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The NBA Can’t Stop Hitting Jusuf Nurkic In The Face

Perhaps better than anything else, player statues exemplify what NBA greats were known for during their careers. A bronzed Michael Jordan is soaring over defenders for a dunk in Chicago; John Stockton and Karl Malone look as if they’re completing another successful pick and roll in Utah; and Magic Johnson, who led the Showtime-era Lakers, is leading a fast break.

If Jusuf Nurkic ever reaches this level of immortality — which, OK, is probably a long shot — his statue would display him getting elbowed in the mouth. The 23-year-old Trail Blazers center is good at many things, but he stands alone in the NBA when it comes to getting whacked in the face.

Nurkic was dealt last February to a Portland team that wears black and red, but his 2017 calendar year could best be described as black and blue. He lost two teeth after getting nailed in the mouth while going for a rebound (yet was still hit with a loose-ball foul). Then, while wearing a protective mask to safeguard the replacement dental implants he’d received after that gory episode, Nurkic got elbowed in the forehead — a play that left him with a concussion. So it was only fitting that he’d require stitches during the final week of the year after a bloody collision with the Sixers’ J.J. Redick.

These instances were merely the most painful knocks for Nurkic, who’s absorbed at least a dozen considerable dings over the past year or so. One indication of how often he takes one for the team: The Bosnian product has induced a league-high four opponent flagrants this season, twice as many1 as any other NBA player. Setting him apart even more: Midway through the 2017-18 campaign, the flagrant foul calls for roughing up Nurkic have accounted for more than 9 percent of all the flagrants recorded this season — the highest rate induced by a single player in the 21 years that ESPN’s Stats & Information Group has tracked the metric. Aside from the flagrant fouls he’s induced, Nurkic also managed to trigger at least five opponent technical fouls in 2017.

Jusuf Nurkic is the most whacked player in over 20 years

NBA players who’ve induced the highest share of opposing flagrant fouls since the 1996-97 season

Flagrant Fouls
Player Team Season League Total Player % of Total
Jusuf Nurkic Trail Blazers 2017-18* 43 4 9.3%
Blake Griffin Clippers 2010-11 117 10 8.5
Blake Griffin Clippers 2013-14 99 8 8.1
Blake Griffin Clippers 2011-12 92 5 5.4
Blake Griffin Clippers 2014-15 119 6 5.0
Blake Griffin Clippers 2012-13 120 6 5.0
Antonio Daniels SuperSonics 2003-04 105 5 4.8
Manu Ginobili Spurs 2004-05 87 4 4.6
Kobe Bryant Lakers 2005-06 110 5 4.5
Bob Sura Cavaliers 1996-97 133 6 4.5

*Through Jan 10, 2018.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

The real question in all this, of course, is why Nurkic gets hit as often as he does. When I asked him about this trend, the 7-footer suggested that opponents see it as the only way to hold him in check.

“People know what I bring to the table and try to slow me down. I’m not saying they always do it on purpose, but it’s happened like that before,” said Nurkic, who averages nearly 15 points and 8 boards. He was wearing a bandage on his nose at the time when I talked to him, but when I asked if he wears the battle scars with pride, Nurkic seemed confused. “There’s nothing to be proud of when you keep getting hit in the face. It hurts. I’m getting a little tired of it, and I feel the league should protect me a bit more from the hits, but it is what it is. It’s gonna be all right.”

It’s unclear what, if anything, the league could realistically do about the blows to the face of Nurkic, who, unlike a high-flying scorer like Blake Griffin, is getting drilled mostly while playing defense.2 In fact, of the eight video clips we just highlighted of Nurkic getting hit, seven involved him standing in the restricted area on defense or trying to grab a board in a loose-ball scenario.

In other words: He’s often sitting in the area of the floor where players are most likely to use brute force in order to gain a scoring or rebounding advantage. As a result, he’s caught more than his fair share of stray elbows when standing that close to the basket.

Yet there’s some validity to the idea that Nurkic directly or indirectly brings some of these headaches upon himself. While Nurkic denied embellishing contact during our conversation — “Hopefully the referees see it all, because I’m not faking,” he said — instant replay makes it clear that he occasionally baits refs into thinking he’s been hit.

“He did a good job of acting it out,” then-Hawks center Dwight Howard said last season after landing a tech for what he deemed to be a Nurkic flop. “He should find a way to make it to Hollywood. Or they are doing films in Atlanta now. He can find a good film right here and do some acting.”

And this play, in which Nurkic drew an offensive foul against Denver’s Paul Millsap on a 3-point jumper, is perhaps the best example of him fooling officials without actually putting himself in harm’s way.

Painless flops like this are a rarity, though. In fact, last week, Nurkic basically flopped his way into a nasty blow to the head. In the midst of trying to draw an offensive foul on LeBron James — one the officials called, despite limited contact between Nurkic and the four-time MVP — Nurkic’s momentum carried him to his right, and he drifted into Jae Crowder’s forearm. All this just to save two points.

Retaliation sometimes comes into play, too, particularly with players — even max-contract-level stars — who feel Nurkic has gotten away with a foul or a dirty play. The hard screens he sets, sometimes illegal, may infuriate his opponents and are completely by design — a product of Nurkic’s time in the highly competitive EuroLeague. “(Overseas) we set Zaza screens,” he told Sports Illustrated, referring to Warriors center Zaza Pachulia, who had the third-highest offensive foul rate on a per-minute basis last season. “You set a screen, and someone gets injured immediately. You need to earn the points.”

“Guys like that frustrate you a little bit, because I’m trying to get around the screen, but there’s no way to do it when he’s moving,” said Josh Richardson, the Heat guard who gets knocked to the floor at half court in the video above. “If it’s one time, you can just move onto the next play. But if it keeps happening, and there’s no call, some guys might try to send a message.”

The son of a 7-foot, 400-pound pound policeman, Nurkic likes to infuse physicality into his play while insisting he’s not a dirty player. On the offensive side, his screens have freed up 194 immediate shot opportunities, the eighth-highest number in the NBA, according an analysis run by STATS SportVu at FiveThirtyEight’s request. On defense, he’s spoken of trying to develop an attitude in Portland similar to that of the rough-and-tumble Pistons from the “Bad Boys” era.

Yet ratcheting up the nastiness could result in bringing even more pain Nurkic’s way — given that he’ll want to enter restricted free agency this summer fully healthy.

Blazers guard C.J. McCollum, asked why he believes Nurkic takes so many blows, described his teammate like the final boss on a video game. “I think Nurk is so big that you have to hit him harder than anyone else in order for him to actually feel it. He’s just huge,” McCollum said. “People feel like they have to foul him hard to send a message.”

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Footnotes

  1. Quick caveat: It’s not possible to perfectly track who was flagrantly fouled on a given sequence using play-by-play data. The best way to estimate who drew the flagrant is to look at which player shoots the free throws immediately after. But a severe injury that forces someone to leave the game would allow that player’s team to send a different free-throw shooter to the line in his place.

  2. An NBA spokesman declined to comment, saying the league doesn’t address the way individual players are officiated.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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