detriment at times. To draw a sports parallel, Nurk is like the NFL safety so dead set on getting an interception that he tries to jump every dig route while the football is sailing over his head to the receiver running the deep post. In Nurk’s case, his tendency to over help can lead to easy inside looks for the man he should’ve remained guarding.

Nurk’s assets – size, physicality, nasty streak, attitude, touch, and feel for the game – are all things that cannot be taught. The areas he needs to improve on are all correctable if given attention. Ideally, Nurk would be on a team with veteran leadership that could properly harness his attitude at all times. With that not being the case in Denver, Nurk is due to experience the growing pains associated with being an immature player navigating a tumultuous, new landscape. The team that sticks with Nurk through his second NBA deal (and I’m not so sure it will be the Nuggets) will be betting on the potential to truly have a Bosnian Beast to unleash on the league for years to come.

Here’s how my pre-season KPIs stack up now after watching Jusuf Nurkic for over a month:

Stay tuned for the season's last installment of Rook Looks when I breakdown Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic and Lakers point guard Jordan Clarkson...

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