With the rise of Euro big men, has the NBA actually caught up to the European game?

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Harvey Araton
·The Vertical
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Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic represent a new age of big men. (AP/Getty Images)
Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic represent a new age of big men. (AP/Getty Images)

A compelling new chapter in the emerging legend of Nurkic and Jokic was written in Portland on Tuesday night, another personal milestone reached with a redemptive missive aimed at those who once mocked the perimeter hugging species known as the European big.

In short, sweet summary: How do you like this soft power now?

Jusuf Nurkic actually took his message to the mic after dropping a career-high 33 points along with 16 rebounds on Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets as the Blazers edged past Nurkic’s former team and into the eighth playoff position in the Western Conference.

“I wish those guys a happy summer,” Nurkic, a Bosnian, told the celebrating crowd at the Moda Center.

Got to love that Balkan wit and wisdom.

In another telling twist of fate, it has been the Nuggets – with their general manager, Tim Connelly, a former international scout, and his Lithuanian assistant, Arturas Karnisovas – who have done much to raise the bar for the tall men from abroad after contributing mightily to their ridicule earlier in the century.

Remember Nikoloz Tskitishvili, the 7-foot Georgian taken fifth by then-Denver GM Kiki Vandeweghe in the 2002 draft? At 19, Tskitishvili came stamped with the label of the next Dirk Nowitzki, but arrived too raw and reticent, ultimately starring in the basketball hotbeds of Lebanon and Bahrain.

“The league exists on perception,” Karnisovas told The Vertical hours before the Nuggets ceded control of their playoff destiny in Tuesday night’s 122-113 defeat. “In the ’90s, the European players were supposed to be soft. Then Dirk came into the league and it became a case of, ‘We’ll take any European.’ But some guys failed and it went back the other way.

“Now,” he added, “it’s never been such a huge number.”

Now it has become remarkably common to peruse the box scores and have a stat line leap off the screen to challenge another perception, that of American big-boy exceptionalism.

Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic during their days together in Denver. (Getty Images)
Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic during their days together in Denver. (Getty Images)

Two weeks ago, Jokic, the 6-10 Serb with the Midas passing touch, recorded his fifth triple-double of the season in a victory over the Clippers. In Salt Lake City last week, the French center Rudy Gobert, better known for his defense and board work, ravaged the Knicks for a career-high 35 points. In Chicago, also last week, Dario Saric, the 6-10 Croatian rookie power forward, went for a career-best 32 points in a 76ers takedown of the Bulls.

Saric has surged as a Rookie of the Year candidate in the absence of his frontcourt mate, Joel Embiid, the Cameroonian and All-Star center in waiting, if he can ever stay healthy.

See a pattern here? Roughly half the NBA teams feature an imported big at one power position or another. The Spanish Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, continue to flaunt their multi-skilled games in San Antonio and Memphis. In Houston, Washington, Toronto and Salt Lake City, serious conference-final playoff contenders start European centers in Clint Capela (Switzerland), Marcin Gortat (Poland), Jonas Valanciunas (Lithuania) and Gobert (France).

Then there is Milwaukee’s burgeoning superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, torturing pronunciations everywhere while redefining the positional parameters for a 6-11 Greek Freak with an unearthly wingspan.

“The game has changed – now everybody’s offense is cutting, passing, shooting the 3,” Karnisovas said. “I don’t think a lot has changed in how the European big men have developed. I just think they’re appreciated more for what they can do.”

In other words, stylistically speaking, the NBA has caught up with the Europeans, more than the Europeans have caught up with the NBA.

Consider the Knicks in New York, where for years the mere thought of a European big made fans cower in painful remembrance of Vince Carter savagely dunking on a Knicks first-round draft pick, the Frenchman Frederic Weis, in the 2000 Summer Olympics. But whatever future there is under Phil Jackson, whose presidential approval rating is worse than Trump’s, rests on the baby foreign giants, Kristaps Porzingis and Willy Hernangomez.

Weis, who never actually played in a regular-season game for the Knicks, toiled in Europe before grappling with depression and operating a tobacco store after helping to create a more skeptical – if not downright disbelieving – American audience.

This derision wasn’t always fair, said Marc Fleisher, an agent who has represented international players since they first began integrating the NBA.

“My first European client was Vlade Divac, who did all the things the players coming over now can do,” Fleisher told The Vertical. “When it comes to passing, shooting from outside, the European players have tended to be better than the American players for a long time. It’s just now that the NBA is less focused than ever on low-post play, so there’s less interest in big, plodding guys. But no question, there was a lot of resistance after a few guys didn’t make it.”

Was it a natural reaction to failure or, in part, a pushback of pure American conceit? Could Weis have been worse than some of the stiffs the Knicks overpaid in the post-Patrick Ewing era? Might Tskitishvili have had a greater chance of success if the Nuggets left him in Europe for a few years to mature, as the 76ers most recently did with Saric?

Probably not, based on Tskitishvili’s inability to stick in Europe’s top leagues. But Karnisovas, a former Seton Hall star, was the first player from the Soviet Union to play for an American college. He knows a few things about barrier crashing and accompanying expectations.

The lasting effect of Tskitishvili, he insisted, was more about his draft standing than his failure.

“A lot of it is where you pick a guy,” Karnisovas said. “With Jokic, it’s wasn’t like nobody knew about him – everybody is scouting in Europe now. But we drafted him in the second round, 41st pick. There was minimal risk.”

And now, in context, monumental gain.

That same year, 2014, the Nuggets also acquired Nurkic, the 16th pick in the first round, from the Bulls. A long future together for Nurkic and Jokic was possible, if not probable. But with Jokic breaking out fast this season, and Nurkic’s minutes suffering, a plan of playing two centers in a downsizing league was abandoned in February when Nurkic was sent to Portland in a deal for Mason Plumlee.

“Nurkic is such a unique player, a 7-foot guy who weighs 280 pounds and moves like a guard,” Karnisovas said. “But Nikola, he’s our center. His attributes are insane – five triple-doubles.”

Jokic and the Nuggets were sent packing late Tuesday, perhaps for the summer, in large part by Nurkic. Their playoff fortunes darkened. On this night, at least, the trade for Plumlee seemed, well, insane.

It was still one chapter in what promises to be a very long narrative. Both players are 22, clearing their throats, along with some of the other imports. The pendulum and perception would seem to have swung far in favor of the European bigs, and in all likelihood isn’t soon heading back.

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