2014 NBA Draft Profile: Jusuf Nurkic

March Madness is just getting underway, which means there is still a lot of basketball to be played before the draft hopefuls shift their attention to all the preparations for the event.

As the draft approaches, I’ll be bringing you a number of profiles of young players that may find themselves in an Atlanta Hawks uniform next season.

If you read through my last profile and thought, “shooting guard? What about a center?” Then look no further than Danilo Gallinari look-a-like Jusuf Nurkic — a 6’11”, 280 pound Bosnian who is beginning to climb up just about everyone’s mock draft at the moment.

Why is Nurkic starting to create such a buzz? Well, big guys tend to draw a lot of attention from the NBA, and he is making it hard for teams to find reasons not to have him near the top of their draft boards.

The 19-year-old center can be found playing for Cedevita, an Adriatic League team that resides in Zagreb, Croatia. Nurkic was relatively unknown before last June, but his strong campaign for the Croatian club this season is improving his odds of a first round selection in this year’s draft. Nurkic currently occupies the 11th spot in DraftExpress’ 2014 mock draft, but his draft stock will be relatively murky until the Pre-Draft Combine arrives as front offices will get their first good look at the young big man, assuming he participates.

Nurkic has been on a tear in the Adriatic League competition, posting a 35.4 PER in 24 games. This season has been his first year as a major factor for his team, but Cedevita has been forced to limit Nurkic due to some conditioning concerns as well as foul trouble. He is currently averaging 11.7 points  and 5.7 rebounds in 16.3 minutes a game. The limited playing time may be inflating his advanced stats some, but its hard to not see potential in Jusuf.

Scouts are comparing him to current Timberwolves’ bigman Nikola Pekovic, who possesses a similar frame to Nurkic at 6’11” 291 pounds.

Nikola had a similar profile when he entered the 2008 NBA draft, however his contract restricted teams to selecting him in the second round and the Timberwolves were lucky enough to have the first pick in the second round that year. Unlike Pekovic, Nurkic isn’t held to any kind of contract obligations and if he enters the draft this year, will likely be brought over next season to help him adjust to the NBA style of play and attempt to build up his conditioning as well.

Even with the conditioning concerns, Nurkic may even be favored more by NBA teams than Pekovic ever was.

At the age of 19, Pekovic saw a similar amount of playing time with Partizan, also an Adriatic League team, at around 16 minutes a game, but Pekovic never produced like Nurkic has as he averaged 7.1 and 9.0 points per game in two seasons of that amount of playing time. In 2007-08, Pekovic saw a bump in minutes to 24.7 a game where he averaged 15.2 points and 5.5 rebounds in Adriatic competition. He is now edging closer to a double-double average for an entire season and earned a big payday — $12 million per year — from the Timberwolves last August.

Nurkic has the potential to live up to the Pekovic comparisons, and if he is brought over next season, the extra years of development in the NBA (Pekovic joined the Timberwolves at age 24) may make those comparisons easier to live up to.

Nurkic’s attitude toward the game may be where he differs from Pekovic. He is relatively new to the game, as he began organized play in 2009, and possesses a few characteristics to high profile big men that never lived up to their potentials. His defensive effort is suspect, however some of it may be due to the inexperience as his technique on that end of the floor has needed work. He still has shown talent on both ends, offensively he has shown a decent post game with room to improve, and defensively he possesses good hands, adding a decent number of steals and blocks to his statistics.

Jusuf would be a welcoming presence with the Hawks. Atlanta already has Lucas Noguiera presumably joining the team in the near future, but it’s never a bad idea to go for the best player available in the draft.

Pekovic was considered a possible target for the Hawks last summer, in hopes by many fans that it would allow Al Horford to move to power forward. Noguiera is considered  another possibility to move Al to power forward in the future, but Nurkic could as well, fitting into a role similar to what Pekovic fits into with Kevin Love and even Robin Lopez, who has had a lot of success alongside LaMarcus Aldridge this season.

Nurkic will be a project from the start, but could produce similarly to Timofey Mozgov or Kosta Koufos as he develops in the NBA in hopes of one day reaching his ceiling of someone like Nikola Pekovic.

Nurkic seems ready to make the move to the NBA, and will probably be one of the first center prospects selected in the this year’s draft along with Joel Embiid, Noah Vonleh and Willie Cauley-Stein.

In the end, he may be out of reach for the Hawks, but his future in the NBA is bright.

Check out my previous draft profile on Serbian shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic.

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