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In his own way, David Lee was a launching pad for the new age Warriors

A member of the 2015 championship team, David Lee also was the most glaring casualty of the Warriors amazing ride to the top of the NBA...

Ex-Cavs player says LeBron James wasn't responsible for Halloween decorations that trolled Warriors

Former Cavs player Dahntay Jones said LeBron James wasn't responsible for the Halloween decorations that made fun of the Warriors loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals.

Denver Nuggets Front Office: How to build a team in the NBA?

Denver Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and General Manager Arturas Karnisovas talk about how to properly build a team in this current climate in the NBA.

Denver Nuggets Front Office: How to build a team in the NBA?

Denver Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and General Manager Arturas Karnisovas talk about how to properly build a team in this current climate in the NBA.

Denver Nuggets Front Office: How to build a team in the NBA?

Denver Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and General Manager Arturas Karnisovas talk about how to properly build a team in this current climate in the NBA.

Denver Nuggets Front Office: How to build a team in the NBA?

Denver Nuggets President of Basketball Operations Tim Connelly and General Manager Arturas Karnisovas talk about how to properly build a team in this current climate in the NBA.

NBA wrap: Stephen Curry's offensive explosion leads Warriors past Nets

NBA wrap: Stephen Curry's offensive explosion leads Warriors past Nets

NBA wrap: Stephen Curry's offensive explosion leads Warriors past Nets

Curry helped the Warriors avoid a loss in Brooklyn.

NBA wrap: Stephen Curry's offensive explosion leads Warriors past Nets

NBA wrap: Stephen Curry's offensive explosion leads Warriors past Nets

The Making of Jusuf Nurkic: The Uncompromising Bosnian Beast

?In the weeks leading up to the 2014 NBA draft, Jusuf Nurki? admitted to the Spurs front office that he had serious reservations about life in the United States. The elder of two sons, Nurki? was raised with a military mindset by traditional parents—a 400-plus-pound police officer and his wife—in a small Bosnian village. “If America is like the movies,” Nurki? told the soon-to-be champs, “I’m never coming.” Upon his arrival in New York City before the big night, the 7–footer craned his neck to marvel at the skyscrapers, only to have his worst fears confirmed. “My very first day, some guy asked me if I wanted drugs,” Nurki? recalled, his voice a mix of exasperation and amusement. “My first experience in New York is a drug dealer! What’s going on here? It was just like the movies.”

The perplexities were just beginning. Chicago selected him with the No. 16 pick, beating most pre-draft expectations, and it seemed like a happy twist of fate. “I used to help on my grandfather’s farm and he’s all about bulls,” Nurki? laughed. “Natural, big bulls. He was so happy Chicago took me. Everyone was excited.” By the time Nurki? put his limited English to the test in media interviews, though, Chicago had already traded his rights to Denver. It didn’t take long for Nurki? to realize the Nuggets were well-stocked with big men, a fact that later prompted Nurki? to bluntly ask GM Tim Connelly, “Why do you want me?”

When camp opened, it dawned on him that his American teammates Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson were real people, not just “NBA 2K” characters. During a preseason game against the Lakers, Nurki? was so transfixed by his childhood hero Kobe Bryant that he wandered aimlessly around the court as coach Brian Shaw tried to get his attention. Shaw had played professionally in Italy so he was sympathetic, but he also worried that culture shock might be a nightly distraction. “We play Oklahoma City next. Are you going to act the same with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?” Shaw asked. “No, coach,” the reply came. “Only Kobe.”

Stargazing proved to be an impossible luxury; the rookie’s November DNP-CDs turned into January starts once Connelly traded center Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland. Just five years after he first picked up a basketball, Nurki? was learning on the fly at the sport’s highest level. But the twists and turns never stopped in Denver, where disputes over his role prompted multiple trade requests and raised questions about his attitude.

Nurki?, now the Blazers’ 23-year-old starting center, doesn’t do regrets or apologies. He prefers to trust an unyielding approach forged during his whirlwind journey from anonymous Balkan teen to potential franchise building block.

“In Bosnia, with $1,000 per month you can live a great life. With $10,000 per month, you can be the king,” Nurki? told The Crossover during an extended interview at The Nines Hotel in Portland. “Every time I go home, I cry because nothing changes and everyone I know is stuck in the same position. So, it’s simple: I want to play. I know I should be starting. I know I can be an All-Star. If you ask me, no center in the league is better than me. If I don’t fight for myself, who is going to fight for me?”

This wasn’t a rhetorical question. Nurki?, in a ripped jean jacket and ripped black jeans, leaned forward and pointed his finger. “Would you fight for me?”

?

Nurki?’s tall tale origin story is more truth than myth. His cop father, Hariz, really was written up in the local newspaper for his starring role in a brawl that landed 13 people in the hospital. His first agent, Enes Trnovcevic, really did travel to Tuzla, Bosnia, to seek out Hariz and ask whether the larger-than-life policeman (6’10”, well over 400 pounds) had any children interested in translating their genetic advantages to the hardwood. His mother Rusmina, a housewife, really did agree to let Trnovcevic ship off 14-year-old Jusuf to a boarding school in Slovenia, even though her child hadn’t studied the Slovenian language, hadn’t yet hit his growth spurt, and had rarely spent a night away from home. There was also the little matter of Nurki?’s lack of formal basketball training. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I was a minus-10,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to run.”

In Slovenia, he was welcomed by friendly teammates and a regimented schedule that kept him busy with classes and as many as five practices per day. His coaches initially cast him as a point forward, placing him in drills with guards and preaching the value of the pass. Yet Nurki? suffered from severe homesickness. “I’d be a liar if I said I believed that I could make it back then,” Nurki? said. “I had never touched a basketball. I was the youngest guy on the team. My whole life changed overnight, and I couldn’t accept that at first. I cried almost every night for six months.”

Reluctant to show weakness to his father, Nurki? confided in Rusmina during long telephone conversations in which she assured her son that he could come home after a year if things didn’t pan out. Meanwhile, Trnovcevic preached a day-by-day mentality, pointing to Mirza Begi? and Hasan Rizvi?, Bosnian-born big men who enjoyed long and profitable careers, as inspiration.

Nurki? slowly settled into his new routine and realized that he had no major passion pulling him back to Tuzla. He had no interest following in Hariz’s footsteps as a cop, given the long workdays, modest pay and the constant need to settle grievances for everyone in town. While envisioning a future in basketball was hard, a future without basketball wasn’t any clearer. “I started to understand what you need to do to be a man,” Nurki? said. “I stopped thinking about wanting to go home and how life was tough. From that point on, I thought: I need to do this.”

That’s when he started growing, roughly four inches per year for three straight years. Nurki? moved to Croatia, signed his first professional contract with Euroleague club Cedevita Zagreb in 2012, and got accustomed to a brutish style of play in the post while playing with and against men twice his age. “We set Zaza screens,” Nurki? said. “You set a screen and someone gets injured immediately. You need to earn the points.”

Cedevita provided his first brush with the politics of playing time. Coach Aleksandar Petrovi?, brother of Croatian legend Dražen Petrovi?, told Nurki? that he would back-up his veteran teammates. Rather than wait for an opportunity that might never come, Nurki? informed Petrovi? that he wanted out as soon as possible. Cedevita agreed to loan Nurki? to Zadar, another Croatian club located in a small town of 75,000 people along the Adriatic Sea.

Nurki? enjoyed more playing time and a passionate fan base that turned out every night. When he walked to the store, young children dressed in Zadar jerseys called him by name. He also exacted revenge. In front of 10,000 fans, Nurki? and Zadar defeated Cedevita in the semifinals of the 2013 Croatian Premier League playoffs. “Cedevita was still paying me,” Nurki? pointed out, smiling. “Everybody who talked to me after the game said, ‘S---, we should have kept you.’” At season’s end, Nurki? returned to Cedevita, where he gained acclaim as an NBA-level prospect.

The Zadar detour provided two takeaways. First, that Nurki? loved basketball for the first time in his life. “Parents raise their kids from birth to cheer for Zadar and no one else,” he said. “They don’t skip games and they love when you fight for them. Their support made me appreciate them and the game.” Second, that impatience in Zagreb had been fully justified. What would have happened if he had agreed to languish on Petrovi?’s bench?

In Zadar, across a border and roughly 400 miles away from the Tuzla bull farm, Nurki? discovered the value of stubborn self–interest. “I’ve learned in my life to be a decision-maker,” he said. “I don’t want to have regrets. I like living my life by my decisions. I’ll listen to everybody, but I want the responsibility. That’s the best way.”

Nurki? knew little of NBA culture when he landed in Denver, but he was well-versed in reading depth charts. Alarm bells went off once he realized the 2014-15 Nuggets had four other bigs: Mozgov, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and JaVale McGee. While he was barely 20 when he made his NBA debut, Nurki? wasn’t a typical one-and-done player looking to gradually earn minutes while developing over his four-year rookie contract. He had lived away from home for five years and played professionally for multiple seasons. Sitting in Denver was no more appealing than sitting in Zagreb.

Mozgov and McGee were dealt in midseason trades, clearing the way for Nurki?, who wasted little time introducing himself. In his second start, a January win over Sacramento, he hit a jumper over DeMarcus Cousins and mocked the soon-to-be-All-Star. He went on to post a series of double-doubles, but Denver limped to 30 wins, its worst season in more than a decade. Shaw was fired in March and Nurki?, who had tried to play through left leg pain, underwent knee surgery in May that sidelined him for seven months. As he rehabilitated, Michael Malone entered as coach and Nikola Joki?, a promising Serbian prodigy, emerged as the Nuggets’ starting center.

Nurki? struggled to find his form upon his return, and he was bothered by his coach’s decision to bring him off the bench late in 2015-16. “Mike Malone came to me with all this sweet talk, saying that I was going to be fine and that he couldn’t wait to see me back,” Nurki? recalled. “If you like somebody else, play them. But don’t come to my home and say that I’m going to be the starting center and then play someone else.”

Although the Nuggets experimented with starting the 6’10” Joki? and Nurki? together, that hardly seemed like a winning long-term combination with small ball sweeping the league. Reading the tea leaves, Nurki? went to Connelly and requested a trade in April 2016.

Denver tried to mend fences, dispatching Malone for a summer meet-up in Bosnia. Nurki?, who had battled weight and conditioning issues for years, spent the offseason losing weight and following Denver’s training protocol. After assessing his progress, the Nuggets promised Nurki? that he would get the chance to open the 2016-17 season as a starter. On opening night, Nurki? realized there was a catch.

“In the first game, I only played three quarters,” Nurki? said. “I had 23 points and 9 rebounds. I’m playing a good game, we’re winning and I’m not playing in the fourth quarter? From that point, I could kind of see that something was wrong.”

After 25 games, including a brief stretch with Joki? coming off the bench, Malone opted to pull Nurki? from the starting lineup. By December 2016, frustrated with his role and his long-term outlook, Nurki? and his NBA agent, Aylton Tesch, requested a trade for the second time. With Joki?, an able scorer and sublime passer, blossoming into a franchise player, Connelly and Nuggets ownership agreed to seek trade options. During this period, Nurki? said he and Malone went months without directly communicating.

“I believe you can develop guards together. But two centers? No way,” Nurki? said. “I don’t want to make this a big drama like KD. I was never on the same page with the coach and the front office. It just came to the point where I needed to go. My career was on the line.”

As both sides waited for a trade, Nurki? took heat from local media members for pouting over his demotion, and he received multiple DNP-CDs from Malone. Rumors swirled that he had even left the arena during a game in frustration. Nurki? acknowledged that Malone was “mad” about his body language, but added that he never missed a practice or a team commitment and insisted that he bears no ill will toward Joki? over their position battle.

“People assume I had an attitude problem and people like to make up stories that paint me as a bad guy,” he explained. “Once I asked for a trade, there were even more rumors that I wasn’t happy. But I shouldn’t be happy! No one in that situation should be happy. I put in the hard work to play and someone was holding me down.”

Nurki? also denied that he ever left the arena during a game. “I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I can’t change the whole world’s opinion. Ask anyone who has played with me and they will say the same thing: I’m a funny dude, I work and I have never had a problem with one of my teammates in my life.”

Denver mercifully pulled the trigger on a Nurki? deal last February, sending the center and a first-round pick to Portland in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash. Plumlee’s inclusion in the deal ensured that Nurki? would step in as the Blazers’ starting center, fulfilling Nurki?’s top request.

“I needed a change of scenery. Both sides needed it,” he said. “I’m thankful Denver let me go where I wanted to go. If I was doing all the bad things that people said, the Nuggets wouldn’t have traded me where I wanted to go, and they probably would have gotten a way better deal than they got.”

For the second time in his young career, Nurki? had pushed his way out of a limited role. And for the second time, he had landed in a small city, on the water, with a diehard fan base that filled the building and recognized him around town in no time. As in Zadar, Nurki? needed to establish himself as a player in Portland. He weighed over 300 pounds after playing sporadically in Denver and faced lingering questions about his attitude. Blazers guard Damian Lillard greeted his new center with a simple message: “We don’t make excuses for anything. We don’t do that s--- here.”

From Portland’s perspective, Nurki? was a no-risk flier during a disappointing campaign. Blazers president Neil Olshey handed out a series of questionable long-term contracts during the previous summer, only to see poor defense and lineup issues spoil the investments. Plumlee was headed for free agency and hadn’t played well enough to justify a lucrative deal.

Coach Terry Stotts offered a starting role, a clean slate, a simplified playbook and an accommodating approach to his conditioning issues. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions about who he was,” Stotts said. “I tried to be fair and honest. I knew he was upset not playing, and I understand that. I was really impressed with his skillset, particularly his passing. He showed he was much more than a low-post player.”

Nurki? responded well—to Lillard’s message, to Stotts’s communication and support, and to his expanded role. He notched a double-double in his first start for Portland, he posted 18 points and 12 rebounds in his first game at the Moda Center and he exploded for 28 points and 20 rebounds against Philadelphia in early March. “I felt free like a bird flying around,” Nurki? said. “I had peace of mind for the first time in two years. My team was going with me, not against me.”

Down the stretch, the Blazers went 14-6 with Nurki?, who averaged 15.2 PPG and 10.4 RPG after the trade. Lillard and CJ McCollum finally had a frontcourt scoring option to balance the offense, and Nurki? had guards who were willing and able to consistently set him up. With the ball, Nurki? displayed far more creativity and variety than he had in Denver: posting up smaller opponents, crashing the glass and dusting off his old point-forward training to facilitate from the elbow and to toss in finesse floaters. Portland’s defense was far stingier with Nurki? (103.7 defensive rating) than it had been with Plumlee (111), and he exhibited a demonstrative on-court demeanor that his predecessor lacked.

Blazermaniacs embraced Nurki?’s physicality and swagger, and his status as a fan favorite peaked when he scored a career-high 33 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a home win over Denver in late March. The victory helped seal the West’s final playoff spot for Portland instead of Denver, and Nurki? wished his former team a “happy summer” during a post-game interview. “Rip City likes the fighters,” he said. “After [LaMarcus Aldridge] left, they waited two years for a big man who can hoop. Once they saw how I pass and fit into the system, everybody caught Nurk Fever.”

The party ended abruptly when Nurki? fractured a bone in his right leg, causing him to miss the final seven games of the regular season and most of the playoffs. Still, he pointed to the victory against Denver—a parallel to his semifinal win over Zagreb four years earlier—as proof that concerns about his character were overblown. “Each of my Nuggets teammates came over to me afterward and we talked,” he said. “If I was a bad guy or doing the wrong thing in Denver, they wouldn’t do that. They were happy for me.”

Nurki?, a 2018 restricted free agent, entered this season as the Blazers’ biggest X-factor. Olshey spent a quiet summer stocking up on cheap rookies and dumping salary. For Portland to break through in the West, Nurk Fever needed to return. But the Blazers were wary of overhyping their young and relatively unproven center, and Stotts resisted elevating Nurki? as the third member of a Big 3.

“It was a great honeymoon for 25 games and things went really well for him and us,” Stotts said. “We can’t take that for granted. He helped us win games and that’s going to be the bottom line going forward. It’s not about numbers.”

After recovering from his leg injury, Nurki? started reshaping his body. Leaning heavily on chicken and fish while cutting out all desserts and junk food, he lost 34 pounds to drop to 270. While the new diet initially left him jittery from sugar withdrawal, Nurki? knew he needed to improve his stamina and quickness if he wanted to stay out of foul trouble and cover ground in pick-and-rolls.

Although Portland could have inked Nurki? to an early extension in October, the two sides failed to reach an agreement. This was a classic “prove it” scenario. A nine-figure, max-type contract, like the ones signed by Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert, seemed plausible if he built on last season’s momentum. But the capped-out Blazers couldn’t risk overpaying for a possible flash in the pan, and the center market has been difficult to forecast due to unpredictable salary cap growth and a shifting style of play that favors versatility over sheer size.

Aside from Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, two established All-Stars, Nurki? projected as one of 2018’s top free-agent centers. However, if his production or impact waned there were plenty of cheaper comparison points: Plumlee re-signed with Denver for $41 million over three years, Kelly Olynyk inked a four-year, $50 million deal with Miami, and Cody Zeller signed a 4-year, $56 million early extension in Charlotte. Meanwhile, Dallas’s Nerlens Noel and Phoenix’s Alex Len found no outside offers and had to settle for one-year qualifying offers.

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

Through 16 games, Nurki? is averaging a career-high 14.6 PPG and 7.2 RPG, while posting a strong 97.9 defensive rating for a Blazers defense that surprisingly ranks second in the league. Offensively, he hasn’t truly rekindled Nurk Fever, as opponents appear better prepared for him and Portland’s attack has been prone to choppiness. His effort level has regressed compared to last spring’s highwater marks—no great surprise—with foul trouble often a contributing factor. Still, he can usually be found in the middle of the action, whether sustaining a concussion while wrestling with Sacramento’s Jack Cooley during the preseason or taking a controversial flagrant foul from Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony earlier this month.

This season’s first notable flashpoint came during a home loss to Brooklyn last week, when Stotts opted to play Ed Davis over Nurki? during the fourth quarter. This was, of course, the same coaching decision that precipitated his final fallout with Malone. Nurki? was unexpectedly unavailable to reporters in the locker room after the Nets loss, although he said the next day that he had been receiving treatment. Tesch asserted that the situation was “cleared up” and said that his client “gets along great” with Stotts and his teammates.

For Nurki?, the Nets episode encapsulates the next great challenge of his career. Years spent fighting for himself have landed him in a favorable location, but sacrifice is required of every NBA player. Portland (9–7) has no other legitimate starting center candidates on its roster, and it lacks the cap flexibility to pursue quality outside options in free agency. As a traditional center heading to restricted free agency without unicorn selling points like three-point range and elite shot-blocking, Nurki? needs the Blazers as much as they need him.

“I’m not going to say names, but some of my good friends are OK with scoring 20 points and losing,” Nurki? said. “I’m not that guy. I’m a team player. I would like to score 10 to 15 points per game and win every game. Portland gave me the situation I always wanted: the fans, the city, the teammates and two guards who can really hoop. It sounds perfect to me. I don’t want this to end. I want to be here."

A fighting bull enters the ring alone. Nurkic's father, according to legend, took down 13 men without back-up. The solo approach has carried Nurki? halfway across the globe, from the farm to the court, and through professional turbulence to the brink of generational wealth he couldn’t have conceived just five years ago. To go any further, though, he must help lead the herd.

The Making of Jusuf Nurkic: The Uncompromising Bosnian Beast

?In the weeks leading up to the 2014 NBA draft, Jusuf Nurki? admitted to the Spurs front office that he had serious reservations about life in the United States. The elder of two sons, Nurki? was raised with a military mindset by traditional parents—a 400-plus-pound police officer and his wife—in a small Bosnian village. “If America is like the movies,” Nurki? told the soon-to-be champs, “I’m never coming.” Upon his arrival in New York City before the big night, the 7–footer craned his neck to marvel at the skyscrapers, only to have his worst fears confirmed. “My very first day, some guy asked me if I wanted drugs,” Nurki? recalled, his voice a mix of exasperation and amusement. “My first experience in New York is a drug dealer! What’s going on here? It was just like the movies.”

The perplexities were just beginning. Chicago selected him with the No. 16 pick, beating most pre-draft expectations, and it seemed like a happy twist of fate. “I used to help on my grandfather’s farm and he’s all about bulls,” Nurki? laughed. “Natural, big bulls. He was so happy Chicago took me. Everyone was excited.” By the time Nurki? put his limited English to the test in media interviews, though, Chicago had already traded his rights to Denver. It didn’t take long for Nurki? to realize the Nuggets were well-stocked with big men, a fact that later prompted Nurki? to bluntly ask GM Tim Connelly, “Why do you want me?”

When camp opened, it dawned on him that his American teammates Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson were real people, not just “NBA 2K” characters. During a preseason game against the Lakers, Nurki? was so transfixed by his childhood hero Kobe Bryant that he wandered aimlessly around the court as coach Brian Shaw tried to get his attention. Shaw had played professionally in Italy so he was sympathetic, but he also worried that culture shock might be a nightly distraction. “We play Oklahoma City next. Are you going to act the same with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?” Shaw asked. “No, coach,” the reply came. “Only Kobe.”

Stargazing proved to be an impossible luxury; the rookie’s November DNP-CDs turned into January starts once Connelly traded center Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland. Just five years after he first picked up a basketball, Nurki? was learning on the fly at the sport’s highest level. But the twists and turns never stopped in Denver, where disputes over his role prompted multiple trade requests and raised questions about his attitude.

Nurki?, now the Blazers’ 23-year-old starting center, doesn’t do regrets or apologies. He prefers to trust an unyielding approach forged during his whirlwind journey from anonymous Balkan teen to potential franchise building block.

“In Bosnia, with $1,000 per month you can live a great life. With $10,000 per month, you can be the king,” Nurki? told The Crossover during an extended interview at The Nines Hotel in Portland. “Every time I go home, I cry because nothing changes and everyone I know is stuck in the same position. So, it’s simple: I want to play. I know I should be starting. I know I can be an All-Star. If you ask me, no center in the league is better than me. If I don’t fight for myself, who is going to fight for me?”

This wasn’t a rhetorical question. Nurki?, in a ripped jean jacket and ripped black jeans, leaned forward and pointed his finger. “Would you fight for me?”

?

Nurki?’s tall tale origin story is more truth than myth. His cop father, Hariz, really was written up in the local newspaper for his starring role in a brawl that landed 13 people in the hospital. His first agent, Enes Trnovcevic, really did travel to Tuzla, Bosnia, to seek out Hariz and ask whether the larger-than-life policeman (6’10”, well over 400 pounds) had any children interested in translating their genetic advantages to the hardwood. His mother Rusmina, a housewife, really did agree to let Trnovcevic ship off 14-year-old Jusuf to a boarding school in Slovenia, even though her child hadn’t studied the Slovenian language, hadn’t yet hit his growth spurt, and had rarely spent a night away from home. There was also the little matter of Nurki?’s lack of formal basketball training. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I was a minus-10,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to run.”

In Slovenia, he was welcomed by friendly teammates and a regimented schedule that kept him busy with classes and as many as five practices per day. His coaches initially cast him as a point forward, placing him in drills with guards and preaching the value of the pass. Yet Nurki? suffered from severe homesickness. “I’d be a liar if I said I believed that I could make it back then,” Nurki? said. “I had never touched a basketball. I was the youngest guy on the team. My whole life changed overnight, and I couldn’t accept that at first. I cried almost every night for six months.”

Reluctant to show weakness to his father, Nurki? confided in Rusmina during long telephone conversations in which she assured her son that he could come home after a year if things didn’t pan out. Meanwhile, Trnovcevic preached a day-by-day mentality, pointing to Mirza Begi? and Hasan Rizvi?, Bosnian-born big men who enjoyed long and profitable careers, as inspiration.

Nurki? slowly settled into his new routine and realized that he had no major passion pulling him back to Tuzla. He had no interest following in Hariz’s footsteps as a cop, given the long workdays, modest pay and the constant need to settle grievances for everyone in town. While envisioning a future in basketball was hard, a future without basketball wasn’t any clearer. “I started to understand what you need to do to be a man,” Nurki? said. “I stopped thinking about wanting to go home and how life was tough. From that point on, I thought: I need to do this.”

That’s when he started growing, roughly four inches per year for three straight years. Nurki? moved to Croatia, signed his first professional contract with Euroleague club Cedevita Zagreb in 2012, and got accustomed to a brutish style of play in the post while playing with and against men twice his age. “We set Zaza screens,” Nurki? said. “You set a screen and someone gets injured immediately. You need to earn the points.”

Cedevita provided his first brush with the politics of playing time. Coach Aleksandar Petrovi?, brother of Croatian legend Dražen Petrovi?, told Nurki? that he would back-up his veteran teammates. Rather than wait for an opportunity that might never come, Nurki? informed Petrovi? that he wanted out as soon as possible. Cedevita agreed to loan Nurki? to Zadar, another Croatian club located in a small town of 75,000 people along the Adriatic Sea.

Nurki? enjoyed more playing time and a passionate fan base that turned out every night. When he walked to the store, young children dressed in Zadar jerseys called him by name. He also exacted revenge. In front of 10,000 fans, Nurki? and Zadar defeated Cedevita in the semifinals of the 2013 Croatian Premier League playoffs. “Cedevita was still paying me,” Nurki? pointed out, smiling. “Everybody who talked to me after the game said, ‘S---, we should have kept you.’” At season’s end, Nurki? returned to Cedevita, where he gained acclaim as an NBA-level prospect.

The Zadar detour provided two takeaways. First, that Nurki? loved basketball for the first time in his life. “Parents raise their kids from birth to cheer for Zadar and no one else,” he said. “They don’t skip games and they love when you fight for them. Their support made me appreciate them and the game.” Second, that impatience in Zagreb had been fully justified. What would have happened if he had agreed to languish on Petrovi?’s bench?

In Zadar, across a border and roughly 400 miles away from the Tuzla bull farm, Nurki? discovered the value of stubborn self–interest. “I’ve learned in my life to be a decision-maker,” he said. “I don’t want to have regrets. I like living my life by my decisions. I’ll listen to everybody, but I want the responsibility. That’s the best way.”

Nurki? knew little of NBA culture when he landed in Denver, but he was well-versed in reading depth charts. Alarm bells went off once he realized the 2014-15 Nuggets had four other bigs: Mozgov, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and JaVale McGee. While he was barely 20 when he made his NBA debut, Nurki? wasn’t a typical one-and-done player looking to gradually earn minutes while developing over his four-year rookie contract. He had lived away from home for five years and played professionally for multiple seasons. Sitting in Denver was no more appealing than sitting in Zagreb.

Mozgov and McGee were dealt in midseason trades, clearing the way for Nurki?, who wasted little time introducing himself. In his second start, a January win over Sacramento, he hit a jumper over DeMarcus Cousins and mocked the soon-to-be-All-Star. He went on to post a series of double-doubles, but Denver limped to 30 wins, its worst season in more than a decade. Shaw was fired in March and Nurki?, who had tried to play through left leg pain, underwent knee surgery in May that sidelined him for seven months. As he rehabilitated, Michael Malone entered as coach and Nikola Joki?, a promising Serbian prodigy, emerged as the Nuggets’ starting center.

Nurki? struggled to find his form upon his return, and he was bothered by his coach’s decision to bring him off the bench late in 2015-16. “Mike Malone came to me with all this sweet talk, saying that I was going to be fine and that he couldn’t wait to see me back,” Nurki? recalled. “If you like somebody else, play them. But don’t come to my home and say that I’m going to be the starting center and then play someone else.”

Although the Nuggets experimented with starting the 6’10” Joki? and Nurki? together, that hardly seemed like a winning long-term combination with small ball sweeping the league. Reading the tea leaves, Nurki? went to Connelly and requested a trade in April 2016.

Denver tried to mend fences, dispatching Malone for a summer meet-up in Bosnia. Nurki?, who had battled weight and conditioning issues for years, spent the offseason losing weight and following Denver’s training protocol. After assessing his progress, the Nuggets promised Nurki? that he would get the chance to open the 2016-17 season as a starter. On opening night, Nurki? realized there was a catch.

“In the first game, I only played three quarters,” Nurki? said. “I had 23 points and 9 rebounds. I’m playing a good game, we’re winning and I’m not playing in the fourth quarter? From that point, I could kind of see that something was wrong.”

After 25 games, including a brief stretch with Joki? coming off the bench, Malone opted to pull Nurki? from the starting lineup. By December 2016, frustrated with his role and his long-term outlook, Nurki? and his NBA agent, Aylton Tesch, requested a trade for the second time. With Joki?, an able scorer and sublime passer, blossoming into a franchise player, Connelly and Nuggets ownership agreed to seek trade options. During this period, Nurki? said he and Malone went months without directly communicating.

“I believe you can develop guards together. But two centers? No way,” Nurki? said. “I don’t want to make this a big drama like KD. I was never on the same page with the coach and the front office. It just came to the point where I needed to go. My career was on the line.”

As both sides waited for a trade, Nurki? took heat from local media members for pouting over his demotion, and he received multiple DNP-CDs from Malone. Rumors swirled that he had even left the arena during a game in frustration. Nurki? acknowledged that Malone was “mad” about his body language, but added that he never missed a practice or a team commitment and insisted that he bears no ill will toward Joki? over their position battle.

“People assume I had an attitude problem and people like to make up stories that paint me as a bad guy,” he explained. “Once I asked for a trade, there were even more rumors that I wasn’t happy. But I shouldn’t be happy! No one in that situation should be happy. I put in the hard work to play and someone was holding me down.”

Nurki? also denied that he ever left the arena during a game. “I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I can’t change the whole world’s opinion. Ask anyone who has played with me and they will say the same thing: I’m a funny dude, I work and I have never had a problem with one of my teammates in my life.”

Denver mercifully pulled the trigger on a Nurki? deal last February, sending the center and a first-round pick to Portland in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash. Plumlee’s inclusion in the deal ensured that Nurki? would step in as the Blazers’ starting center, fulfilling Nurki?’s top request.

“I needed a change of scenery. Both sides needed it,” he said. “I’m thankful Denver let me go where I wanted to go. If I was doing all the bad things that people said, the Nuggets wouldn’t have traded me where I wanted to go, and they probably would have gotten a way better deal than they got.”

For the second time in his young career, Nurki? had pushed his way out of a limited role. And for the second time, he had landed in a small city, on the water, with a diehard fan base that filled the building and recognized him around town in no time. As in Zadar, Nurki? needed to establish himself as a player in Portland. He weighed over 300 pounds after playing sporadically in Denver and faced lingering questions about his attitude. Blazers guard Damian Lillard greeted his new center with a simple message: “We don’t make excuses for anything. We don’t do that s--- here.”

From Portland’s perspective, Nurki? was a no-risk flier during a disappointing campaign. Blazers president Neil Olshey handed out a series of questionable long-term contracts during the previous summer, only to see poor defense and lineup issues spoil the investments. Plumlee was headed for free agency and hadn’t played well enough to justify a lucrative deal.

Coach Terry Stotts offered a starting role, a clean slate, a simplified playbook and an accommodating approach to his conditioning issues. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions about who he was,” Stotts said. “I tried to be fair and honest. I knew he was upset not playing, and I understand that. I was really impressed with his skillset, particularly his passing. He showed he was much more than a low-post player.”

Nurki? responded well—to Lillard’s message, to Stotts’s communication and support, and to his expanded role. He notched a double-double in his first start for Portland, he posted 18 points and 12 rebounds in his first game at the Moda Center and he exploded for 28 points and 20 rebounds against Philadelphia in early March. “I felt free like a bird flying around,” Nurki? said. “I had peace of mind for the first time in two years. My team was going with me, not against me.”

Down the stretch, the Blazers went 14-6 with Nurki?, who averaged 15.2 PPG and 10.4 RPG after the trade. Lillard and CJ McCollum finally had a frontcourt scoring option to balance the offense, and Nurki? had guards who were willing and able to consistently set him up. With the ball, Nurki? displayed far more creativity and variety than he had in Denver: posting up smaller opponents, crashing the glass and dusting off his old point-forward training to facilitate from the elbow and to toss in finesse floaters. Portland’s defense was far stingier with Nurki? (103.7 defensive rating) than it had been with Plumlee (111), and he exhibited a demonstrative on-court demeanor that his predecessor lacked.

Blazermaniacs embraced Nurki?’s physicality and swagger, and his status as a fan favorite peaked when he scored a career-high 33 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a home win over Denver in late March. The victory helped seal the West’s final playoff spot for Portland instead of Denver, and Nurki? wished his former team a “happy summer” during a post-game interview. “Rip City likes the fighters,” he said. “After [LaMarcus Aldridge] left, they waited two years for a big man who can hoop. Once they saw how I pass and fit into the system, everybody caught Nurk Fever.”

The party ended abruptly when Nurki? fractured a bone in his right leg, causing him to miss the final seven games of the regular season and most of the playoffs. Still, he pointed to the victory against Denver—a parallel to his semifinal win over Zagreb four years earlier—as proof that concerns about his character were overblown. “Each of my Nuggets teammates came over to me afterward and we talked,” he said. “If I was a bad guy or doing the wrong thing in Denver, they wouldn’t do that. They were happy for me.”

Nurki?, a 2018 restricted free agent, entered this season as the Blazers’ biggest X-factor. Olshey spent a quiet summer stocking up on cheap rookies and dumping salary. For Portland to break through in the West, Nurk Fever needed to return. But the Blazers were wary of overhyping their young and relatively unproven center, and Stotts resisted elevating Nurki? as the third member of a Big 3.

“It was a great honeymoon for 25 games and things went really well for him and us,” Stotts said. “We can’t take that for granted. He helped us win games and that’s going to be the bottom line going forward. It’s not about numbers.”

After recovering from his leg injury, Nurki? started reshaping his body. Leaning heavily on chicken and fish while cutting out all desserts and junk food, he lost 34 pounds to drop to 270. While the new diet initially left him jittery from sugar withdrawal, Nurki? knew he needed to improve his stamina and quickness if he wanted to stay out of foul trouble and cover ground in pick-and-rolls.

Although Portland could have inked Nurki? to an early extension in October, the two sides failed to reach an agreement. This was a classic “prove it” scenario. A nine-figure, max-type contract, like the ones signed by Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert, seemed plausible if he built on last season’s momentum. But the capped-out Blazers couldn’t risk overpaying for a possible flash in the pan, and the center market has been difficult to forecast due to unpredictable salary cap growth and a shifting style of play that favors versatility over sheer size.

Aside from Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, two established All-Stars, Nurki? projected as one of 2018’s top free-agent centers. However, if his production or impact waned there were plenty of cheaper comparison points: Plumlee re-signed with Denver for $41 million over three years, Kelly Olynyk inked a four-year, $50 million deal with Miami, and Cody Zeller signed a 4-year, $56 million early extension in Charlotte. Meanwhile, Dallas’s Nerlens Noel and Phoenix’s Alex Len found no outside offers and had to settle for one-year qualifying offers.

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

Through 16 games, Nurki? is averaging a career-high 14.6 PPG and 7.2 RPG, while posting a strong 97.9 defensive rating for a Blazers defense that surprisingly ranks second in the league. Offensively, he hasn’t truly rekindled Nurk Fever, as opponents appear better prepared for him and Portland’s attack has been prone to choppiness. His effort level has regressed compared to last spring’s highwater marks—no great surprise—with foul trouble often a contributing factor. Still, he can usually be found in the middle of the action, whether sustaining a concussion while wrestling with Sacramento’s Jack Cooley during the preseason or taking a controversial flagrant foul from Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony earlier this month.

This season’s first notable flashpoint came during a home loss to Brooklyn last week, when Stotts opted to play Ed Davis over Nurki? during the fourth quarter. This was, of course, the same coaching decision that precipitated his final fallout with Malone. Nurki? was unexpectedly unavailable to reporters in the locker room after the Nets loss, although he said the next day that he had been receiving treatment. Tesch asserted that the situation was “cleared up” and said that his client “gets along great” with Stotts and his teammates.

For Nurki?, the Nets episode encapsulates the next great challenge of his career. Years spent fighting for himself have landed him in a favorable location, but sacrifice is required of every NBA player. Portland (9–7) has no other legitimate starting center candidates on its roster, and it lacks the cap flexibility to pursue quality outside options in free agency. As a traditional center heading to restricted free agency without unicorn selling points like three-point range and elite shot-blocking, Nurki? needs the Blazers as much as they need him.

“I’m not going to say names, but some of my good friends are OK with scoring 20 points and losing,” Nurki? said. “I’m not that guy. I’m a team player. I would like to score 10 to 15 points per game and win every game. Portland gave me the situation I always wanted: the fans, the city, the teammates and two guards who can really hoop. It sounds perfect to me. I don’t want this to end. I want to be here."

A fighting bull enters the ring alone. Nurkic's father, according to legend, took down 13 men without back-up. The solo approach has carried Nurki? halfway across the globe, from the farm to the court, and through professional turbulence to the brink of generational wealth he couldn’t have conceived just five years ago. To go any further, though, he must help lead the herd.

The Making of Jusuf Nurkic: The Uncompromising Bosnian Beast

?In the weeks leading up to the 2014 NBA draft, Jusuf Nurki? admitted to the Spurs front office that he had serious reservations about life in the United States. The elder of two sons, Nurki? was raised with a military mindset by traditional parents—a 400-plus-pound police officer and his wife—in a small Bosnian village. “If America is like the movies,” Nurki? told the soon-to-be champs, “I’m never coming.” Upon his arrival in New York City before the big night, the 7–footer craned his neck to marvel at the skyscrapers, only to have his worst fears confirmed. “My very first day, some guy asked me if I wanted drugs,” Nurki? recalled, his voice a mix of exasperation and amusement. “My first experience in New York is a drug dealer! What’s going on here? It was just like the movies.”

The perplexities were just beginning. Chicago selected him with the No. 16 pick, beating most pre-draft expectations, and it seemed like a happy twist of fate. “I used to help on my grandfather’s farm and he’s all about bulls,” Nurki? laughed. “Natural, big bulls. He was so happy Chicago took me. Everyone was excited.” By the time Nurki? put his limited English to the test in media interviews, though, Chicago had already traded his rights to Denver. It didn’t take long for Nurki? to realize the Nuggets were well-stocked with big men, a fact that later prompted Nurki? to bluntly ask GM Tim Connelly, “Why do you want me?”

When camp opened, it dawned on him that his American teammates Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson were real people, not just “NBA 2K” characters. During a preseason game against the Lakers, Nurki? was so transfixed by his childhood hero Kobe Bryant that he wandered aimlessly around the court as coach Brian Shaw tried to get his attention. Shaw had played professionally in Italy so he was sympathetic, but he also worried that culture shock might be a nightly distraction. “We play Oklahoma City next. Are you going to act the same with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?” Shaw asked. “No, coach,” the reply came. “Only Kobe.”

Stargazing proved to be an impossible luxury; the rookie’s November DNP-CDs turned into January starts once Connelly traded center Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland. Just five years after he first picked up a basketball, Nurki? was learning on the fly at the sport’s highest level. But the twists and turns never stopped in Denver, where disputes over his role prompted multiple trade requests and raised questions about his attitude.

Nurki?, now the Blazers’ 23-year-old starting center, doesn’t do regrets or apologies. He prefers to trust an unyielding approach forged during his whirlwind journey from anonymous Balkan teen to potential franchise building block.

“In Bosnia, with $1,000 per month you can live a great life. With $10,000 per month, you can be the king,” Nurki? told The Crossover during an extended interview at The Nines Hotel in Portland. “Every time I go home, I cry because nothing changes and everyone I know is stuck in the same position. So, it’s simple: I want to play. I know I should be starting. I know I can be an All-Star. If you ask me, no center in the league is better than me. If I don’t fight for myself, who is going to fight for me?”

This wasn’t a rhetorical question. Nurki?, in a ripped jean jacket and ripped black jeans, leaned forward and pointed his finger. “Would you fight for me?”

?

Nurki?’s tall tale origin story is more truth than myth. His cop father, Hariz, really was written up in the local newspaper for his starring role in a brawl that landed 13 people in the hospital. His first agent, Enes Trnovcevic, really did travel to Tuzla, Bosnia, to seek out Hariz and ask whether the larger-than-life policeman (6’10”, well over 400 pounds) had any children interested in translating their genetic advantages to the hardwood. His mother Rusmina, a housewife, really did agree to let Trnovcevic ship off 14-year-old Jusuf to a boarding school in Slovenia, even though her child hadn’t studied the Slovenian language, hadn’t yet hit his growth spurt, and had rarely spent a night away from home. There was also the little matter of Nurki?’s lack of formal basketball training. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I was a minus-10,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to run.”

In Slovenia, he was welcomed by friendly teammates and a regimented schedule that kept him busy with classes and as many as five practices per day. His coaches initially cast him as a point forward, placing him in drills with guards and preaching the value of the pass. Yet Nurki? suffered from severe homesickness. “I’d be a liar if I said I believed that I could make it back then,” Nurki? said. “I had never touched a basketball. I was the youngest guy on the team. My whole life changed overnight, and I couldn’t accept that at first. I cried almost every night for six months.”

Reluctant to show weakness to his father, Nurki? confided in Rusmina during long telephone conversations in which she assured her son that he could come home after a year if things didn’t pan out. Meanwhile, Trnovcevic preached a day-by-day mentality, pointing to Mirza Begi? and Hasan Rizvi?, Bosnian-born big men who enjoyed long and profitable careers, as inspiration.

Nurki? slowly settled into his new routine and realized that he had no major passion pulling him back to Tuzla. He had no interest following in Hariz’s footsteps as a cop, given the long workdays, modest pay and the constant need to settle grievances for everyone in town. While envisioning a future in basketball was hard, a future without basketball wasn’t any clearer. “I started to understand what you need to do to be a man,” Nurki? said. “I stopped thinking about wanting to go home and how life was tough. From that point on, I thought: I need to do this.”

That’s when he started growing, roughly four inches per year for three straight years. Nurki? moved to Croatia, signed his first professional contract with Euroleague club Cedevita Zagreb in 2012, and got accustomed to a brutish style of play in the post while playing with and against men twice his age. “We set Zaza screens,” Nurki? said. “You set a screen and someone gets injured immediately. You need to earn the points.”

Cedevita provided his first brush with the politics of playing time. Coach Aleksandar Petrovi?, brother of Croatian legend Dražen Petrovi?, told Nurki? that he would back-up his veteran teammates. Rather than wait for an opportunity that might never come, Nurki? informed Petrovi? that he wanted out as soon as possible. Cedevita agreed to loan Nurki? to Zadar, another Croatian club located in a small town of 75,000 people along the Adriatic Sea.

Nurki? enjoyed more playing time and a passionate fan base that turned out every night. When he walked to the store, young children dressed in Zadar jerseys called him by name. He also exacted revenge. In front of 10,000 fans, Nurki? and Zadar defeated Cedevita in the semifinals of the 2013 Croatian Premier League playoffs. “Cedevita was still paying me,” Nurki? pointed out, smiling. “Everybody who talked to me after the game said, ‘S---, we should have kept you.’” At season’s end, Nurki? returned to Cedevita, where he gained acclaim as an NBA-level prospect.

The Zadar detour provided two takeaways. First, that Nurki? loved basketball for the first time in his life. “Parents raise their kids from birth to cheer for Zadar and no one else,” he said. “They don’t skip games and they love when you fight for them. Their support made me appreciate them and the game.” Second, that impatience in Zagreb had been fully justified. What would have happened if he had agreed to languish on Petrovi?’s bench?

In Zadar, across a border and roughly 400 miles away from the Tuzla bull farm, Nurki? discovered the value of stubborn self–interest. “I’ve learned in my life to be a decision-maker,” he said. “I don’t want to have regrets. I like living my life by my decisions. I’ll listen to everybody, but I want the responsibility. That’s the best way.”

Nurki? knew little of NBA culture when he landed in Denver, but he was well-versed in reading depth charts. Alarm bells went off once he realized the 2014-15 Nuggets had four other bigs: Mozgov, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and JaVale McGee. While he was barely 20 when he made his NBA debut, Nurki? wasn’t a typical one-and-done player looking to gradually earn minutes while developing over his four-year rookie contract. He had lived away from home for five years and played professionally for multiple seasons. Sitting in Denver was no more appealing than sitting in Zagreb.

Mozgov and McGee were dealt in midseason trades, clearing the way for Nurki?, who wasted little time introducing himself. In his second start, a January win over Sacramento, he hit a jumper over DeMarcus Cousins and mocked the soon-to-be-All-Star. He went on to post a series of double-doubles, but Denver limped to 30 wins, its worst season in more than a decade. Shaw was fired in March and Nurki?, who had tried to play through left leg pain, underwent knee surgery in May that sidelined him for seven months. As he rehabilitated, Michael Malone entered as coach and Nikola Joki?, a promising Serbian prodigy, emerged as the Nuggets’ starting center.

Nurki? struggled to find his form upon his return, and he was bothered by his coach’s decision to bring him off the bench late in 2015-16. “Mike Malone came to me with all this sweet talk, saying that I was going to be fine and that he couldn’t wait to see me back,” Nurki? recalled. “If you like somebody else, play them. But don’t come to my home and say that I’m going to be the starting center and then play someone else.”

Although the Nuggets experimented with starting the 6’10” Joki? and Nurki? together, that hardly seemed like a winning long-term combination with small ball sweeping the league. Reading the tea leaves, Nurki? went to Connelly and requested a trade in April 2016.

Denver tried to mend fences, dispatching Malone for a summer meet-up in Bosnia. Nurki?, who had battled weight and conditioning issues for years, spent the offseason losing weight and following Denver’s training protocol. After assessing his progress, the Nuggets promised Nurki? that he would get the chance to open the 2016-17 season as a starter. On opening night, Nurki? realized there was a catch.

“In the first game, I only played three quarters,” Nurki? said. “I had 23 points and 9 rebounds. I’m playing a good game, we’re winning and I’m not playing in the fourth quarter? From that point, I could kind of see that something was wrong.”

After 25 games, including a brief stretch with Joki? coming off the bench, Malone opted to pull Nurki? from the starting lineup. By December 2016, frustrated with his role and his long-term outlook, Nurki? and his NBA agent, Aylton Tesch, requested a trade for the second time. With Joki?, an able scorer and sublime passer, blossoming into a franchise player, Connelly and Nuggets ownership agreed to seek trade options. During this period, Nurki? said he and Malone went months without directly communicating.

“I believe you can develop guards together. But two centers? No way,” Nurki? said. “I don’t want to make this a big drama like KD. I was never on the same page with the coach and the front office. It just came to the point where I needed to go. My career was on the line.”

As both sides waited for a trade, Nurki? took heat from local media members for pouting over his demotion, and he received multiple DNP-CDs from Malone. Rumors swirled that he had even left the arena during a game in frustration. Nurki? acknowledged that Malone was “mad” about his body language, but added that he never missed a practice or a team commitment and insisted that he bears no ill will toward Joki? over their position battle.

“People assume I had an attitude problem and people like to make up stories that paint me as a bad guy,” he explained. “Once I asked for a trade, there were even more rumors that I wasn’t happy. But I shouldn’t be happy! No one in that situation should be happy. I put in the hard work to play and someone was holding me down.”

Nurki? also denied that he ever left the arena during a game. “I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I can’t change the whole world’s opinion. Ask anyone who has played with me and they will say the same thing: I’m a funny dude, I work and I have never had a problem with one of my teammates in my life.”

Denver mercifully pulled the trigger on a Nurki? deal last February, sending the center and a first-round pick to Portland in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash. Plumlee’s inclusion in the deal ensured that Nurki? would step in as the Blazers’ starting center, fulfilling Nurki?’s top request.

“I needed a change of scenery. Both sides needed it,” he said. “I’m thankful Denver let me go where I wanted to go. If I was doing all the bad things that people said, the Nuggets wouldn’t have traded me where I wanted to go, and they probably would have gotten a way better deal than they got.”

For the second time in his young career, Nurki? had pushed his way out of a limited role. And for the second time, he had landed in a small city, on the water, with a diehard fan base that filled the building and recognized him around town in no time. As in Zadar, Nurki? needed to establish himself as a player in Portland. He weighed over 300 pounds after playing sporadically in Denver and faced lingering questions about his attitude. Blazers guard Damian Lillard greeted his new center with a simple message: “We don’t make excuses for anything. We don’t do that s--- here.”

From Portland’s perspective, Nurki? was a no-risk flier during a disappointing campaign. Blazers president Neil Olshey handed out a series of questionable long-term contracts during the previous summer, only to see poor defense and lineup issues spoil the investments. Plumlee was headed for free agency and hadn’t played well enough to justify a lucrative deal.

Coach Terry Stotts offered a starting role, a clean slate, a simplified playbook and an accommodating approach to his conditioning issues. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions about who he was,” Stotts said. “I tried to be fair and honest. I knew he was upset not playing, and I understand that. I was really impressed with his skillset, particularly his passing. He showed he was much more than a low-post player.”

Nurki? responded well—to Lillard’s message, to Stotts’s communication and support, and to his expanded role. He notched a double-double in his first start for Portland, he posted 18 points and 12 rebounds in his first game at the Moda Center and he exploded for 28 points and 20 rebounds against Philadelphia in early March. “I felt free like a bird flying around,” Nurki? said. “I had peace of mind for the first time in two years. My team was going with me, not against me.”

Down the stretch, the Blazers went 14-6 with Nurki?, who averaged 15.2 PPG and 10.4 RPG after the trade. Lillard and CJ McCollum finally had a frontcourt scoring option to balance the offense, and Nurki? had guards who were willing and able to consistently set him up. With the ball, Nurki? displayed far more creativity and variety than he had in Denver: posting up smaller opponents, crashing the glass and dusting off his old point-forward training to facilitate from the elbow and to toss in finesse floaters. Portland’s defense was far stingier with Nurki? (103.7 defensive rating) than it had been with Plumlee (111), and he exhibited a demonstrative on-court demeanor that his predecessor lacked.

Blazermaniacs embraced Nurki?’s physicality and swagger, and his status as a fan favorite peaked when he scored a career-high 33 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a home win over Denver in late March. The victory helped seal the West’s final playoff spot for Portland instead of Denver, and Nurki? wished his former team a “happy summer” during a post-game interview. “Rip City likes the fighters,” he said. “After [LaMarcus Aldridge] left, they waited two years for a big man who can hoop. Once they saw how I pass and fit into the system, everybody caught Nurk Fever.”

The party ended abruptly when Nurki? fractured a bone in his right leg, causing him to miss the final seven games of the regular season and most of the playoffs. Still, he pointed to the victory against Denver—a parallel to his semifinal win over Zagreb four years earlier—as proof that concerns about his character were overblown. “Each of my Nuggets teammates came over to me afterward and we talked,” he said. “If I was a bad guy or doing the wrong thing in Denver, they wouldn’t do that. They were happy for me.”

Nurki?, a 2018 restricted free agent, entered this season as the Blazers’ biggest X-factor. Olshey spent a quiet summer stocking up on cheap rookies and dumping salary. For Portland to break through in the West, Nurk Fever needed to return. But the Blazers were wary of overhyping their young and relatively unproven center, and Stotts resisted elevating Nurki? as the third member of a Big 3.

“It was a great honeymoon for 25 games and things went really well for him and us,” Stotts said. “We can’t take that for granted. He helped us win games and that’s going to be the bottom line going forward. It’s not about numbers.”

After recovering from his leg injury, Nurki? started reshaping his body. Leaning heavily on chicken and fish while cutting out all desserts and junk food, he lost 34 pounds to drop to 270. While the new diet initially left him jittery from sugar withdrawal, Nurki? knew he needed to improve his stamina and quickness if he wanted to stay out of foul trouble and cover ground in pick-and-rolls.

Although Portland could have inked Nurki? to an early extension in October, the two sides failed to reach an agreement. This was a classic “prove it” scenario. A nine-figure, max-type contract, like the ones signed by Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert, seemed plausible if he built on last season’s momentum. But the capped-out Blazers couldn’t risk overpaying for a possible flash in the pan, and the center market has been difficult to forecast due to unpredictable salary cap growth and a shifting style of play that favors versatility over sheer size.

Aside from Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, two established All-Stars, Nurki? projected as one of 2018’s top free-agent centers. However, if his production or impact waned there were plenty of cheaper comparison points: Plumlee re-signed with Denver for $41 million over three years, Kelly Olynyk inked a four-year, $50 million deal with Miami, and Cody Zeller signed a 4-year, $56 million early extension in Charlotte. Meanwhile, Dallas’s Nerlens Noel and Phoenix’s Alex Len found no outside offers and had to settle for one-year qualifying offers.

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

Through 16 games, Nurki? is averaging a career-high 14.6 PPG and 7.2 RPG, while posting a strong 97.9 defensive rating for a Blazers defense that surprisingly ranks second in the league. Offensively, he hasn’t truly rekindled Nurk Fever, as opponents appear better prepared for him and Portland’s attack has been prone to choppiness. His effort level has regressed compared to last spring’s highwater marks—no great surprise—with foul trouble often a contributing factor. Still, he can usually be found in the middle of the action, whether sustaining a concussion while wrestling with Sacramento’s Jack Cooley during the preseason or taking a controversial flagrant foul from Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony earlier this month.

This season’s first notable flashpoint came during a home loss to Brooklyn last week, when Stotts opted to play Ed Davis over Nurki? during the fourth quarter. This was, of course, the same coaching decision that precipitated his final fallout with Malone. Nurki? was unexpectedly unavailable to reporters in the locker room after the Nets loss, although he said the next day that he had been receiving treatment. Tesch asserted that the situation was “cleared up” and said that his client “gets along great” with Stotts and his teammates.

For Nurki?, the Nets episode encapsulates the next great challenge of his career. Years spent fighting for himself have landed him in a favorable location, but sacrifice is required of every NBA player. Portland (9–7) has no other legitimate starting center candidates on its roster, and it lacks the cap flexibility to pursue quality outside options in free agency. As a traditional center heading to restricted free agency without unicorn selling points like three-point range and elite shot-blocking, Nurki? needs the Blazers as much as they need him.

“I’m not going to say names, but some of my good friends are OK with scoring 20 points and losing,” Nurki? said. “I’m not that guy. I’m a team player. I would like to score 10 to 15 points per game and win every game. Portland gave me the situation I always wanted: the fans, the city, the teammates and two guards who can really hoop. It sounds perfect to me. I don’t want this to end. I want to be here."

A fighting bull enters the ring alone. Nurkic's father, according to legend, took down 13 men without back-up. The solo approach has carried Nurki? halfway across the globe, from the farm to the court, and through professional turbulence to the brink of generational wealth he couldn’t have conceived just five years ago. To go any further, though, he must help lead the herd.

The Making of Jusuf Nurkic: The Uncompromising Bosnian Beast

?In the weeks leading up to the 2014 NBA draft, Jusuf Nurki? admitted to the Spurs front office that he had serious reservations about life in the United States. The elder of two sons, Nurki? was raised with a military mindset by traditional parents—a 400-plus-pound police officer and his wife—in a small Bosnian village. “If America is like the movies,” Nurki? told the soon-to-be champs, “I’m never coming.” Upon his arrival in New York City before the big night, the 7–footer craned his neck to marvel at the skyscrapers, only to have his worst fears confirmed. “My very first day, some guy asked me if I wanted drugs,” Nurki? recalled, his voice a mix of exasperation and amusement. “My first experience in New York is a drug dealer! What’s going on here? It was just like the movies.”

The perplexities were just beginning. Chicago selected him with the No. 16 pick, beating most pre-draft expectations, and it seemed like a happy twist of fate. “I used to help on my grandfather’s farm and he’s all about bulls,” Nurki? laughed. “Natural, big bulls. He was so happy Chicago took me. Everyone was excited.” By the time Nurki? put his limited English to the test in media interviews, though, Chicago had already traded his rights to Denver. It didn’t take long for Nurki? to realize the Nuggets were well-stocked with big men, a fact that later prompted Nurki? to bluntly ask GM Tim Connelly, “Why do you want me?”

When camp opened, it dawned on him that his American teammates Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson were real people, not just “NBA 2K” characters. During a preseason game against the Lakers, Nurki? was so transfixed by his childhood hero Kobe Bryant that he wandered aimlessly around the court as coach Brian Shaw tried to get his attention. Shaw had played professionally in Italy so he was sympathetic, but he also worried that culture shock might be a nightly distraction. “We play Oklahoma City next. Are you going to act the same with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?” Shaw asked. “No, coach,” the reply came. “Only Kobe.”

Stargazing proved to be an impossible luxury; the rookie’s November DNP-CDs turned into January starts once Connelly traded center Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland. Just five years after he first picked up a basketball, Nurki? was learning on the fly at the sport’s highest level. But the twists and turns never stopped in Denver, where disputes over his role prompted multiple trade requests and raised questions about his attitude.

Nurki?, now the Blazers’ 23-year-old starting center, doesn’t do regrets or apologies. He prefers to trust an unyielding approach forged during his whirlwind journey from anonymous Balkan teen to potential franchise building block.

“In Bosnia, with $1,000 per month you can live a great life. With $10,000 per month, you can be the king,” Nurki? told The Crossover during an extended interview at The Nines Hotel in Portland. “Every time I go home, I cry because nothing changes and everyone I know is stuck in the same position. So, it’s simple: I want to play. I know I should be starting. I know I can be an All-Star. If you ask me, no center in the league is better than me. If I don’t fight for myself, who is going to fight for me?”

This wasn’t a rhetorical question. Nurki?, in a ripped jean jacket and ripped black jeans, leaned forward and pointed his finger. “Would you fight for me?”

?

Nurki?’s tall tale origin story is more truth than myth. His cop father, Hariz, really was written up in the local newspaper for his starring role in a brawl that landed 13 people in the hospital. His first agent, Enes Trnovcevic, really did travel to Tuzla, Bosnia, to seek out Hariz and ask whether the larger-than-life policeman (6’10”, well over 400 pounds) had any children interested in translating their genetic advantages to the hardwood. His mother Rusmina, a housewife, really did agree to let Trnovcevic ship off 14-year-old Jusuf to a boarding school in Slovenia, even though her child hadn’t studied the Slovenian language, hadn’t yet hit his growth spurt, and had rarely spent a night away from home. There was also the little matter of Nurki?’s lack of formal basketball training. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I was a minus-10,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to run.”

In Slovenia, he was welcomed by friendly teammates and a regimented schedule that kept him busy with classes and as many as five practices per day. His coaches initially cast him as a point forward, placing him in drills with guards and preaching the value of the pass. Yet Nurki? suffered from severe homesickness. “I’d be a liar if I said I believed that I could make it back then,” Nurki? said. “I had never touched a basketball. I was the youngest guy on the team. My whole life changed overnight, and I couldn’t accept that at first. I cried almost every night for six months.”

Reluctant to show weakness to his father, Nurki? confided in Rusmina during long telephone conversations in which she assured her son that he could come home after a year if things didn’t pan out. Meanwhile, Trnovcevic preached a day-by-day mentality, pointing to Mirza Begi? and Hasan Rizvi?, Bosnian-born big men who enjoyed long and profitable careers, as inspiration.

Nurki? slowly settled into his new routine and realized that he had no major passion pulling him back to Tuzla. He had no interest following in Hariz’s footsteps as a cop, given the long workdays, modest pay and the constant need to settle grievances for everyone in town. While envisioning a future in basketball was hard, a future without basketball wasn’t any clearer. “I started to understand what you need to do to be a man,” Nurki? said. “I stopped thinking about wanting to go home and how life was tough. From that point on, I thought: I need to do this.”

That’s when he started growing, roughly four inches per year for three straight years. Nurki? moved to Croatia, signed his first professional contract with Euroleague club Cedevita Zagreb in 2012, and got accustomed to a brutish style of play in the post while playing with and against men twice his age. “We set Zaza screens,” Nurki? said. “You set a screen and someone gets injured immediately. You need to earn the points.”

Cedevita provided his first brush with the politics of playing time. Coach Aleksandar Petrovi?, brother of Croatian legend Dražen Petrovi?, told Nurki? that he would back-up his veteran teammates. Rather than wait for an opportunity that might never come, Nurki? informed Petrovi? that he wanted out as soon as possible. Cedevita agreed to loan Nurki? to Zadar, another Croatian club located in a small town of 75,000 people along the Adriatic Sea.

Nurki? enjoyed more playing time and a passionate fan base that turned out every night. When he walked to the store, young children dressed in Zadar jerseys called him by name. He also exacted revenge. In front of 10,000 fans, Nurki? and Zadar defeated Cedevita in the semifinals of the 2013 Croatian Premier League playoffs. “Cedevita was still paying me,” Nurki? pointed out, smiling. “Everybody who talked to me after the game said, ‘S---, we should have kept you.’” At season’s end, Nurki? returned to Cedevita, where he gained acclaim as an NBA-level prospect.

The Zadar detour provided two takeaways. First, that Nurki? loved basketball for the first time in his life. “Parents raise their kids from birth to cheer for Zadar and no one else,” he said. “They don’t skip games and they love when you fight for them. Their support made me appreciate them and the game.” Second, that impatience in Zagreb had been fully justified. What would have happened if he had agreed to languish on Petrovi?’s bench?

In Zadar, across a border and roughly 400 miles away from the Tuzla bull farm, Nurki? discovered the value of stubborn self–interest. “I’ve learned in my life to be a decision-maker,” he said. “I don’t want to have regrets. I like living my life by my decisions. I’ll listen to everybody, but I want the responsibility. That’s the best way.”

Nurki? knew little of NBA culture when he landed in Denver, but he was well-versed in reading depth charts. Alarm bells went off once he realized the 2014-15 Nuggets had four other bigs: Mozgov, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and JaVale McGee. While he was barely 20 when he made his NBA debut, Nurki? wasn’t a typical one-and-done player looking to gradually earn minutes while developing over his four-year rookie contract. He had lived away from home for five years and played professionally for multiple seasons. Sitting in Denver was no more appealing than sitting in Zagreb.

Mozgov and McGee were dealt in midseason trades, clearing the way for Nurki?, who wasted little time introducing himself. In his second start, a January win over Sacramento, he hit a jumper over DeMarcus Cousins and mocked the soon-to-be-All-Star. He went on to post a series of double-doubles, but Denver limped to 30 wins, its worst season in more than a decade. Shaw was fired in March and Nurki?, who had tried to play through left leg pain, underwent knee surgery in May that sidelined him for seven months. As he rehabilitated, Michael Malone entered as coach and Nikola Joki?, a promising Serbian prodigy, emerged as the Nuggets’ starting center.

Nurki? struggled to find his form upon his return, and he was bothered by his coach’s decision to bring him off the bench late in 2015-16. “Mike Malone came to me with all this sweet talk, saying that I was going to be fine and that he couldn’t wait to see me back,” Nurki? recalled. “If you like somebody else, play them. But don’t come to my home and say that I’m going to be the starting center and then play someone else.”

Although the Nuggets experimented with starting the 6’10” Joki? and Nurki? together, that hardly seemed like a winning long-term combination with small ball sweeping the league. Reading the tea leaves, Nurki? went to Connelly and requested a trade in April 2016.

Denver tried to mend fences, dispatching Malone for a summer meet-up in Bosnia. Nurki?, who had battled weight and conditioning issues for years, spent the offseason losing weight and following Denver’s training protocol. After assessing his progress, the Nuggets promised Nurki? that he would get the chance to open the 2016-17 season as a starter. On opening night, Nurki? realized there was a catch.

“In the first game, I only played three quarters,” Nurki? said. “I had 23 points and 9 rebounds. I’m playing a good game, we’re winning and I’m not playing in the fourth quarter? From that point, I could kind of see that something was wrong.”

After 25 games, including a brief stretch with Joki? coming off the bench, Malone opted to pull Nurki? from the starting lineup. By December 2016, frustrated with his role and his long-term outlook, Nurki? and his NBA agent, Aylton Tesch, requested a trade for the second time. With Joki?, an able scorer and sublime passer, blossoming into a franchise player, Connelly and Nuggets ownership agreed to seek trade options. During this period, Nurki? said he and Malone went months without directly communicating.

“I believe you can develop guards together. But two centers? No way,” Nurki? said. “I don’t want to make this a big drama like KD. I was never on the same page with the coach and the front office. It just came to the point where I needed to go. My career was on the line.”

As both sides waited for a trade, Nurki? took heat from local media members for pouting over his demotion, and he received multiple DNP-CDs from Malone. Rumors swirled that he had even left the arena during a game in frustration. Nurki? acknowledged that Malone was “mad” about his body language, but added that he never missed a practice or a team commitment and insisted that he bears no ill will toward Joki? over their position battle.

“People assume I had an attitude problem and people like to make up stories that paint me as a bad guy,” he explained. “Once I asked for a trade, there were even more rumors that I wasn’t happy. But I shouldn’t be happy! No one in that situation should be happy. I put in the hard work to play and someone was holding me down.”

Nurki? also denied that he ever left the arena during a game. “I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I can’t change the whole world’s opinion. Ask anyone who has played with me and they will say the same thing: I’m a funny dude, I work and I have never had a problem with one of my teammates in my life.”

Denver mercifully pulled the trigger on a Nurki? deal last February, sending the center and a first-round pick to Portland in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash. Plumlee’s inclusion in the deal ensured that Nurki? would step in as the Blazers’ starting center, fulfilling Nurki?’s top request.

“I needed a change of scenery. Both sides needed it,” he said. “I’m thankful Denver let me go where I wanted to go. If I was doing all the bad things that people said, the Nuggets wouldn’t have traded me where I wanted to go, and they probably would have gotten a way better deal than they got.”

For the second time in his young career, Nurki? had pushed his way out of a limited role. And for the second time, he had landed in a small city, on the water, with a diehard fan base that filled the building and recognized him around town in no time. As in Zadar, Nurki? needed to establish himself as a player in Portland. He weighed over 300 pounds after playing sporadically in Denver and faced lingering questions about his attitude. Blazers guard Damian Lillard greeted his new center with a simple message: “We don’t make excuses for anything. We don’t do that s--- here.”

From Portland’s perspective, Nurki? was a no-risk flier during a disappointing campaign. Blazers president Neil Olshey handed out a series of questionable long-term contracts during the previous summer, only to see poor defense and lineup issues spoil the investments. Plumlee was headed for free agency and hadn’t played well enough to justify a lucrative deal.

Coach Terry Stotts offered a starting role, a clean slate, a simplified playbook and an accommodating approach to his conditioning issues. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions about who he was,” Stotts said. “I tried to be fair and honest. I knew he was upset not playing, and I understand that. I was really impressed with his skillset, particularly his passing. He showed he was much more than a low-post player.”

Nurki? responded well—to Lillard’s message, to Stotts’s communication and support, and to his expanded role. He notched a double-double in his first start for Portland, he posted 18 points and 12 rebounds in his first game at the Moda Center and he exploded for 28 points and 20 rebounds against Philadelphia in early March. “I felt free like a bird flying around,” Nurki? said. “I had peace of mind for the first time in two years. My team was going with me, not against me.”

Down the stretch, the Blazers went 14-6 with Nurki?, who averaged 15.2 PPG and 10.4 RPG after the trade. Lillard and CJ McCollum finally had a frontcourt scoring option to balance the offense, and Nurki? had guards who were willing and able to consistently set him up. With the ball, Nurki? displayed far more creativity and variety than he had in Denver: posting up smaller opponents, crashing the glass and dusting off his old point-forward training to facilitate from the elbow and to toss in finesse floaters. Portland’s defense was far stingier with Nurki? (103.7 defensive rating) than it had been with Plumlee (111), and he exhibited a demonstrative on-court demeanor that his predecessor lacked.

Blazermaniacs embraced Nurki?’s physicality and swagger, and his status as a fan favorite peaked when he scored a career-high 33 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a home win over Denver in late March. The victory helped seal the West’s final playoff spot for Portland instead of Denver, and Nurki? wished his former team a “happy summer” during a post-game interview. “Rip City likes the fighters,” he said. “After [LaMarcus Aldridge] left, they waited two years for a big man who can hoop. Once they saw how I pass and fit into the system, everybody caught Nurk Fever.”

The party ended abruptly when Nurki? fractured a bone in his right leg, causing him to miss the final seven games of the regular season and most of the playoffs. Still, he pointed to the victory against Denver—a parallel to his semifinal win over Zagreb four years earlier—as proof that concerns about his character were overblown. “Each of my Nuggets teammates came over to me afterward and we talked,” he said. “If I was a bad guy or doing the wrong thing in Denver, they wouldn’t do that. They were happy for me.”

Nurki?, a 2018 restricted free agent, entered this season as the Blazers’ biggest X-factor. Olshey spent a quiet summer stocking up on cheap rookies and dumping salary. For Portland to break through in the West, Nurk Fever needed to return. But the Blazers were wary of overhyping their young and relatively unproven center, and Stotts resisted elevating Nurki? as the third member of a Big 3.

“It was a great honeymoon for 25 games and things went really well for him and us,” Stotts said. “We can’t take that for granted. He helped us win games and that’s going to be the bottom line going forward. It’s not about numbers.”

After recovering from his leg injury, Nurki? started reshaping his body. Leaning heavily on chicken and fish while cutting out all desserts and junk food, he lost 34 pounds to drop to 270. While the new diet initially left him jittery from sugar withdrawal, Nurki? knew he needed to improve his stamina and quickness if he wanted to stay out of foul trouble and cover ground in pick-and-rolls.

Although Portland could have inked Nurki? to an early extension in October, the two sides failed to reach an agreement. This was a classic “prove it” scenario. A nine-figure, max-type contract, like the ones signed by Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert, seemed plausible if he built on last season’s momentum. But the capped-out Blazers couldn’t risk overpaying for a possible flash in the pan, and the center market has been difficult to forecast due to unpredictable salary cap growth and a shifting style of play that favors versatility over sheer size.

Aside from Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, two established All-Stars, Nurki? projected as one of 2018’s top free-agent centers. However, if his production or impact waned there were plenty of cheaper comparison points: Plumlee re-signed with Denver for $41 million over three years, Kelly Olynyk inked a four-year, $50 million deal with Miami, and Cody Zeller signed a 4-year, $56 million early extension in Charlotte. Meanwhile, Dallas’s Nerlens Noel and Phoenix’s Alex Len found no outside offers and had to settle for one-year qualifying offers.

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

Through 16 games, Nurki? is averaging a career-high 14.6 PPG and 7.2 RPG, while posting a strong 97.9 defensive rating for a Blazers defense that surprisingly ranks second in the league. Offensively, he hasn’t truly rekindled Nurk Fever, as opponents appear better prepared for him and Portland’s attack has been prone to choppiness. His effort level has regressed compared to last spring’s highwater marks—no great surprise—with foul trouble often a contributing factor. Still, he can usually be found in the middle of the action, whether sustaining a concussion while wrestling with Sacramento’s Jack Cooley during the preseason or taking a controversial flagrant foul from Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony earlier this month.

This season’s first notable flashpoint came during a home loss to Brooklyn last week, when Stotts opted to play Ed Davis over Nurki? during the fourth quarter. This was, of course, the same coaching decision that precipitated his final fallout with Malone. Nurki? was unexpectedly unavailable to reporters in the locker room after the Nets loss, although he said the next day that he had been receiving treatment. Tesch asserted that the situation was “cleared up” and said that his client “gets along great” with Stotts and his teammates.

For Nurki?, the Nets episode encapsulates the next great challenge of his career. Years spent fighting for himself have landed him in a favorable location, but sacrifice is required of every NBA player. Portland (9–7) has no other legitimate starting center candidates on its roster, and it lacks the cap flexibility to pursue quality outside options in free agency. As a traditional center heading to restricted free agency without unicorn selling points like three-point range and elite shot-blocking, Nurki? needs the Blazers as much as they need him.

“I’m not going to say names, but some of my good friends are OK with scoring 20 points and losing,” Nurki? said. “I’m not that guy. I’m a team player. I would like to score 10 to 15 points per game and win every game. Portland gave me the situation I always wanted: the fans, the city, the teammates and two guards who can really hoop. It sounds perfect to me. I don’t want this to end. I want to be here."

A fighting bull enters the ring alone. Nurkic's father, according to legend, took down 13 men without back-up. The solo approach has carried Nurki? halfway across the globe, from the farm to the court, and through professional turbulence to the brink of generational wealth he couldn’t have conceived just five years ago. To go any further, though, he must help lead the herd.

The Making of Jusuf Nurkic: The Uncompromising Bosnian Beast

?In the weeks leading up to the 2014 NBA draft, Jusuf Nurki? admitted to the Spurs front office that he had serious reservations about life in the United States. The elder of two sons, Nurki? was raised with a military mindset by traditional parents—a 400-plus-pound police officer and his wife—in a small Bosnian village. “If America is like the movies,” Nurki? told the soon-to-be champs, “I’m never coming.” Upon his arrival in New York City before the big night, the 7–footer craned his neck to marvel at the skyscrapers, only to have his worst fears confirmed. “My very first day, some guy asked me if I wanted drugs,” Nurki? recalled, his voice a mix of exasperation and amusement. “My first experience in New York is a drug dealer! What’s going on here? It was just like the movies.”

The perplexities were just beginning. Chicago selected him with the No. 16 pick, beating most pre-draft expectations, and it seemed like a happy twist of fate. “I used to help on my grandfather’s farm and he’s all about bulls,” Nurki? laughed. “Natural, big bulls. He was so happy Chicago took me. Everyone was excited.” By the time Nurki? put his limited English to the test in media interviews, though, Chicago had already traded his rights to Denver. It didn’t take long for Nurki? to realize the Nuggets were well-stocked with big men, a fact that later prompted Nurki? to bluntly ask GM Tim Connelly, “Why do you want me?”

When camp opened, it dawned on him that his American teammates Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson were real people, not just “NBA 2K” characters. During a preseason game against the Lakers, Nurki? was so transfixed by his childhood hero Kobe Bryant that he wandered aimlessly around the court as coach Brian Shaw tried to get his attention. Shaw had played professionally in Italy so he was sympathetic, but he also worried that culture shock might be a nightly distraction. “We play Oklahoma City next. Are you going to act the same with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook?” Shaw asked. “No, coach,” the reply came. “Only Kobe.”

Stargazing proved to be an impossible luxury; the rookie’s November DNP-CDs turned into January starts once Connelly traded center Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland. Just five years after he first picked up a basketball, Nurki? was learning on the fly at the sport’s highest level. But the twists and turns never stopped in Denver, where disputes over his role prompted multiple trade requests and raised questions about his attitude.

Nurki?, now the Blazers’ 23-year-old starting center, doesn’t do regrets or apologies. He prefers to trust an unyielding approach forged during his whirlwind journey from anonymous Balkan teen to potential franchise building block.

“In Bosnia, with $1,000 per month you can live a great life. With $10,000 per month, you can be the king,” Nurki? told The Crossover during an extended interview at The Nines Hotel in Portland. “Every time I go home, I cry because nothing changes and everyone I know is stuck in the same position. So, it’s simple: I want to play. I know I should be starting. I know I can be an All-Star. If you ask me, no center in the league is better than me. If I don’t fight for myself, who is going to fight for me?”

This wasn’t a rhetorical question. Nurki?, in a ripped jean jacket and ripped black jeans, leaned forward and pointed his finger. “Would you fight for me?”

?

Nurki?’s tall tale origin story is more truth than myth. His cop father, Hariz, really was written up in the local newspaper for his starring role in a brawl that landed 13 people in the hospital. His first agent, Enes Trnovcevic, really did travel to Tuzla, Bosnia, to seek out Hariz and ask whether the larger-than-life policeman (6’10”, well over 400 pounds) had any children interested in translating their genetic advantages to the hardwood. His mother Rusmina, a housewife, really did agree to let Trnovcevic ship off 14-year-old Jusuf to a boarding school in Slovenia, even though her child hadn’t studied the Slovenian language, hadn’t yet hit his growth spurt, and had rarely spent a night away from home. There was also the little matter of Nurki?’s lack of formal basketball training. “On a scale of 1 to 10, I was a minus-10,” he said. “I didn’t even know how to run.”

In Slovenia, he was welcomed by friendly teammates and a regimented schedule that kept him busy with classes and as many as five practices per day. His coaches initially cast him as a point forward, placing him in drills with guards and preaching the value of the pass. Yet Nurki? suffered from severe homesickness. “I’d be a liar if I said I believed that I could make it back then,” Nurki? said. “I had never touched a basketball. I was the youngest guy on the team. My whole life changed overnight, and I couldn’t accept that at first. I cried almost every night for six months.”

Reluctant to show weakness to his father, Nurki? confided in Rusmina during long telephone conversations in which she assured her son that he could come home after a year if things didn’t pan out. Meanwhile, Trnovcevic preached a day-by-day mentality, pointing to Mirza Begi? and Hasan Rizvi?, Bosnian-born big men who enjoyed long and profitable careers, as inspiration.

Nurki? slowly settled into his new routine and realized that he had no major passion pulling him back to Tuzla. He had no interest following in Hariz’s footsteps as a cop, given the long workdays, modest pay and the constant need to settle grievances for everyone in town. While envisioning a future in basketball was hard, a future without basketball wasn’t any clearer. “I started to understand what you need to do to be a man,” Nurki? said. “I stopped thinking about wanting to go home and how life was tough. From that point on, I thought: I need to do this.”

That’s when he started growing, roughly four inches per year for three straight years. Nurki? moved to Croatia, signed his first professional contract with Euroleague club Cedevita Zagreb in 2012, and got accustomed to a brutish style of play in the post while playing with and against men twice his age. “We set Zaza screens,” Nurki? said. “You set a screen and someone gets injured immediately. You need to earn the points.”

Cedevita provided his first brush with the politics of playing time. Coach Aleksandar Petrovi?, brother of Croatian legend Dražen Petrovi?, told Nurki? that he would back-up his veteran teammates. Rather than wait for an opportunity that might never come, Nurki? informed Petrovi? that he wanted out as soon as possible. Cedevita agreed to loan Nurki? to Zadar, another Croatian club located in a small town of 75,000 people along the Adriatic Sea.

Nurki? enjoyed more playing time and a passionate fan base that turned out every night. When he walked to the store, young children dressed in Zadar jerseys called him by name. He also exacted revenge. In front of 10,000 fans, Nurki? and Zadar defeated Cedevita in the semifinals of the 2013 Croatian Premier League playoffs. “Cedevita was still paying me,” Nurki? pointed out, smiling. “Everybody who talked to me after the game said, ‘S---, we should have kept you.’” At season’s end, Nurki? returned to Cedevita, where he gained acclaim as an NBA-level prospect.

The Zadar detour provided two takeaways. First, that Nurki? loved basketball for the first time in his life. “Parents raise their kids from birth to cheer for Zadar and no one else,” he said. “They don’t skip games and they love when you fight for them. Their support made me appreciate them and the game.” Second, that impatience in Zagreb had been fully justified. What would have happened if he had agreed to languish on Petrovi?’s bench?

In Zadar, across a border and roughly 400 miles away from the Tuzla bull farm, Nurki? discovered the value of stubborn self–interest. “I’ve learned in my life to be a decision-maker,” he said. “I don’t want to have regrets. I like living my life by my decisions. I’ll listen to everybody, but I want the responsibility. That’s the best way.”

Nurki? knew little of NBA culture when he landed in Denver, but he was well-versed in reading depth charts. Alarm bells went off once he realized the 2014-15 Nuggets had four other bigs: Mozgov, Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur and JaVale McGee. While he was barely 20 when he made his NBA debut, Nurki? wasn’t a typical one-and-done player looking to gradually earn minutes while developing over his four-year rookie contract. He had lived away from home for five years and played professionally for multiple seasons. Sitting in Denver was no more appealing than sitting in Zagreb.

Mozgov and McGee were dealt in midseason trades, clearing the way for Nurki?, who wasted little time introducing himself. In his second start, a January win over Sacramento, he hit a jumper over DeMarcus Cousins and mocked the soon-to-be-All-Star. He went on to post a series of double-doubles, but Denver limped to 30 wins, its worst season in more than a decade. Shaw was fired in March and Nurki?, who had tried to play through left leg pain, underwent knee surgery in May that sidelined him for seven months. As he rehabilitated, Michael Malone entered as coach and Nikola Joki?, a promising Serbian prodigy, emerged as the Nuggets’ starting center.

Nurki? struggled to find his form upon his return, and he was bothered by his coach’s decision to bring him off the bench late in 2015-16. “Mike Malone came to me with all this sweet talk, saying that I was going to be fine and that he couldn’t wait to see me back,” Nurki? recalled. “If you like somebody else, play them. But don’t come to my home and say that I’m going to be the starting center and then play someone else.”

Although the Nuggets experimented with starting the 6’10” Joki? and Nurki? together, that hardly seemed like a winning long-term combination with small ball sweeping the league. Reading the tea leaves, Nurki? went to Connelly and requested a trade in April 2016.

Denver tried to mend fences, dispatching Malone for a summer meet-up in Bosnia. Nurki?, who had battled weight and conditioning issues for years, spent the offseason losing weight and following Denver’s training protocol. After assessing his progress, the Nuggets promised Nurki? that he would get the chance to open the 2016-17 season as a starter. On opening night, Nurki? realized there was a catch.

“In the first game, I only played three quarters,” Nurki? said. “I had 23 points and 9 rebounds. I’m playing a good game, we’re winning and I’m not playing in the fourth quarter? From that point, I could kind of see that something was wrong.”

After 25 games, including a brief stretch with Joki? coming off the bench, Malone opted to pull Nurki? from the starting lineup. By December 2016, frustrated with his role and his long-term outlook, Nurki? and his NBA agent, Aylton Tesch, requested a trade for the second time. With Joki?, an able scorer and sublime passer, blossoming into a franchise player, Connelly and Nuggets ownership agreed to seek trade options. During this period, Nurki? said he and Malone went months without directly communicating.

“I believe you can develop guards together. But two centers? No way,” Nurki? said. “I don’t want to make this a big drama like KD. I was never on the same page with the coach and the front office. It just came to the point where I needed to go. My career was on the line.”

As both sides waited for a trade, Nurki? took heat from local media members for pouting over his demotion, and he received multiple DNP-CDs from Malone. Rumors swirled that he had even left the arena during a game in frustration. Nurki? acknowledged that Malone was “mad” about his body language, but added that he never missed a practice or a team commitment and insisted that he bears no ill will toward Joki? over their position battle.

“People assume I had an attitude problem and people like to make up stories that paint me as a bad guy,” he explained. “Once I asked for a trade, there were even more rumors that I wasn’t happy. But I shouldn’t be happy! No one in that situation should be happy. I put in the hard work to play and someone was holding me down.”

Nurki? also denied that he ever left the arena during a game. “I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I can’t change the whole world’s opinion. Ask anyone who has played with me and they will say the same thing: I’m a funny dude, I work and I have never had a problem with one of my teammates in my life.”

Denver mercifully pulled the trigger on a Nurki? deal last February, sending the center and a first-round pick to Portland in exchange for Mason Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash. Plumlee’s inclusion in the deal ensured that Nurki? would step in as the Blazers’ starting center, fulfilling Nurki?’s top request.

“I needed a change of scenery. Both sides needed it,” he said. “I’m thankful Denver let me go where I wanted to go. If I was doing all the bad things that people said, the Nuggets wouldn’t have traded me where I wanted to go, and they probably would have gotten a way better deal than they got.”

For the second time in his young career, Nurki? had pushed his way out of a limited role. And for the second time, he had landed in a small city, on the water, with a diehard fan base that filled the building and recognized him around town in no time. As in Zadar, Nurki? needed to establish himself as a player in Portland. He weighed over 300 pounds after playing sporadically in Denver and faced lingering questions about his attitude. Blazers guard Damian Lillard greeted his new center with a simple message: “We don’t make excuses for anything. We don’t do that s--- here.”

From Portland’s perspective, Nurki? was a no-risk flier during a disappointing campaign. Blazers president Neil Olshey handed out a series of questionable long-term contracts during the previous summer, only to see poor defense and lineup issues spoil the investments. Plumlee was headed for free agency and hadn’t played well enough to justify a lucrative deal.

Coach Terry Stotts offered a starting role, a clean slate, a simplified playbook and an accommodating approach to his conditioning issues. “I didn’t have any preconceived notions about who he was,” Stotts said. “I tried to be fair and honest. I knew he was upset not playing, and I understand that. I was really impressed with his skillset, particularly his passing. He showed he was much more than a low-post player.”

Nurki? responded well—to Lillard’s message, to Stotts’s communication and support, and to his expanded role. He notched a double-double in his first start for Portland, he posted 18 points and 12 rebounds in his first game at the Moda Center and he exploded for 28 points and 20 rebounds against Philadelphia in early March. “I felt free like a bird flying around,” Nurki? said. “I had peace of mind for the first time in two years. My team was going with me, not against me.”

Down the stretch, the Blazers went 14-6 with Nurki?, who averaged 15.2 PPG and 10.4 RPG after the trade. Lillard and CJ McCollum finally had a frontcourt scoring option to balance the offense, and Nurki? had guards who were willing and able to consistently set him up. With the ball, Nurki? displayed far more creativity and variety than he had in Denver: posting up smaller opponents, crashing the glass and dusting off his old point-forward training to facilitate from the elbow and to toss in finesse floaters. Portland’s defense was far stingier with Nurki? (103.7 defensive rating) than it had been with Plumlee (111), and he exhibited a demonstrative on-court demeanor that his predecessor lacked.

Blazermaniacs embraced Nurki?’s physicality and swagger, and his status as a fan favorite peaked when he scored a career-high 33 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in a home win over Denver in late March. The victory helped seal the West’s final playoff spot for Portland instead of Denver, and Nurki? wished his former team a “happy summer” during a post-game interview. “Rip City likes the fighters,” he said. “After [LaMarcus Aldridge] left, they waited two years for a big man who can hoop. Once they saw how I pass and fit into the system, everybody caught Nurk Fever.”

The party ended abruptly when Nurki? fractured a bone in his right leg, causing him to miss the final seven games of the regular season and most of the playoffs. Still, he pointed to the victory against Denver—a parallel to his semifinal win over Zagreb four years earlier—as proof that concerns about his character were overblown. “Each of my Nuggets teammates came over to me afterward and we talked,” he said. “If I was a bad guy or doing the wrong thing in Denver, they wouldn’t do that. They were happy for me.”

Nurki?, a 2018 restricted free agent, entered this season as the Blazers’ biggest X-factor. Olshey spent a quiet summer stocking up on cheap rookies and dumping salary. For Portland to break through in the West, Nurk Fever needed to return. But the Blazers were wary of overhyping their young and relatively unproven center, and Stotts resisted elevating Nurki? as the third member of a Big 3.

“It was a great honeymoon for 25 games and things went really well for him and us,” Stotts said. “We can’t take that for granted. He helped us win games and that’s going to be the bottom line going forward. It’s not about numbers.”

After recovering from his leg injury, Nurki? started reshaping his body. Leaning heavily on chicken and fish while cutting out all desserts and junk food, he lost 34 pounds to drop to 270. While the new diet initially left him jittery from sugar withdrawal, Nurki? knew he needed to improve his stamina and quickness if he wanted to stay out of foul trouble and cover ground in pick-and-rolls.

Although Portland could have inked Nurki? to an early extension in October, the two sides failed to reach an agreement. This was a classic “prove it” scenario. A nine-figure, max-type contract, like the ones signed by Steven Adams and Rudy Gobert, seemed plausible if he built on last season’s momentum. But the capped-out Blazers couldn’t risk overpaying for a possible flash in the pan, and the center market has been difficult to forecast due to unpredictable salary cap growth and a shifting style of play that favors versatility over sheer size.

Aside from Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, two established All-Stars, Nurki? projected as one of 2018’s top free-agent centers. However, if his production or impact waned there were plenty of cheaper comparison points: Plumlee re-signed with Denver for $41 million over three years, Kelly Olynyk inked a four-year, $50 million deal with Miami, and Cody Zeller signed a 4-year, $56 million early extension in Charlotte. Meanwhile, Dallas’s Nerlens Noel and Phoenix’s Alex Len found no outside offers and had to settle for one-year qualifying offers.

“I feel like the Blazers are very happy with Jusuf and Jusuf is very happy there,” Tesch, the agent, told The Crossover by telephone this week. “We had some [extension] talks but we decided to play it out this year and engage in talks again in July. He has already proven that he can help the team. There is a fit for Jusuf in Portland and he’s looking to stay there long-term.”

Through 16 games, Nurki? is averaging a career-high 14.6 PPG and 7.2 RPG, while posting a strong 97.9 defensive rating for a Blazers defense that surprisingly ranks second in the league. Offensively, he hasn’t truly rekindled Nurk Fever, as opponents appear better prepared for him and Portland’s attack has been prone to choppiness. His effort level has regressed compared to last spring’s highwater marks—no great surprise—with foul trouble often a contributing factor. Still, he can usually be found in the middle of the action, whether sustaining a concussion while wrestling with Sacramento’s Jack Cooley during the preseason or taking a controversial flagrant foul from Oklahoma City’s Carmelo Anthony earlier this month.

This season’s first notable flashpoint came during a home loss to Brooklyn last week, when Stotts opted to play Ed Davis over Nurki? during the fourth quarter. This was, of course, the same coaching decision that precipitated his final fallout with Malone. Nurki? was unexpectedly unavailable to reporters in the locker room after the Nets loss, although he said the next day that he had been receiving treatment. Tesch asserted that the situation was “cleared up” and said that his client “gets along great” with Stotts and his teammates.

For Nurki?, the Nets episode encapsulates the next great challenge of his career. Years spent fighting for himself have landed him in a favorable location, but sacrifice is required of every NBA player. Portland (9–7) has no other legitimate starting center candidates on its roster, and it lacks the cap flexibility to pursue quality outside options in free agency. As a traditional center heading to restricted free agency without unicorn selling points like three-point range and elite shot-blocking, Nurki? needs the Blazers as much as they need him.

“I’m not going to say names, but some of my good friends are OK with scoring 20 points and losing,” Nurki? said. “I’m not that guy. I’m a team player. I would like to score 10 to 15 points per game and win every game. Portland gave me the situation I always wanted: the fans, the city, the teammates and two guards who can really hoop. It sounds perfect to me. I don’t want this to end. I want to be here."

A fighting bull enters the ring alone. Nurkic's father, according to legend, took down 13 men without back-up. The solo approach has carried Nurki? halfway across the globe, from the farm to the court, and through professional turbulence to the brink of generational wealth he couldn’t have conceived just five years ago. To go any further, though, he must help lead the herd.

Ball finds form with triple-double to lead Lakers to win

Lonzo Ball's second career triple-double helped the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 127-109 in the NBA on Sunday.

Ball finds form with triple-double to lead Lakers to win

Lonzo Ball's second career triple-double helped the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 127-109 in the NBA on Sunday.

Ball finds form with triple-double to lead Lakers to win

Lonzo Ball's second career triple-double helped the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets 127-109 in the NBA on Sunday.

NBA Power Rankings after Week 5

CBS Sports NBA writer Chris Barnewall discusses the Celtics taking the top spot in this week's Power Rankings.

NBA Power Rankings after Week 5

CBS Sports NBA writer Chris Barnewall discusses the Celtics taking the top spot in this week's Power Rankings.

NBA Power Rankings after Week 5

CBS Sports NBA writer Chris Barnewall discusses the Celtics taking the top spot in this week's Power Rankings.

NBA Power Rankings after Week 5

CBS Sports NBA writer Chris Barnewall discusses the Celtics taking the top spot in this week's Power Rankings.

The Fast Break: November 19th

See who came out on top from Sunday's NBA Games on The Fast Break.

Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton, right, looks to pass the ball against Los Angeles Lakers center Brook Lopez during the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball, center, grabs a rebound against Denver Nuggets forwards Trey Lyles, left, and Juancho Hernangomez of Spain, during the second half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 127-109. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris, left, goes up for a basket under pressured by Los Angeles Lakers center Brook Lopez during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

Los Angeles Lakers center Brook Lopez, center, drives against Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, right, of Serbia during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

The Fast Break: November 19th

See who came out on top from Sunday's NBA Games on The Fast Break.

The Fast Break: November 19th

See who came out on top from Sunday's NBA Games on The Fast Break.

The Fast Break: November 19th

See who came out on top from Sunday's NBA Games on The Fast Break.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball managed his second career triple double with 11 points, 11 assists and an NBA rookie season-best 16 rebounds against Denver

Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball managed his second career triple double with 11 points, 11 assists and an NBA rookie season-best 16 rebounds against Denver

Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball managed his second career triple double with 11 points, 11 assists and an NBA rookie season-best 16 rebounds against Denver (AFP Photo/Christian Petersen)

Dunks of the Day: November 19th

Check out all the high-flying, rim-rocking action from Sunday's NBA games.

Dunks of the Day: November 19th

Check out all the high-flying, rim-rocking action from Sunday's NBA games.

Dunks of the Day: November 19th

Check out all the high-flying, rim-rocking action from Sunday's NBA games.

Dunks of the Day: November 19th

Check out all the high-flying, rim-rocking action from Sunday's NBA games.

Ten Things I Think I Think: Eli Manning Won’t Catch Brett Favre; Week 11 Quick Impressions

1. I think the 297 straight starts at quarterback for Brett Favre will be a tougher record to break than Jerry Rice’s 1,549 career receptions. I note that after Eli Manning moved into second place Sunday with his 209th straight start at quarterback for the Giants.

If Manning were to pass Favre, he’d do it in Week 3 of 2023. Manning would be 42 years, 9 months old. Favre’s 297 games are the equivalent of 18 full seasons and nine games into the 19th.

Not to be disrespectful of Rice’s mark, and that, too, may never be passed. But I think it’s realistic to think a couple of great receivers will come along (or are here now) who one day could threaten Rice’s mark. If Antonio Brown (708 catches, age 29) stays healthy and continues his pace from the past five years—both big ifs—he’ll be around 1,500 catches at age 36. I’m not saying it’ll happen. I just think it’s more possible than a quarterback starting every game for 19 years.

2. I think these are my quick thoughts on Week 11:

a. It’s official: Chip Kelly gave up on LeSean McCoy about nine years too soon.

b. That Khalil Mack sack of Tom Brady in Mexico City was an amazing thing. Did you see it? Mack swatted aside Rob Gronkowski, then slipped by a power-block from right tackle Cameron Fleming and got one huge hand on Brady, dragging him down. Speed, quickness, power … all on the same play.

c. That two-point conversion call by Sean Payton, the fake handoff/pitch and then the toss to Alvin Kamara, was tremendous. Caught Washington flat-footed.

d. Anyone ever see a 100-yard interception return that wasn’t a touchdown before Dre Kirkpatrick did it Sunday in Denver? Bueller? Bueller?

e. Alex Smith is giving all the Mahomes-in-2018 fans a lot of ammo the last two weeks.

f. You sounded good to me, Greg Olsen.

g. Marvin Jones, with the best double move of the weekend. Totally messed with Bears corner Marcus Cooper’s head on what turned out to be an easy touchdown throw from Matthew Stafford.

h. Beautifully designed rub route by Washington on the 16-yard TD throw from Kirk Cousins to Chris Thompson.

i. Cam Heyward is the most underrated great player in football. Hard for any Steeler to be underrated, but he’s the best all-around defensive lineman they’ve had since Aaron Smith—and Smith was underrated too.

j. Jay Cutler was right at the end of last season about retiring.

k. Nice, accurate TD throw from Blaine Gabbert, his touchdown toss to Larry Fitzgerald in the first half at Houston.

l. Poor, inaccurate interception from Joe Flacco, underthrowing Danny Woodhead near the Green Bay goal line, a fairly easy pick for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

m. Matt Moore’s like the Energizer bunny.

n. Myles Garrett’s going to be a great player. We bash Cleveland’s front office for everything else. Let’s give ’em credit for bypassing other options and taking a player who looks like he can play in Von Miller’s league.

o. Still: Hue Jackson is 1-25 as Browns head coach.

p. Is it just me, or did Philadelphia center Jason Kelce, when he introduced himself on the NBC telecast Sunday night, look very much like Jesus?

3. I think Brett Hundley’s play is making moot Aaron Rodgers’ potential return in Week 15. Hundley has played five games since Aaron Rodgers got hurt, including the last 52 minutes of that game, at Minnesota. He’s 1-4. His performance Sunday against Baltimore, in a game the 5-5 Packers had to have to be strong playoff contenders down the stretch in a power conference, was poor. Hundley is just not an instinctive player. He took a fourth-down sack to start the third quarter that was just not smart. I’ve said this before, but this could be a good learning experience for Mike McCarthy. His backup quarterback, on a team when a backup has been needed fairly often, is a very important player, and the backup should be getting some playing time in the fourth quarter of games that have been decided—and maybe in the first three quarters of some other games. Hundley just does not look ready to succeed against pressure.

4. I think I need to note that Larry Fitzgerald moved into fifth place on the all-time receiving yards list, passing Tony Gonzalez on Sunday. With 15,157 yards, Fitzgerald needs 778 yards to move up three more spots, to number two, behind only Jerry Rice in NFL history. He also signed a contract for the 2018 season last week. So there a good chance that, barring injury, Fitzgerald finishes his career behind only Rice. And this came to mind recently: Fitzgerald is a lover of football history, and he respects those who came before him quite a bit. The competition for the all-century team at wide receiver will be fierce, but I think he’d be a strong competitor for one of the four spots, particularly if he finishes second all-time, with a good playoff résumé.

5. I think the announcement in Mexico on Sunday that the league will play a regular-season game there in each of the next four seasons, at least, means the league is likely to play a minimum of five of its 256 regular-season games outside the United States through 2020. That’s a lot of home games for teams to be giving up. Take those 20 games. Three will be Jacksonville “home” games. (I always have thought the Jags are candidates to play more than one home game overseas, but we shall see about that.) Let’s assume the Raiders, Chargers and Rams are four or five of those games, because they have stadiums being built. So 12 or 13 teams—if you assume one per team—are going to have give up a home game each over the next four years. That’s going to be an internal battle across the league in the next couple of years.

6. I think we finish our eight-part series on Football in America this week, with a trip to Pittsburgh to see the Steelers, and to see a cool high school playoff game at Heinz Field. Kalyn Kahler was there and gives you a preview of her story, centering on a highly unlikely upset victory for an upstart high school, Quaker Valley. Writes Kahler: “Coach Jerry Veshio came out of retirement to lead this Quaker team when the previous head coach abruptly resigned in August, just a few weeks before the season. In the program's 62-year history, the Quakers had never reached the WPIAL ?[Pittsburgh district] championship game, the end-all-be-all game for Pittsburgh kids. In their first appearance at the championship game, played at Heinz Field on a rainy and cold Saturday morning, the Quakers faced Aliquippa, a nationally known football powerhouse, with alums such as Mike Ditka, Ty Law and Darrelle Revis. The Quakers had never beat the Quips, and never really came close. Quaker Valley's lone loss this season came against Aliquippa. But on this day, Veshio's underdogs pulled off an unlikely win, beating Aliquippa 2-0. That's not a typo. Neither offense could score, and Quaker Valley's second-quarter safety was the defining play of the game, helped by Aliquippa's 20 penalties for 190 yards. As the final seconds ticked down on the 2-0 win, Veshio's players dumped a Gatorade bucket of water on him. This, Veshio knew, was definitely better than retirement.” Check The MMQB on Wednesday for Kahler’s fully story, with video from John DePetro.

7. I think I can’t believe Jim Harbaugh would leave Michigan right now. But with the Wolverines being as disappointing as they’ve been this year, I’d probably at least make the phone call Jan. 2 if I were the Giants.

8. I think—and no one will buy this as an impartial opinion because I work for NBC as well as The MMQB and Sports Illustrated—I loved the SkyCam in Titans-Steelers on Thursday night. Here’s why: I love to see what a quarterback sees when he takes the snap, and this was the perfect way to put yourself in the quarterback’s shoes. The running backs’ shoes too, as they took handoffs and looked for holes. When you needed to see a different look, you saw it on replay. If you didn’t like it, that’s fine. It’s just a football game. Why does every one have to be shown the same?

9. I think this is what it comes down to for Jameis Winston: He was drafted with two strikes, like it or not. Whatever happened with the Uber driver in Arizona last year (BuzzFeed reports that a female Uber drive claims Winston grabbed her crotch during a late-night ride; he denies it, passing it off on people he was with that night), Winston cannot afford to be implicated in any sexual misconduct incidents. No matter what happens in this case, he’s rekindled the “aha!” sentiment among those who believe Winston was guilty of sexual assault while at Florida State. He deserves to be judged innocent until the driver’s claims are investigated. But this is a worrisome case for the Bucs. Winston cannot give any reason for this organization to doubt its decision to trust him to be a long-term quarterback and face-of-the-franchise player.

10. I think these are my additional thoughts of the week:

a. Story of the Week: by Ben Cohen in the Wall Street Journal: “An Unlikely Chess Match Tests Limits of Self-Improvement.” This is one of the best stories I’ve read. Totally fascinating. It’s about a 24-year-old San Francisco entrepreneur and gifted learner, Max Deutsch, who set out to accomplish 11 tasks that people just can’t do. He solved the Rubik’s Cube in 17 seconds, for instance. But the biggest task, defeating World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, after training for one month, was the most exhilarating. Carlsen, a showman, agreed to the challenge. You need to read about it.

b. I will share one thing from Cohen’s marvelous story: “There were bets available. Wynn Las Vegas oddsmaker Johnny Avello said the probability of an upset was 100,000 to 1. No betting house would ever offer those odds. The line that betting house Pinnacle posted, at the Journal’s request, was the most lopsided one that internal regulators would allow. A $100 wager on Max paid $50,000. A $100 wager on Magnus paid 10 cents.”

c. Did I whet your appetite? And the story’s not behind a pay wall either if you go through Facebook.

d. Podcast of the Week: “Pizzagate: A Slice of Fake News,” from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, with assists from Rolling Stone and The Investigative Fund, about the crazy rise of invented news. This podcast, from start to finish, explains the explosion of fake news through one story—the totally out-of-control, phony and outlandish and ultimately dangerous tale from last fall claiming that there was a child sex-trafficking ring run out of pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. In all, the lies about the pizza parlor got 126 million people to see Russian propaganda posts about this made-up story designed to make the Democrats look bad. Tremendous reporting by Amanda Robb and Laura Starecheski.

e. We need to wake up, people. Regardless of your party affiliation or who you hate or you love, fake news is not going away. We can’t stop bots, and we can’t stop the Russians (at least now), but we can have common sense. And we can stop listening to total nut jobs like Alex Jones, who had a part in making this story spread, a story that caused innocent and hard-working people to get death threats.

f. Political Story of the Week: “Regrets? Chris Christie has a few,” by Josh Dawsey of Politico. Really interesting deconstruction of the downfall of a politician.

g. The Celtics are amazing. Brad Stevens is amazing. Lots of great hires/signings by Danny Ainge, and my knowledge of the NBA can fit on a key of this laptop, but Stevens must be really good, given how this team adjusted after the Gordon Hayward injury.

h. Coffeenerdness: People are studying the Starbucks holiday cup, and drawing conclusions about the social meaning of it. Man, get lives, people.

i. Beernerdness: I have your Thanksgiving beer, if you can find it. And it’s pricey, so you might only get a few bottles. It’s a pale ale from the Maine Beer Company (Freeport, Maine) called MO, a standard at this great brewery. It’s not a classic pale ale, though. It’s got a little pine to it, sort of like Pliny the Elder, and very slightly fruity, with a big malt taste. You’ll probably drink two (6.0 ABV) and switch to water or something lighter. Well, you’ll drink two if you’re very lucky.

j. Not too impressed with Sam Darnold on Saturday night in the USC-UCLA game. How do you not have the presence of mind on a scramble with the clock winding down and no timeouts left late in the first half to NOT get out of bounds? The clock ran out with Darnold fighting for meaningless yards. Man, that was dumb.

k. And Darnold’s sailed interception midway through the second quarter, when it legitimately looked, as analyst Kirk Herbstreit said, that Darnold spit the bit on the play. “I want you to look at his feet,” Herbstreit said. “Watch the feet right here, as he’s trying to find his open receiver off to the right. Kind of panicking, happy feet, looking off to the right, didn’t have an open receiver … did not look comfortable there at all.”

l. I’m not saying Darnold should be a third-rounder. His NFL stock isn’t in the dumpster. But Josh Rosen sure looked like a better quarterback Saturday night.

m. Baker Mayfield was stupid to grab his crotch and point to the Kansas sideline Saturday. Kansas was stupid for its captains to not shake Mayfield’s hand before the game. Two stupid things. Mayfield the taunter bothered me. For some reason, Kansas being bush league before the game bothered me more.

n. Lovie Smith, the Illinois coach, is 0-8 in the Big Ten this year, with a ninth loss likely against Northwestern on Saturday. Overall, he’s 2-15 in the Big Ten in his two seasons. Illinois is on a nine-game losing streak, eight by double digits. That’s not good.

Who I Like Tonight

Atlanta 24, Seattle 16. With Richard Sherman (Achilles) and Kam Chancellor (stinger) missing, and left tackle Duane Brown (ankle) likely to be significantly hobbled against instant pass-rush star Adrian Clayborn, the game and probably the playoff hopes of the Seahawks are squarely on the shoulders of Russell Wilson. What else is new? The 5-4 Falcons need the game badly too, and they seem to be adjusting to the different play-calling and personality of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian after a slow start. I think Julio Jones could have a big night against the likes of Shaquill Griffin, Justin Coleman and Neiko Thorpe. “The one thing I’m really going to miss is lining up against Julio Jones,” Sherman said last week, mulling his future as he faced Achilles surgery. He had the surgery in midweek in Green Bay. “I love playing Julio. I love playing the best. But I honestly think we’ll be okay.” Former Bucs safety Bradley McDougald, who started for Thomas at free safety the past two weeks, will likely sub for Chancellor on Monday night—and maybe for the rest of the year. “We’re thin,” acknowledged the last man standing, free safety Earl Thomas. And who knows what to expect of Thomas? He’s coming off two weeks away with a bad hamstring. This is a game Atlanta should win.

The Adieu Haiku

Keenum, six straight wins.
Teddy, happy to be here.
Winning cures. For now.

• We have a newsletter, and you can subscribe, and it’s free. Get “The Morning Huddle” delivered to your inbox first thing each weekday, by going here and checking The MMQB newsletter box. Start your day with the best of the NFL, from The MMQB.

Question or comment? Story idea? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Ten Things I Think I Think: Eli Manning Won’t Catch Brett Favre; Week 11 Quick Impressions

1. I think the 297 straight starts at quarterback for Brett Favre will be a tougher record to break than Jerry Rice’s 1,549 career receptions. I note that after Eli Manning moved into second place Sunday with his 209th straight start at quarterback for the Giants.

For Manning to pass Favre, he’d do it in Week 3 of 2023. Manning would be 42 years, 9 months old. Favre’s 297 games is the equivalent of 18 full seasons and nine games into the 19th.

Not to be disrespectful of Rice’s mark, and that, too, may never be passed. But I think it’s realistic to think a couple of great receivers will come along (or are here now) who one day could threaten Rice’s mark. If Antonio Brown (708 catches, age 29) stays healthy and continues his pace from the past five years—both big ifs—he’ll be around 1,500 catches at age 36. I’m not saying it’ll happen. I just think it’s more possible than a quarterback starting every game for 19 years.

2. I think these are my quick thoughts on Week 11:

a. It’s official: Chip Kelly gave up on LeSean McCoy about nine years too soon.

b. That Khalil Mack sack of Tom Brady in Mexico City was an amazing thing. Did you see it? Mack swatted aside Rob Gronkowski, then slipped by a power-block from right tackle Cameron Fleming and got one huge hand on Brady, dragging him down. Speed, quickness, power … all on the same play.

c. That two-point conversion call by Sean Payton, the fake handoff/pitch and then the toss to Alvin Kamara, was tremendous. Caught Washington flat-footed.

d. Anyone ever see a 100-yard interception return that wasn’t a touchdown before Dre Kirkpatrick did it Sunday in Denver? Bueller? Bueller?

e. Alex Smith is giving all the Mahomes-in-2018 fans a lot of ammo the last two weeks.

f. You sounded good to me, Greg Olsen.

g. Marvin Jones, with the best double move of the weekend. Totally messed with Bears corner Marcus Cooper’s head on what turned out to be an easy touchdown throw from Matthew Stafford.

h. Beautifully designed rub route by Washington on the 16-yard TD throw from Kirk Cousins to Chris Thompson.

i. Cam Heyward is the most underrated great player in football. Hard for any Steeler to be underrated, but he’s the best all-around defensive lineman they’ve had since Aaron Smith—and he was underrated too.

j. Jay Cutler was right at the end of last season about retiring.

k. Nice, accurate TD throw from Blaine Gabbert, his touchdown toss to Larry Fitzgerald in the first half at Houston.

l. Poor, inaccurate interception from Joe Flacco, underthrowing Danny Woodhead near the Green Bay goal line, a fairly easy pick for Ha Ha Clinton Dix.

m. Matt Moore’s like the Energizer bunny.

n. Myles Garrett’s going to be a great player. We bash Cleveland’s front office for everything else. Let’s give ’em credit for bypassing other options and taking a player who looks like he can play in Von Miller’s league.

o. Still: Hue Jackson is 1-25 as an NFL head coach.

p. Is it just me, or did Philadelphia center Jason Kelce, when he introduced himself on the NBC telecast Sunday night, look very much like Jesus?

3. I think Brett Hundley’s play is making moot Aaron Rodgers’ potential return in Week 15. Hundley has played five games since Aaron Rodgers got hurt, including the last 52 minutes of that game, at Minnesota. He’s 1-4. His performance Sunday against Baltimore, in a game the 5-5 Packers had to have to be strong playoff contenders down the stretch in a power conference, was poor. Watching him, Hundley is just not an instinctive player. He took a fourth-down sack to start the third quarter that was just not smart. I’ve said this before, but this could be a good learning experience for Mike McCarthy. His backup quarterback, on a team when a backup has been needed fairly often, is a very important player, and the backup should be getting some playing time in the fourth quarter of games that have been decided—and maybe in the first three quarters of some other games. Hundley just does not look ready to succeed against pressure.

4. I think I need to note that Larry Fitzgerald moved into fifth place on the all-time receiving yards list, passing Tony Gonzalez on Sunday. With 15,157 yards, Fitzgerald needs 778 yards to move up three more spots, to number two, behind only Jerry Rice in NFL history. He also signed a contract for the 2018 season last week. So there a good chance, barring injury, that Fitzgerald finishes his career behind only Rice. And this came to mind recently: Fitzgerald is a lover of football history, and he respects those who came before him quite a bit. The competition for the all-century team at wide receiver will be fierce, but I think he’d be a strong competitor for one of the four spots, particularly if he finishes second all-time with a good playoff résumé.

5. I think the announcement in Mexico on Sunday that the league will play a regular-season game there in each of the next four seasons, at least, means the league is likely to play a minimum of five of its 256 regular-season games outside the United States through 2020. That’s a lot of home games for teams to be giving up. Take those 20 games. Three will be Jacksonville “home” games. (I always have thought the Jags are candidates to play more than one home game overseas, but we shall see about that.) Let’s assume the Raiders, Chargers and Rams are four or five of those games, because they have stadiums being built. So 12 or 13 teams—if you assume one per team—are going to have give up a home game each over the next four years. That’s going to be an internal battle across the league in the next couple of years.

6. I think we finish our eight-story series on Football in America this week, with a trip to Pittsburgh to see the Steelers, and to see a cool high school playoff game at Heinz Field. Kalyn Kahler was there, and gives you a preview of her story, centering on a highly unlikely upset victory for an upstart high school, Quaker Valley. Writes Kahler: “Coach Jerry Veshio came out of retirement to lead this Quaker team when the previous head coach abruptly resigned in August, just a few weeks before the season. In the program's 62-year history, the Quakers had never reached the WPIAL championship game (Pittsburgh district championship), the end-all-be-all game for Pittsburgh kids. In their first appearance at the championship game, played at Heinz Field on a rainy and cold Saturday morning, the Quakers faced Aliquippa, a nationally known football powerhouse, with alums like Mike Ditka, Darrelle Revis and Tony Dorsett. The Quakers had never beat the Quips, and never really came close. Quaker Valley's lone loss this season came against Aliquippa. But on this day, Veshio's underdogs pulled off an unlikely win, beating Aliquippa 2-0. That's not a typo. Neither offense could score, and Quaker Valley's second-quarter safety was the defining play of the game, helped by Aliquippa's 20 penalties for 190 yards. As the final seconds ticked down on the 2-0 win, Veshio's players dumped a Gatorade bucket of water on him. This, Veshio knew, was definitely better than retirement.” Check The MMQB on Wednesday for Kahler’s fully story, with video from John DePetro.

7. I think I can’t believe Jim Harbaugh would leave Michigan right now. But with the Wolverines being as disappointing as they’ve been this year, I’d probably at least make the phone call Jan. 2 if I were the Giants.

8. I think—and no one will buy this as an impartial opinion because I work for NBC as well as The MMQB and Sports Illustrated—I loved the SkyCam in Titans-Steelers on Thursday night. Here’s why: I love to see what a quarterback sees when he takes the snap, and this was the perfect way to put yourself in the quarterback’s shoes. The running backs’ shoes too, as they took handoffs and looked for holes. When you needed to see a different look, you saw it on replay. If you didn’t like it, that’s fine. It’s just a football game. Why does every one have to be shown the same?

9. I think this is what it comes down to for Jameis Winston: He was drafted with two strikes, like it or not. Whatever happened with the Uber driver in Arizona last year (Buzz Feed reports that a female Uber drive claims Winston grabbed her crotch during a late-night ride; he denies it, passing it off on people he was with that night), Winston cannot afford to be implicated in any sexual incidents. No matter what happens in this case, he‘s rekindled the “aha!” sentiment among those who believe Winston was guilty of sexual assault while at Florida State. He deserves to be judged innocent until the driver’s claims are investigated. But this is a worrisome case for the Bucs. Winston cannot give any reason for this organization to doubt their decision to trust him to be a long-term quarterback and face-of-the-franchise player.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Story of the Week: by Ben Cohen in the Wall Street Journal: “An Unlikely Chess Match Tests Limits of Self-Improvement.” This is one of the best stories I’ve read. Totally fascinating. It’s about a 24-year-old San Francisco entrepreneur and gifted learner, Max Deutsch, who set out to accomplish 11 tasks that people just can’t do. He solved the Rubik’s Cube in 17 seconds, for instance. But the biggest task, defeating World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, after training for one month, was the most exhilarating. Carlsen, a showman, agreed to the challenge. You need to read about it.

b. I will share one thing from Cohen’s marvelous story: “There were bets available. Wynn Las Vegas oddsmaker Johnny Avello said the probability of an upset was 100,000 to 1. No betting house would ever offer those odds. The line that betting house Pinnacle posted, at the Journal’s request, was the most lopsided one that internal regulators would allow. A $100 wager on Max paid $50,000. A $100 wager on Magnus paid 10 cents.”

c. Did I whet your appetite? And the story’s not behind a pay wall either.

d. Podcast of the Week: “Pizzagate: A Slice of Fake News,” from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, with assists from Rolling Stone and The Investigative Fund, about the crazy rise of invented news. This podcast, from start to finish, explains the explosion of fake news through one story—the totally, out-of-control phony and outlandish and ultimately dangerous tale from last fall claiming that there was a child sex-trafficking ring run out of pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. In all, the lies about the pizza parlor got 126 million people to see Russian propaganda posts about this made-up story designed to make the Democrats look bad. Tremendous reporting by Amanda Robb and Laura Starecheski.

e. We need to wake up, people. Regardless of your party affiliation or who you hate or you love, fake news is not going away. We can’t stop bots, and we can’t stop the Russians (at least now), but we can have common sense. And we can stop listening to total nut jobs like Alex Jones, who had a part in making this story spread, a story that caused innocent and hard-working people to get death threats.

f. Political Story of the Week: “Regrets? Chris Christie has a few,” by Josh Dawsey of Politico. Really interesting deconstruction of the downfall of a politician.

g. The Celtics are amazing. Brad Stevens is amazing. Lots of great hires/signings by Danny Ainge, and my knowledge of the NBA can fit on a key of this laptop, but Stevens must be really good, given how this team adjusted after the Gordon Hayward injury.

h. Coffeenerdness: People are studying the Starbucks holiday cup, and drawing conclusions about the social meaning of it. Man, get lives, people.

i. Beernerdness: I have your Thanksgiving beer, if you can find it. And it’s pricey, so you might only get a few bottles. It’s a pale ale from the Maine Beer Company (Freeport, Maine) called MO, a standard at this great brewery. It’s not a classic pale ale, though. It’s got a little pine to it, sort of like Pliny the Elder, and very slightly fruity, with a big malt taste. You’ll probably drink two (6.0 ABV) and switch to water or something lighter. Well, you’ll drink two if you’re very lucky.

j. Not too impressed with Sam Darnold on Saturday night in the USC-UCLA game. How do you not have the presence of mind on a scramble with the clock winding down and no timeouts left late in the first half to NOT get out of bounds? The clock ran out with Darnold fighting for meaningless yards. Man, that was dumb.

k. And Darnold’s sailed interception midway through the second quarter, when it legitimately looked, as analyst Kirk Herbstreit said, that Darnold spit the bit on the play. “I want you to look at his feet,” Herbstreit said. “Watch the feet right here, as he’s trying to find his open receiver off to the right. Kind of panicking, happy feet, looking off to the right, didn’t have an open receiver … did not look comfortable there at all.”

l. I’m not saying Darnold should be a third-rounder. His NFL stock isn’t in the dumpster. But Josh Rosen sure looked like a better quarterback Saturday night.

m. Baker Mayfield was stupid to grab his crotch and point to the Kansas sideline Saturday. Kansas was stupid for its captains to not shake Mayfield’s hand before the game. Two stupid things. Mayfield the taunter bothered me. For some reason, Kansas being bush league before the game bothered me more.

n. Lovie Smith, the Illinois coach, is 0-8 in the Big Ten this year, with a ninth loss likely against Northwestern on Saturday. Overall, he’s 2-15 in the Big Ten in his two seasons. Illinois is on a nine-game losing streak, eight by double digits. That’s not good.

Who I Like Tonight

Atlanta 24, Seattle 16. With Richard Sherman (Achilles) and Kam Chancellor (stinger) missing, and left tackle Duane Brown (ankle) likely to be significantly hobbled against instant pass-rush star Adrian Clayborn, the game, and probably the playoff hopes of the Seahawks, is squarely on the shoulders of Russell Wilson. What else is new? The 5-4 Falcons need the game badly too, and they seem to be adjusting to the different play-calling and personality of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian after a slow start. I think Julio Jones could have a big night against the likes of Shaquill Griffin, Justin Coleman and Neiko Thorpe. “The one thing I’m really going to miss is lining up against Julio Jones,” Sherman said last week, mulling his future as he faced Achilles surgery. He had the surgery in midweek in Green Bay. “I love playing Julio. I love playing the best. But I honestly think we’ll be okay.” Former Bucs safety Bradley McDougald, who started for Thomas at free safety the past two weeks, will likely sub for Chancellor on Monday night—and maybe for the rest of the year. “We’re thin,” acknowledged the last man standing, free safety Earl Thomas. And who knows what to expect of Thomas? He’s coming off two weeks away with a bad hamstring. This is a game Atlanta should win.

The Adieu Haiku

Keenum, six straight wins.
Teddy, happy to be here.
Winning cures. For now.

• We have a newsletter, and you can subscribe, and it’s free. Get “The Morning Huddle” delivered to your inbox first thing each weekday, by going here and checking The MMQB newsletter box. Start your day with the best of the NFL, from The MMQB.

Question or comment? Story idea? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

Ten Things I Think I Think: Eli Manning Won’t Catch Brett Favre; Week 11 Quick Impressions

1. I think the 297 straight starts at quarterback for Brett Favre will be a tougher record to break than Jerry Rice’s 1,549 career receptions. I note that after Eli Manning moved into second place Sunday with his 209th straight start at quarterback for the Giants.

If Manning were to pass Favre, he’d do it in Week 3 of 2023. Manning would be 42 years, 9 months old. Favre’s 297 games are the equivalent of 18 full seasons and nine games into the 19th.

Not to be disrespectful of Rice’s mark, and that, too, may never be passed. But I think it’s realistic to think a couple of great receivers will come along (or are here now) who one day could threaten Rice’s mark. If Antonio Brown (708 catches, age 29) stays healthy and continues his pace from the past five years—both big ifs—he’ll be around 1,500 catches at age 36. I’m not saying it’ll happen. I just think it’s more possible than a quarterback starting every game for 19 years.

2. I think these are my quick thoughts on Week 11:

a. It’s official: Chip Kelly gave up on LeSean McCoy about nine years too soon.

b. That Khalil Mack sack of Tom Brady in Mexico City was an amazing thing. Did you see it? Mack swatted aside Rob Gronkowski, then slipped by a power-block from right tackle Cameron Fleming and got one huge hand on Brady, dragging him down. Speed, quickness, power … all on the same play.

c. That two-point conversion call by Sean Payton, the fake handoff/pitch and then the toss to Alvin Kamara, was tremendous. Caught Washington flat-footed.

d. Anyone ever see a 100-yard interception return that wasn’t a touchdown before Dre Kirkpatrick did it Sunday in Denver? Bueller? Bueller?

e. Alex Smith is giving all the Mahomes-in-2018 fans a lot of ammo the last two weeks.

f. You sounded good to me, Greg Olsen.

g. Marvin Jones, with the best double move of the weekend. Totally messed with Bears corner Marcus Cooper’s head on what turned out to be an easy touchdown throw from Matthew Stafford.

h. Beautifully designed rub route by Washington on the 16-yard TD throw from Kirk Cousins to Chris Thompson.

i. Cam Heyward is the most underrated great player in football. Hard for any Steeler to be underrated, but he’s the best all-around defensive lineman they’ve had since Aaron Smith—and Smith was underrated too.

j. Jay Cutler was right at the end of last season about retiring.

k. Nice, accurate TD throw from Blaine Gabbert, his touchdown toss to Larry Fitzgerald in the first half at Houston.

l. Poor, inaccurate interception from Joe Flacco, underthrowing Danny Woodhead near the Green Bay goal line, a fairly easy pick for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

m. Matt Moore’s like the Energizer bunny.

n. Myles Garrett’s going to be a great player. We bash Cleveland’s front office for everything else. Let’s give ’em credit for bypassing other options and taking a player who looks like he can play in Von Miller’s league.

o. Still: Hue Jackson is 1-25 as Browns head coach.

p. Is it just me, or did Philadelphia center Jason Kelce, when he introduced himself on the NBC telecast Sunday night, look very much like Jesus?

3. I think Brett Hundley’s play is making moot Aaron Rodgers’ potential return in Week 15. Hundley has played five games since Aaron Rodgers got hurt, including the last 52 minutes of that game, at Minnesota. He’s 1-4. His performance Sunday against Baltimore, in a game the 5-5 Packers had to have to be strong playoff contenders down the stretch in a power conference, was poor. Hundley is just not an instinctive player. He took a fourth-down sack to start the third quarter that was just not smart. I’ve said this before, but this could be a good learning experience for Mike McCarthy. His backup quarterback, on a team when a backup has been needed fairly often, is a very important player, and the backup should be getting some playing time in the fourth quarter of games that have been decided—and maybe in the first three quarters of some other games. Hundley just does not look ready to succeed against pressure.

4. I think I need to note that Larry Fitzgerald moved into fifth place on the all-time receiving yards list, passing Tony Gonzalez on Sunday. With 15,157 yards, Fitzgerald needs 778 yards to move up three more spots, to number two, behind only Jerry Rice in NFL history. He also signed a contract for the 2018 season last week. So there a good chance that, barring injury, Fitzgerald finishes his career behind only Rice. And this came to mind recently: Fitzgerald is a lover of football history, and he respects those who came before him quite a bit. The competition for the all-century team at wide receiver will be fierce, but I think he’d be a strong competitor for one of the four spots, particularly if he finishes second all-time, with a good playoff résumé.

5. I think the announcement in Mexico on Sunday that the league will play a regular-season game there in each of the next four seasons, at least, means the league is likely to play a minimum of five of its 256 regular-season games outside the United States through 2020. That’s a lot of home games for teams to be giving up. Take those 20 games. Three will be Jacksonville “home” games. (I always have thought the Jags are candidates to play more than one home game overseas, but we shall see about that.) Let’s assume the Raiders, Chargers and Rams are four or five of those games, because they have stadiums being built. So 12 or 13 teams—if you assume one per team—are going to have give up a home game each over the next four years. That’s going to be an internal battle across the league in the next couple of years.

6. I think we finish our eight-part series on Football in America this week, with a trip to Pittsburgh to see the Steelers, and to see a cool high school playoff game at Heinz Field. Kalyn Kahler was there and gives you a preview of her story, centering on a highly unlikely upset victory for an upstart high school, Quaker Valley. Writes Kahler: “Coach Jerry Veshio came out of retirement to lead this Quaker team when the previous head coach abruptly resigned in August, just a few weeks before the season. In the program's 62-year history, the Quakers had never reached the WPIAL ?[Pittsburgh district] championship game, the end-all-be-all game for Pittsburgh kids. In their first appearance at the championship game, played at Heinz Field on a rainy and cold Saturday morning, the Quakers faced Aliquippa, a nationally known football powerhouse, with alums such as Mike Ditka, Ty Law and Darrelle Revis. The Quakers had never beat the Quips, and never really came close. Quaker Valley's lone loss this season came against Aliquippa. But on this day, Veshio's underdogs pulled off an unlikely win, beating Aliquippa 2-0. That's not a typo. Neither offense could score, and Quaker Valley's second-quarter safety was the defining play of the game, helped by Aliquippa's 20 penalties for 190 yards. As the final seconds ticked down on the 2-0 win, Veshio's players dumped a Gatorade bucket of water on him. This, Veshio knew, was definitely better than retirement.” Check The MMQB on Wednesday for Kahler’s fully story, with video from John DePetro.

7. I think I can’t believe Jim Harbaugh would leave Michigan right now. But with the Wolverines being as disappointing as they’ve been this year, I’d probably at least make the phone call Jan. 2 if I were the Giants.

8. I think—and no one will buy this as an impartial opinion because I work for NBC as well as The MMQB and Sports Illustrated—I loved the SkyCam in Titans-Steelers on Thursday night. Here’s why: I love to see what a quarterback sees when he takes the snap, and this was the perfect way to put yourself in the quarterback’s shoes. The running backs’ shoes too, as they took handoffs and looked for holes. When you needed to see a different look, you saw it on replay. If you didn’t like it, that’s fine. It’s just a football game. Why does every one have to be shown the same?

9. I think this is what it comes down to for Jameis Winston: He was drafted with two strikes, like it or not. Whatever happened with the Uber driver in Arizona last year (BuzzFeed reports that a female Uber drive claims Winston grabbed her crotch during a late-night ride; he denies it, passing it off on people he was with that night), Winston cannot afford to be implicated in any sexual misconduct incidents. No matter what happens in this case, he’s rekindled the “aha!” sentiment among those who believe Winston was guilty of sexual assault while at Florida State. He deserves to be judged innocent until the driver’s claims are investigated. But this is a worrisome case for the Bucs. Winston cannot give any reason for this organization to doubt its decision to trust him to be a long-term quarterback and face-of-the-franchise player.

10. I think these are my additional thoughts of the week:

a. Story of the Week: by Ben Cohen in the Wall Street Journal: “An Unlikely Chess Match Tests Limits of Self-Improvement.” This is one of the best stories I’ve read. Totally fascinating. It’s about a 24-year-old San Francisco entrepreneur and gifted learner, Max Deutsch, who set out to accomplish 11 tasks that people just can’t do. He solved the Rubik’s Cube in 17 seconds, for instance. But the biggest task, defeating World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen, after training for one month, was the most exhilarating. Carlsen, a showman, agreed to the challenge. You need to read about it.

b. I will share one thing from Cohen’s marvelous story: “There were bets available. Wynn Las Vegas oddsmaker Johnny Avello said the probability of an upset was 100,000 to 1. No betting house would ever offer those odds. The line that betting house Pinnacle posted, at the Journal’s request, was the most lopsided one that internal regulators would allow. A $100 wager on Max paid $50,000. A $100 wager on Magnus paid 10 cents.”

c. Did I whet your appetite? And the story’s not behind a pay wall either if you go through Facebook.

d. Podcast of the Week: “Pizzagate: A Slice of Fake News,” from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, with assists from Rolling Stone and The Investigative Fund, about the crazy rise of invented news. This podcast, from start to finish, explains the explosion of fake news through one story—the totally out-of-control, phony and outlandish and ultimately dangerous tale from last fall claiming that there was a child sex-trafficking ring run out of pizza parlor in Washington, D.C. In all, the lies about the pizza parlor got 126 million people to see Russian propaganda posts about this made-up story designed to make the Democrats look bad. Tremendous reporting by Amanda Robb and Laura Starecheski.

e. We need to wake up, people. Regardless of your party affiliation or who you hate or you love, fake news is not going away. We can’t stop bots, and we can’t stop the Russians (at least now), but we can have common sense. And we can stop listening to total nut jobs like Alex Jones, who had a part in making this story spread, a story that caused innocent and hard-working people to get death threats.

f. Political Story of the Week: “Regrets? Chris Christie has a few,” by Josh Dawsey of Politico. Really interesting deconstruction of the downfall of a politician.

g. The Celtics are amazing. Brad Stevens is amazing. Lots of great hires/signings by Danny Ainge, and my knowledge of the NBA can fit on a key of this laptop, but Stevens must be really good, given how this team adjusted after the Gordon Hayward injury.

h. Coffeenerdness: People are studying the Starbucks holiday cup, and drawing conclusions about the social meaning of it. Man, get lives, people.

i. Beernerdness: I have your Thanksgiving beer, if you can find it. And it’s pricey, so you might only get a few bottles. It’s a pale ale from the Maine Beer Company (Freeport, Maine) called MO, a standard at this great brewery. It’s not a classic pale ale, though. It’s got a little pine to it, sort of like Pliny the Elder, and very slightly fruity, with a big malt taste. You’ll probably drink two (6.0 ABV) and switch to water or something lighter. Well, you’ll drink two if you’re very lucky.

j. Not too impressed with Sam Darnold on Saturday night in the USC-UCLA game. How do you not have the presence of mind on a scramble with the clock winding down and no timeouts left late in the first half to NOT get out of bounds? The clock ran out with Darnold fighting for meaningless yards. Man, that was dumb.

k. And Darnold’s sailed interception midway through the second quarter, when it legitimately looked, as analyst Kirk Herbstreit said, that Darnold spit the bit on the play. “I want you to look at his feet,” Herbstreit said. “Watch the feet right here, as he’s trying to find his open receiver off to the right. Kind of panicking, happy feet, looking off to the right, didn’t have an open receiver … did not look comfortable there at all.”

l. I’m not saying Darnold should be a third-rounder. His NFL stock isn’t in the dumpster. But Josh Rosen sure looked like a better quarterback Saturday night.

m. Baker Mayfield was stupid to grab his crotch and point to the Kansas sideline Saturday. Kansas was stupid for its captains to not shake Mayfield’s hand before the game. Two stupid things. Mayfield the taunter bothered me. For some reason, Kansas being bush league before the game bothered me more.

n. Lovie Smith, the Illinois coach, is 0-8 in the Big Ten this year, with a ninth loss likely against Northwestern on Saturday. Overall, he’s 2-15 in the Big Ten in his two seasons. Illinois is on a nine-game losing streak, eight by double digits. That’s not good.

Who I Like Tonight

Atlanta 24, Seattle 16. With Richard Sherman (Achilles) and Kam Chancellor (stinger) missing, and left tackle Duane Brown (ankle) likely to be significantly hobbled against instant pass-rush star Adrian Clayborn, the game and probably the playoff hopes of the Seahawks are squarely on the shoulders of Russell Wilson. What else is new? The 5-4 Falcons need the game badly too, and they seem to be adjusting to the different play-calling and personality of offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian after a slow start. I think Julio Jones could have a big night against the likes of Shaquill Griffin, Justin Coleman and Neiko Thorpe. “The one thing I’m really going to miss is lining up against Julio Jones,” Sherman said last week, mulling his future as he faced Achilles surgery. He had the surgery in midweek in Green Bay. “I love playing Julio. I love playing the best. But I honestly think we’ll be okay.” Former Bucs safety Bradley McDougald, who started for Thomas at free safety the past two weeks, will likely sub for Chancellor on Monday night—and maybe for the rest of the year. “We’re thin,” acknowledged the last man standing, free safety Earl Thomas. And who knows what to expect of Thomas? He’s coming off two weeks away with a bad hamstring. This is a game Atlanta should win.

The Adieu Haiku

Keenum, six straight wins.
Teddy, happy to be here.
Winning cures. For now.

• We have a newsletter, and you can subscribe, and it’s free. Get “The Morning Huddle” delivered to your inbox first thing each weekday, by going here and checking The MMQB newsletter box. Start your day with the best of the NFL, from The MMQB.

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Lonzo Ball Records Second Career Triple Double In Lakers Win Over Nuggets

Lonzo Ball flashed his potential Sunday night as the Lakers rookie earned his second career triple double in the Lakers 127-109 win over the Nuggets.

Ball, who has struggled with his shot to start his rookie campaign, was five-for-13 from the field for 11 points on the night. He was a menace on the defensive glass, collecting 13 of his game-high 16 rebounds on that end of the court. Both of those totals were career highs, eclipsing the marks he set on Nov. 11 when he recorded his first career triple double.

To cap off the night, Ball had a game-high 11 assists as the Lakers as a whole had a season-high 36 helpers in the victory.

This game marked only the fifth time this season Ball scored in double figures, and it was his first instance doing so since his triple double against the Bucks earlier in the month. In that game he shot seven-for-12 and finished with 19. He was also the youngest player ever with a triple double.

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The Lakers now sit at 7-10 on the season. With a win over the Bulls Tuesday, Los Angeles would have only its second winning streak of the season.

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