The Phoenix Suns continue their surge up the Western Conference standings, thanks to seven straight wins that has seen them climb all the way up to fifth. With a 26-18 record and Kevin Durant just named as a starter in this year's All-Star game, the organization has put a difficult start to this campaign behind them.
It was not so long ago that Bradley Beal couldn't stay healthy, most of the bench players weren't really helping and the Suns were in danger of falling out of the play-in positions out West. A lot of their recent turnaround is rightly attributed to Durant, Beal and Devin Booker, but there's more to it than that.
If you've been paying attention, then you will know that center Jusuf Nurkic continues to be everything and more for this Suns group.
What a first half of the season it has been for the 29-year-old. Although Durant was rightly named the franchise's MVP of the first 41 games played, the fact Nurkic was even on the list of players at all (third, behind Grayson Allen) is a development few, if anybody, saw coming this season.
It goes beyond availability as well, although that has helped Nurkic's cause massively. The knock on him has never really been what he can do on the court. Yes he was shipped out of Denver in favor of Nikola Jokic, but so would any other big man in Nurkic's position. While with the Portland Trail Blazers, they simply didn't have the depth of talent around Damian Lillard to get the best out of Nurkic.
Add to that the fact he missed a lot of games for his former team, and expectations were modest when the Suns decided to make the massive decision to trade Deandre Ayton for Nurkic last summer. Yet he has played and started all 42 games he has appeared in so far this season, upping his minutes on the court from 26.8 last season, to 27.8 this time out.
This might not seem like much, but to not only play basically every night - but also spend even more time on the court than last season - has been a huge win for this Suns team. Head coach Frank Vogel has also gotten the best out of Nurkic's limited abilities on the defensive end, while offensively the fit has gone as well as expected.
That is not the true beauty of Nurkic though, and on reflection it is crazy to think Ayton could have ever even been asked to do what Nurkic has this season. He is among the most selfless players that you will see on the court, to the point if you watch him you can clearly see he does not care one bit about personal stats.
Just like he said at media day before the season, Nurkic exists on this roster just to fill in around the stars and do whatever it takes to help them win. Crucially, this also includes sitting down in big moments, which he has done without complaint. In two separate games recently - a bad loss to the L.A. Clippers, and massive win over the Sacramento Kings - Nurkic sat for the entire fourth quarter.
In the Clippers game it was so coach Vogel could experiment because the game had become a lost cause, and in the win over the Kings it was to move Durant to the center position. That move was just what the team needed to come back from 22 points down, and it is something we are sure to see once the playoffs begin. Nurkic didn't care that he watched from the sidelines as this happened.
He won't care if that happens again down the road - because unlike what so many other players in this league say - Nurkic is actually willing to sacrifice all of his own personal numbers and touches to win. He passes, moves and screens dilligently, and feeds off the scraps offensively that playing with three stars brings.
In the fiery win over the Dallas Mavericks in Texas earlier this week, Nurkic also showed his teammates exactly why he is on this roster as well. When Grant Williams and Kevin Durant got tangled up in the first quarter, it was Nurkic who jumped straight in to back up his teammate. Later in that same quarter, Beal was knocked down in the paint trying to defend a Mavericks drive.
Only he never hit the deck, because Nurkic was right behind him and literally kept Beal on his feet. It is hard to imagine Ayton ever doing these little things to show his team that he has their backs, despite being the younger, more athletic and just plain better player when he is locked in. Only he hasn't been for the Trail Blazers this season, with some slippy roads stopping him from competing recently.
Hard to imagine a bit of ice keeping Nurkic from playing for the Suns, which is just one of the many reasons he has been such a success so far this season. Yes this will always hinge on his availability - and injuries can happen at any time - but Nurkic deserves more credit than he is getting for helping the Suns climb the standings out West. He is everything they have needed him to be.