The Toronto Raptors head coach is often immersed in the intricacies of his basketball schemes, but he is equally interested in the details that happen behind the scenes, away from the basketball court.
When training camp kicks off less than a week from today, it will be the first for Nurse as an NBA head coach. With a coaching career spanning more than 20 years, Nurse has waited along time for this moment. After getting promoted in June, he has spent the summer preparing for his first address to his team.
“I got a lot of work to do to get to the first words that’ll come out of my mouth in the first minute of training camp,” Nurse said in a mid-August conversation. “I’ve got a lot of wok to do between now and then, a lot of meetings between my coaching staff. We’ve got to streamline all of our ideas, and we’ve got to streamline all of our teaching and drill work and get ready. We’re all looking forward to it.” Saying he’s looking forward to getting things underway is a strong understatement for Nurse. After the hire was announced, he elected to serve as the team’s head coach during Las Vegas Summer League. Things haven’t slowed since. From a five-and-a-half week stint spent on the road visiting players — including a trip to Budapest to see Jonas Valanciunas— to needing to complete his assistant coaching staff, there has been plenty to take care of this offseason.
For those interested in how the Raptors style of play will look in 2018-19, a preview from the man engineering it: “I've always kind of characterized it as an attacking style, on both sides of the ball, he said. “We want to always play with pace on offence. I believe in getting the ball up the floor and trying to take advantage of transition opportunities. Not just saying, ‘Hey we’re going to play fast,’ but having a system behind that. Aggressive and attacking are the two words that I like to play [with]. I think that’s the way the game is meant to be played. That’s how I would sum it up.”
While the biggest news of the summer was the trade with the San Antonio Spurs that brought 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and sharpshooter Danny Green to Toronto, Nurse is at his most animated when speaking about how his coaching staff has come together. The coaching staff is evenly split between new hires and coaches who have served as assistants alongside Nurse. Each of the newly hired coaches has a long history with Nurse during his basketball journey.
One of the first people he wanted to call when he got the job was Adrian Griffin, who had previously been with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “I've known Adrian Griffin for quite awhile now and always had him as my ‘when I get a job I want to hire him if he isn’t already a head coach and I can get him’ list,” Nurse said.
Also on the list was Sergio Scariolo, the head coach of the Spanish national team and an Italian-born coach who has spent 29 years coaching internationally.
“I’d known Sergio Scariolo for almost 20 years,” Nurse said. “I almost went to work for him, we were both coaching in the Euroleague. He was at Real Madrid, I was at the London Towers. I almost went to work for him one time and we stayed in touch over the years.”
Nurse also brought in Phil Handy, who has spent the last five seasons in Cleveland after being with the Los Angeles Lakers prior to that. Before Handy joined the coaching ranks in the NBA, he was playing a different role with Nurse.
“Phil Handy played for me in England and has obviously risen to stardom in his area of what he does,” Nurse explained. “He’s very highly respected in the NBA, working out with Kobe [Bryant] and Kyrie [Irving] and LeBron James. He’s well-liked and well-known in those circles of player development.”
If there is a person who knows Nurse on and off the court, it’s Nate Bjorkgren. Technically not a new hire, Bjorkgren spent last season with the Raptors as an advance scout, but his history with Nurse dates back to Nurse’s coaching days in the G-League with the Iowa Energy.
“We spent 25 hours a day together, for years when we were building the Iowa Energy,” Nurse said laughing. “Nate is kind of my right-hand man.”
Nurse has spent his summer doing much more than just filling out a coaching staff and visiting with players. Taking on a new role means new and increased responsibilities and one thing Nurse cares about is being as informed and prepared as possible.
“It’s a big organization,” he said. “We’re making a lot of plans. And listen, when you’re an assistant you don't know about a lot of the stuff. My job was to develop players and try to help us score baskets. I wasn’t concerned with the travel or the strength and conditioning program or the nutritionist or sports psychologists. You want to get their personal history, why we’ve been doing what we’ve been doing, you want to throw out ideas, maybe tweak this, tweak that.”
Nurse doesn’t just like the details, he revels in them. In the same way that he challenges what can be done on the basketball court, open to tweaks and experiments to see where they lead, Nurse also likes knowing the hows and whys of the behind-the-scenes elements of life in professional basketball.
“My nature, with anything, is like, ‘Why do we leave at 3 o’clock every day for a road trip?”’ Nurse said. “There’s a reason, not that I have to know all that stuff, but sometimes I’m intrigued to hear the backstory.”
A week away from the official beginning of preseason after an offseason that was anything but “off,” Nurse often breaks into laughter that reveals his excitement at what’s to come. “It’s been nonstop, but it’s been awesome,” he says of his summer. “We’re high-level people. We’re sitting around bouncing ideas off everyone. It’s great.”