The Denver Nuggets received some enjoyable news on December 17 as second-year center Jusuf Nurkic was cleared to begin contact practicing after being out eight months for rehabbing a torn patella tendon.
Before Nurkic underwent surgery on the patella tendon, he was looking like the center of the future in Denver. He averaged 6.9 points and 6.2 points in 17.8 minutes in the 62 games he played for the Nuggets last year, which earned him NBA All-Rookie Second Team.
However, the return of Nurkic creates a slight problem for the Nuggets.
Along with Nurkic, Denver has two other young European centers playing well in his absence. They are fellow second-year player Joffrey Lauvergne, from France, and rookie Nikola Jokic, from Serbia.
All three young centers have shown potential to become a 30-plus minutes player for the Nuggets, but there are only 48 minutes to go around. Lauvergne and Jokic have played 100 percent of their time at center for Denver this season, and Nurkic played 99 percent at center last season for them.
So how can the Nuggets utilize all three of the centers’ talents? The first thing to do is to see what each player brings to the table for Denver.
The second-year, 7-foot center from Bosnia was one of the bright spots for Denver last season and provided a defensive presence on the court.
When Nurkic was on the court for Denver in 2014-15, they were 10 points better per 100 possessions. The Nuggets’ defensive rating also went from 30th in the league to a mark that would have been sixth in league when he was on the floor.
Also last year, his opponents shot 48.7 percent at the rim against him, had a 4.8 percent block rate and 67 percent of his total rebounds were defensive rebounds.
Nurkic last season also had the third best defensive real plus minutes of any center which was better than Utah center Rudy Gobert and Bulls center Joakim Noah, who are both known for their defense.
Although Nurkic was stellar on defense, he was pretty raw on offense. He missed a bunch of shots, as he averaged 2.8 field goals made on 6.1 field goal attempts. However, that number should improve overtime.
To go along with his raw ability on offense, Nurkic was a foul machine. He averaged seven fouls per 36 minutes he played last season.
Lauvergne may be the most balanced of the three players.
In the 14 games Lauvergne has played in so far this season , he averages 3.4 made fields on 6.9 attempted field goals per game. He is also averaging 0.6 three-pointers made on 1.2 three-pointers attempted.
As mentioned above, 67 percent of Nurkic’s total rebounds last season were defensive rebounds. So far this year, 73.2 percent of Lauvergne’s total rebounds are defensive. He also has a better rebound rate than Nurkic. Lauvergne’s rebound rate so far this season is 19.4 percent while Nurkic’s rebound rate last year was 18.7 percent.
One downside on Lauvergne is his block rate. He has the lowest out of the three for Denver, as his block rate is 1.3 percent. Another downside to Lauvergne is his health. He’s missed 15 games this season due to injury.
In the 27 games Jokic has participated in his first season with Denver, he has been a stud so far.
Jokic may be the best on offense out of all three players. Shots from 0-3 feet away from the basket, he is shooting 61 percent while Lauvergne is shooting 62 percent and Nurkic shot 58.2 percent.
Although Lauvergne is shooting better from the 0-3-feet range than Jokic, the drop off from 0-3 feet to 3-10 feet is less than Lauvergne. So far this season Jokic is shooting 58.7 percent from 3-10 feet while Lauvergne is shooting 41.4 percent from that range. Last season Nurkic shot 31.2 percent from 3-10 feet away from the rim.
From 10-16 feet away from the basket, Jokic is shooting 53.8 percent, Lauvergne is shooting 33.3 percent this season and Nurkic is shot 33.3 as well last year.
While Jokic has the offensive game, he is still raw on defense.
His block rate and his defensive field goal percentage are better than Lauvergne’s (2.2 block rate to 1.3 block rate and 51.5 defensive field goal percent to 54.5 defensive field goal percent). But the percentage of his total rebounds is 61.9 defensive, which is the lowest out of the three.
Each player offers something completely different than the other. So what are some of the possible outcomes to ensure the Nuggets utilize all three players’ abilities?
One possible outcome is either moving Lauvergne and Jokic to power forward.
Lauvergne 26 percent of his total minutes at power forward last season, so the transition would not be that difficult for him. Jokic has shown flashes that he has the instincts to defend the four position.
If the Nuggets were to move Lauvergne and/or Jokic to power forward, it would provide new and exotic lineups.
Imagine a lineup in which either Nurkic and Jokic were on the court at the same time, or the Lauvergne and Nurkic duo playing at the same time. The possible duos these three players could make can become deadly in time.
The other possible outcome is trading one of the three players.
Denver’s best bet is to try to utilize all three talents. But if the Nuggets can’t, they could trade one of the three and get some other talent to fill the holes in their roster.
Editor’s note: A correction was made to this story to note Jokic is from Serbia.