Head2Head: Steven Adams vs. Jusuf Nurkic

Two of the NBA’s biggest, baddest and strongest men square when Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams and Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic jostle for paint position in a heavyweight matchup that is tailor-made for WWE fans.

In this corner, standing 7-0, weighing 265 pounds and hailing from New Zealand, it is Aquaman himself, Steven Adams!

And in this corner, standing 7-0, weighing 275 pounds and hailing from Bosnia, the Bosnian Beast, Jusuf Nurkic!

Let’s get it on!

 2018-19  G (MPG)  PPG  RPG  APG  SPG  BPG  RPM  PER  TSP
 Steven Adams  42 (34.0)  15.4  10.0  1.7  1.5  0.8  +2.00  20.1  .610
 Jusuf Nurkic  46 (27.1)  14.8  10.4  3.2  1.1  1.4  +4.25  23.4  .566
Stats through January 16, 2019
Key: G games; MPG minutes per game; PPG points per game; RPG rebounds per game; APG assist per game; SPG steals per game; BPG blocks per game; RPM Real Plus-Minus; PER Player Efficiency Rating; TSP true shooting percentage.
Sources: Basketball-Reference and ESPN


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The 25-year-old Adams improved his scoring average in each of his six NBA seasons, now averaging 15.4 points in 34.0 minutes per game, which is tied for third on the team in scoring. The 24-year-old Nurkic averages 14.8 points in 27.1 minutes per game, which ranks third on his team. Nurkic has a higher usage rate, while Adams gets more of his points in the flow of his team’s offense. Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts is starting to call more and more post-ups for Nurkic every game, while Stotts has also given his center the green light those long 2s beyond 16 feet that LaMarcus Aldridge used to take years ago (Nurkic makes 41 percent of them). That said, long 2s are only a fraction of Nurkic’s game at the moment (only 9 percent of his total shots), according to Basketball-Reference. Conversely, Adams never shoots long 2s or 3s and is more than happy to take nearly two-thirds of his shots within three feet of the rim, where he makes 71 percent of them. Both men are efficient (Adams .610 true shooting percentage; Nurkic, .566) and satisfied to complement the high-volume shooters on their squads (Paul George and Russell Westbrook for OKC; Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum for Portland).

Advantage: Nurkic

Floor Game
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Most fans do not recognize that Adams gives up his free throw rebounds to Westbrook, allowing his teammate to stockpile cheapie boards to add to his triple-double averages (Adams and his Thunder big-man counterpart will screen out their opponents in the key to allow Westbrook to swoop in and snare free-throw rebounds). Add those missing boards to his totals and Adam’s metrics would be similar to Nurkic on the rebounding front (Adams grabs 15 percent of total rebounds, averaging 10.0 boards; Nurkic grabs 20 percent of total rebounds, averaging 10.4 boards in seven minutes per game fewer than Adams). However, Nurkic has really come a long way in his overall floor game, not only averaging 3.2 assists in 27.1 minutes per game, but also ranking fourth in the League with 11.0 screen assist points, trailing only Rudy Gobert, Cody Zeller and Tristan Thompson, according to NBA.com (Adams averages a career-best 1.7 assists and 7.7 screen assists per game).

Advantage: Nurkic

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Adams may not be much of a shotblocker (0.8 swats per game), but his basketball IQ helps him become a strong all-around defender, ranking third in defensive rating, sixth in contested two-point shots and 12thin defended field goal percentage among majority-rotation centers (Nurkic is ninth, eighth and 21st). Nurkic, who averages 1.4 blocks per game, also has an analytically-favored metrics that show up really high on ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus charts, where he ranks third with a +3.58 DRPM, trailing only the Nikolas—Jokic and Vucevic—among majority-rotation centers (Adams is 10that a +1.90). Still, Adams maintains the overall edge, with his overall professional experience now translating to Oklahoma City’s League-leading defense where the Thunder only allow 103.6 points per 100 possessions (Portland’s D ranks 15that 108.9). On the low block, Adams is an immovable object and does not cede an inch to post men looking to back their way to the basket. Sure, George and Westbrook are playing the best defense of their lives and both are worthy of All-Defense consideration. But Adams too is an All-D-worthy center, and he is the quarterback calling the commands from his center shot-gun position, instructing George, Westbrook and Terrance Ferguson where to be.

Advantage: Adams

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Adams is one of the most selfless players in the League, which in turn, has made him the understated, unquestioned leader of the OKC D. Sure, George and Westbrook provide the offensive fireworks that pack the arenas and make both All-Star and All-NBA teams, as they should. But Adams provides the muscle and does all the little things—screen, switch, bodyguard, grind—that makes him worthy of a Best Supporting Oscar. Nurkic is a treasure too, and is just carving his path into where the Trail Blazers are headed. His best days are still ahead of him. However, Adams has an equal voice with George and Westbrook in the Thunder locker room, picking up where Nick Collison once left off years ago. As for the Blazers, this is still Dame’s team, to no fault of Nurkic, who may become an All-Star center in another year or two after he further establishes himself in the postseason.

Advantage: Adams

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Both centers are not only efficient at what they do (Nurkic ranks eight among majority-rotation centers in Player Efficiency Rating; Adams, 14th), both are incredible at all the little nuances of the game—and both are so cunning at such a young age. It’s probably because they got their training at home at such a young age. As the youngest of 18 children, Adams surely grew up tough with a dozen older brothers, not to mention his sister Valerie Adams is an Olympic gold-medal winning and four-time world champion shot-putter. As for Nurkic, he is the son of the seven-foot, 400-pound cop. Enough said? These tough guys have both the strength and the smarts to master all the little things literally show up strong on the plus-minus charts whenever they play (Adams has a +10.9 on-court net rating per 100 possessions and +15.7 on-off net rating is especially impressive, but Nurkic is not far behind, with a +8.3 on rating and +16.2 on-off rating). One often-overlooked—but certainly not by teammates and opponents—part of Adams’ game is his ability to set bone-jarring picks and screens. Once Adams plants his huge trunk, he becomes a large mountain that means open shots for teammates and extra ice packs for the unfortunate chaser.

Some might even contend that Adams is a dirty player, but recent video evidence shows that he’d rather forgo a possible and-1 layup attempt in order to brace a helpless Mason Plumlee from a potential bad spill.

Advantage: Adams

The Verdict
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Despite being only one year older, Adams’ has played nearly twice as many regular season and postseason minutes as Nurkic (12,529 to 6,484). Because of that, we are willing to give the nod now to the Jason Momoa clone who can take down any beast.

Winner: Adams