The Phoenix Suns might be in a nice spot as the in-season tournament comes back into focus this week, but that didn't look like a guarantee as recently as one month ago. With Bradley Beal limited to three games played so far and Devin Booker also in and out of the lineup through injury, it was unclear if the Suns could keep up with the cream of the crop in the Western Conference.
Their 12-8 record is good for fifth in the conference - and although there have been some ugly losses up to this point - the franchise is sitting in the pocket and within striking distance of the pace-setters in the West. They have Kevin Durant to thank for a lot of this, his superhuman abilities a reliable crutch for the organization when the going gets tough.
Outside of their "Big 3", center Jusuf Nurkic was viewed as the most important player in order for the Suns to have success at the highest level. He was the main player the team got back for former first overall pick Deandre Ayton from the Portland Trail Blazers. Nice as Grayson Allen has been, he was rightly viewed as a nice complimentary piece in the deal.
Allen has exceeded expectations, but the Suns were only ever going to go as far as Nurkic's health allowed them to. The 29-year-old Bosnian was rightly viewed by some as a liability because of his previous health issues, as well as an older and less athletic big when compared to Ayton. The offensive skills were always there, but it was thought that this group didn't need that from a big.
But now that Nurkic has played and started in all 20 games for the Suns, it is time he was given the apology his play so far this season deserves.
All of this may mean nothing if Nurkic isn't available come the postseason. But be honest here, did you think he'd start every game up to now, and more than that be a positive impact on the court more often than not? Those who believed in Nurkic were in the minority, yet with Beal and Booker missing a lot of time combined, he has been there when the franchise has needed him so far.
Nurkic said all of the right things at media day as well, such as how he just wanted to help the team win and was going to do whatever was asked of him. He knew he'd never be featured offensively, and instead was going to have to make a living on setting screens, passing out of the post and taking what scraps came his way.
Plenty of players would have grown tired of that role quickly, but Nurkic has thrived. His 12.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists are not career highs. Neither is the 75 percent he is shooting from the free-throw line, and the 26 percent from deep most certainly is not. In fact, the 2.5 attempts from beyond the arc is the only career high here - and given how little Nurkic has made - that is no good thing.
But those aforementioned 20 games played have him well on pace to beat the 52, 56, 37 and eight games Nurkic has managed to play going back to the 2019-20 season. He's not there yet, but it is a great start for a player who many could not believe was the focal point in a deal for Ayton. Nurkic being a better fit with Durant, Booker and Beal was mentioned often after the trade went down.
But to see that actually come to fruition has been great for the franchise. Nurkic has also posted a defensive rating of 112.5 - which is better than the 114.3 of last season - while his net rating of 6.5 is the fourth best mark of his entire career. You could argue that playing next to Durant and Booker will make anybody look good, and there is probably some truth to that.
But Nurkic has had to play his part on the defensive end especially, and head coach Frank Vogel has managed to get some real run out of the center on that end. All of this has to continue well into spring in order for the Nurkic trade to be viewed as a real success for the organization. But considering all that he has done so far for the team, when few thought it was possible, means we owe Nurkic an apology.
Phoenix is heating up with eight wins in its last 10 games, and you can take your shot on cashing in on the next win at FanDuel! Just sign up, deposit $10 or more and then bet $5 or more on the Suns' moneyline odds vs. the Lakers. If Phoenix wins, you'll win $150 in bonus bets. Sign up with FanDuel today!