Jusuf Nurkic Injury Opens the Door for Justise Winslow to Reach His Untapped Potential

When one door closes, another door opens. The Portland Trail Blazers can easily apply that adage to Jusuf Nurkic and Justise Winslow as they enter the second half of a tumultuous season.

Over the last several months, the Trail Blazers have had to deal with the firing of a disgraced GM, a long-term injury to franchise star Damian Lillard, and the trade deadline departures of CJ McCollum and Norman Powell. Now, a new injury to Nurkic will sideline the big man for the foreseeable future.

Yet somehow, someway, Portland would find itself in the play-in round if the season ended today. A big reason why is the sudden emergence of Winslow, who’s stepped up since coming over from the Los Angeles Clippers in early February.

The 25-year-old was already proving himself as a valuable addition to a Trail Blazers squad in the middle of a re-tooling. Now, Nurkic’s injury allows him to deliver on the high expectations he entered the league with over six years ago.

The Portland Trail Blazers are losing Jusuf Nurkic for the next month

Throughout this difficult season, Nurkic was one of Portland’s most consistent players. The 6-foot-11 Bosnian is averaging 15.0 points and 11.1 rebounds through a team-high 56 games. However, the big man is heading to the bench for an extended stay.

Nurkic has been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis in his left foot. The injury will sideline him for a minimum of four weeks, the team announced on Wednesday.

The injury is an unfortunate blow for both the Blazers and the 27-year-old. Nurkic has had a difficult time staying healthy throughout his career, playing more than 65 games just twice in eight seasons. The past few years have been especially difficult, with a gruesome leg injury in March 2019 costing him all of eight games for the following season and a fractured wrist cutting his 2020-21 campaign short.

Nurkic’s timing also couldn’t be worse from a personal standpoint. The 2014 first-round pick will test the market as an unrestricted free agent this summer, where he could be in line for a major pay increase from his current four-year, $48 million deal. However, his rampant injury issues are surely affecting his market value.

Portland is now incredibly thin at the 5. With the 6-foot-8 rookie Trendon Watford the only remaining big, the Blazers recently added the veteran Drew Eubanks on a 10-day contract.

Nurkic’s injury allows Justise Winslow to prove he’s the real deal

The 25-year-old Winslow came over in the Powell deal alongside veteran Eric Bledsoe and youngster Keon Johnson. Considering this is now his fourth team in seven seasons, it wouldn’t be wild to assume Winslow was merely a throw-in. But the 6-foot-6 forward is proving himself more with each passing game.

Since making his Blazers debut on Feb. 5, Winslow has averaged 12.3 points on 45.9% shooting. He’s also averaged a solid 6.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.4 steals in 30.0 minutes a night.

Winslow hasn’t quite lived up to his billing after being selected 10th overall out of Duke in 2015. But through seven games, the former lottery pick has put up great numbers and brought a level of intensity the team desperately needed.

There’s no better proof of that than in Portland’s last game before the break. Along with having an infectious attitude, Winslow scored eight points, secured four rebounds, and dished out a pair of assists in the first quarter alone of the Blazers’ 123-119 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

“He does that pretty much each and every game,” guard Anfernee Simons told The Oregonian. “He brings a certain level of intensity to the game and we kind of feed off that. You see how hard he’s working out there and everybody just wants to tag along and impact the game as much as he has.”

Winslow was already one of Portland’s lone frontcourt players. Now with Nurkic out for a month at minimum, the seventh-year veteran is facing a golden opportunity to prove why he was once a top-10 pick. So far, his numbers speak for themselves.

The Trail Blazers have quietly assembled a solid group of role players, Winslow included

There’s been a lot of focus on everything that’s gone wrong for Rip City. But there have undoubtedly been some positives, such as the emergence of Winslow and Simons. Factor in Josh Hart, and suddenly the Trail Blazers have some intriguing pieces to work with ahead of Lillard’s eventual return from core surgery.

While Winslow has been very good and should hopefully improve more with Nurkic out, Simons and Hart have become the team’s go-to scorers. Since advancing into a full-time starter role on Jan. 3, the 22-year-old Simons is averaging 23.6 points and shot 42.2% from three. As for Hart, the former Los Angeles Laker and New Orleans Pelican has 21.0 points on a sizzling 56.9% from the field through his first four games.

The Trail Blazers will definitely ensure both Simons and Hart are back next season, even with the former set to become a restricted free agent in the summer. But with Winslow set to earn only $4 million in 2022-23, the final year of his current contract, Portland should also make room for his return.

There’s always the possibility Winslow crashes back down to Earth. But if his early Trail Blazers tenure is any indication of what’s to come, Portland walked away from the deadline with a vital piece for the future.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and contract figures courtesy of Spotrac.

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