BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/'I'm proud of myself'/Blazers say 'Beast' will play longer, harder, quicker

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic stayed in Portland during the offseason to get to know the city better, and he wants a contract extension that will keep him here longer as a player.When he takes the court this season for the Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic will be a ghost of his former self. That's likely to be a very good thing.

When he arrived in Portland after a trade with Denver last February, the 7-foot Nurkic weighed more than 300 pounds.

"I've lost more than 35," Nurkic said on the eve of the Blazers' first preseason practice.

But don't expect Portland's starting center to be a toothpick in the middle.

"I'm still 270," he says. "I'm still a strong dude. I changed my body. I look different. I expect there to be some adjustments.

"I don't know how I'm going to feel with two guys pushing on me, but I know I'm going to be the same player. I'll be able to have a deeper run, play more minutes. I'll be the same type of player, just faster and quicker."

"Nurkic Fever" flooded Rip City after his arrival last season. Immediately, the Blazers had some toughness in the paint at both ends of the court.

In his 20 regular-season games, the "Bosnian Beast" averaged 15.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in 29 minutes. He collected 28 points, 20 rebounds and 6 blocked shots against Phoenix and went for 32 points and 15 boards against the Nuggets, going 12 of 15 from the field and 9 of 11 at line.

Most important, Portland went 14-6 in those games — winning eight of its last nine — and got back into the playoff picture.

Then Nurkic went down with a non-displaced fibular fracture of his right leg. He missed the final seven games of the regular season and played only 17 minutes as the Blazers were swept in four playoff games by eventual NBA champion Golden State.

Nurkic's leg is now healthy and his body right. He spent much of the summer in Portland working on conditioning.

"I set a goal for myself to be in position where I wanted to be in the best shape," he says. "I completed the goal. I'm in the best shape of my life, and in the best mentally I can be. I've never been like this before."

How did he do it?

"It's all about working out," says Nurkic, who turned 23 last month. "I don't care about diet. Yeah, you need to watch what you're eating. I tried to take out all the sugar for a month and a half. But at some point, you need to start eating. You don't even sleep without sugar.

"It was hard. I know how much I worked to be in the position I am. I'm proud of myself what I've done this summer. I just can't wait for the games to begin."

How much will the new body help Nurkic's play?

"We'll find out," coach Terry Stotts says. "His skill level is the same. He should be able to play longer minutes, to play his minutes a little harder, to stay on the floor longer. Any time you're in good shape, that's going to be a positive for everybody.

"He's still a big guy, but he's at a weight where it's physically best for him. He's still strong. He's probably a little quicker off the ground now. It will probably make him better player. It's amazing what he did last year being in average condition."

Last season, the Blazers were one of the better offensive teams in the NBA and, most of the way, one of the worst at the defensive end. Nurkic wants to put an end to the latter.

"All we can do is put all we can together to be 'Bad Boys,'" he says. "We are bad boys. When you come to Portland, you know you're not going to have wins easy."

Asked to expound on his "Bad Boys" comment, Nurkic smiles.

"I feel like we can be a group like Detroit with Chauncey (Billups) and Rashad (sic) Wallace," he says. "Even if we're the youngest team in the league, we want to be the 'Bad Boys.'

"We need to play defense. Our defense was trash (last season), to be honest. When I came it was better, and we're going to keep improving that. It's simple. If you want to win, you have to play defense. If we do right and stay healthy, I expect big things for this team."

Nurkic has his eras of Pistons basketball confused. The "Bad Boys" of the late 1980s and early '90s featured not Billups and Wallace but bruisers such as Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn and Dennis Rodman to go with Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.

But his message is clear. The Blazers are going to be tougher, and it starts with Nurkic, who impressed his teammates during pickup games the past three weeks.

"He looks good," CJ McCollum says. "'Nurk' has a lot of incentive and motivation to come back after he got a taste of success last year.

"He was playing extremely well before he got the injury. He has worked extremely hard during the offseason. He got his body in great shape. Him having a full year of training camp is going to be huge for us. He has put himself in position to have a lot of success this season."

Nurkic feels grateful for the trade from Denver, and that he wound up on the right team.

"I don't have anything to prove," he says. "I know who I am when I have a chance to play. Coach Stotts and this team gave me the chance to show who I am.

"I felt like a rookie when I came last year, to be honest. They gave me a chance to play for the first time like I was always expecting. I didn't expect to play with two all-stars like CJ and (Damian Lillard). I was just happy to choose the right team. It's great to be able to choose to be traded where you want to go."

Nurkic says he spent much of his summer in Portland not just to be close to the Blazers' practice facility and the team's strength and conditioning crew. He also wanted to bond with its citizens.

"I wanted to be in the city where I'm playing, to learn about the city and the fans and Portland, Oregon, to see what I can see," he says. "It was about driving around and working out in one place. I feel good when I talk to the people and they welcome me here. It's amazing when you feel one of them."

Nurkic, along with teammates Noah Vonleh and Shabazz

Napier, is eligible for a rookie contract extension that must be signed before the Blazers' season opener on Oct. 18.

"He's a key piece to the future of this team, but we don't discuss contract negotiations," president of basketball operations Neil Olshey says.

Over the past two years, Olshey signed Lillard and

McCollum to lucrative rookie extensions. He didn't do them with Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard, then signed them as restricted free agents the following summer.

"If an extension gets done, it gets done," Olshey says. "If not, you shift your focus to July 1."

Nurkic leaves little doubt what he hopes will happen.

"I want to be here," he says. "It's no secret. I feel like it's the best place for me, with how the city responds to me, the fans. It's on my agent and the team to figure out things."

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