Nurkic's improvement raised Trail Blazers' ceiling, but the sky is falling now
Sam Forencich / National Basketball Association / Getty

Jusuf Nurkic's sickening leg injury has taken so much. It brought the Bosnian big man's career night - and his career year - to a screeching halt and derailed the Portland Trail Blazers' playoff hopes. Those unfortunate realities shouldn't overshadow his season, however. The fact he can affect the team's fortunes so much shows how far his game has come.

Though he wasn't one of the favorites for the NBA's Most Improved Player Award, Nurkic's year-over-year leap this season was one of the league's pleasant surprises. The 24-year-old posted career highs across the board, averaging 15.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.4 blocks, and 1.0 steals while suiting up for 72 of Portland's first 73 games.

He established a new career high in scoring (with 32 points) in Monday's game before the injury in the double-overtime win against the Brooklyn Nets. He twice set a career high in assists this season - recording the first double-digit assist game of his career in a January win over Cleveland - and set a new personal mark for rebounds with 23 on New Year's Day in Sacramento.

That performance against the Kings is most notable for Nurkic's 5x5 stat line; it was only the 18th time in the 46 seasons since blocks and steals have been tracked that a player recorded at least five points, five rebounds, five assists, five steals, and five blocks in a single game. Nurkic became the youngest player to achieve the feat since Nicolas Batum accomplished it at age 24 six seasons ago.

But Nurkic's impact goes well beyond base statistics. Sure, his incredible net rating - Portland performs 15.4 points per 100 possessions better with Nurkic on the court - is influenced by playing more than 95 percent of his minutes with at least one of Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum, but Nurkic's presence has proven invaluable.

Nurkic ranks in the top 10 in terms of the total number of shots he has contested, and of 93 qualified players defending at least three attempts at the rim per game, Nurkic's opponents' field-goal percentage (55.2) ranks 17th, ahead of rim protectors such as Myles Turner and Jarrett Allen. The only big men who have defended post-ups better than Nurkic this season are Boston's Aron Baynes and the Spurs' LaMarcus Aldridge. He's been more successful at defending the roll man in pick-and-roll situations than Clint Capela, Steven Adams, and Rudy Gobert.

On the offensive end, only five centers have dished out more assists, and only three have been credited with more screen assists. Nurkic recorded 90 more dimes than he did last season despite playing seven fewer games this year.

Abbie Parr / Getty Images Sport / Getty

As impressive as Nurkic's defensive numbers are, it's his improved playmaking that unlocked options for the Blazers, remedying a fatal flaw that could rear its head again. What happens when teams capable of defending the perimeter manage to take one (or both) of Lillard and McCollum out of the equation, as New Orleans did during last spring's first-round playoff sweep?

That's a question raw points and rebounds, alone, can't answer.

Nurkic's heightened offensive ability to read and react out of the pick-and-roll or the high post - finding teammates, shooters, and cutters to keep Portland flowing when its main ball-handlers got trapped - had become somewhat of a safety valve.

How do you replace that a few weeks before the playoffs?

Lillard's phenomenal offensive abilities, McCollum's secondary scoring, and head coach Terry Stotts' creativity give the Blazers a competitive floor that many lesser franchises would covet, as evidenced by the trio's sixth straight postseason berth. But Nurkic's development elevated the team's ceiling to heights this core couldn't quite reach. His absence will be felt.

There is a certain cruelty in the way it unfolded for the historically snake-bitten Trail Blazers. Portland fans would argue that were it not for the knee injury that kept McCollum out of Monday's game, the Blazers probably would have closed the game in regulation time, leading by seven with three minutes left. Same goes if Seth Curry, an 85 percent free-throw shooter, made both of his freebies with 3.5 seconds left in regulation, as opposed to just one of them. Perhaps the cruelest part is that without Nurkic's career scoring night, the Blazers merely swallow a frustrating loss. Instead, Nurkic's presence allowed them to survive into a 56th minute, when he landed on an opponent's foot after jumping for a rebound and suffered fractures to his tibia and fibula.

Such gruesome injuries serve as the unfortunate subplot to an entertaining game involving athletes of unbelievable proportions doing freakishly athletic things at breakneck speeds. They also serve as a reminder of how quickly a career year - even a career itself - can be curtailed, altering a team's trajectory.

The Blazers - the franchise of Roy, Oden, Bowie, and Walton - know that all too well.

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Nurkic's improvement raised Trail Blazers' ceiling, but the sky is falling now
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