What we learned about Raptors’ Nick Nurse at NBA Summer League

Nick Nurse is introduced as the new NBA head coach of the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Thursday, June 14, 2018. (Tijana Martin/CP)

The Toronto Raptors didn’t have a pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a rookie to nitpick, swoon over every glimmer of potential, or vilify for every mistake.

Nick Nurse, as you may have heard by now, is the new Raptors head coach, the first time he’s held the top coaching position at the NBA level. Taking over the reins from the man who was at the helm for the past seven seasons, Dwane Casey, Nurse will have the unenviable task of looking to improve upon a franchise-best 59-win season and a second-round playoff appearance.

There has been plenty made of his coaching experience in Europe, the NBA Developmental League, and the influence he had in modifying the Raptors’ offence as an assistant. The Las Vegas Summer League, though, presented his first crack at his biggest gig. Here are some first impressions:

X’s & O’s

From a strategic standpoint, Nurse needed time to get back into the swing of head-coaching things.

The Raptors played the Charlotte Hornets on July 14, and after Hornets rookie Miles Bridges missed a three-pointer that could have broken a tie game, Raptors guard Rawle Alkins collected the rebound with 8.3 seconds remaining. It appeared as though the Raptors could get out in transition and take advantage of an unset defence, but Nurse was forced to call timeout with 5.9 seconds remaining.

Still plenty of time to draw up a play, which Nurse did, but he forgot the Hornets still had a foul to give.

“Completely honest with you, I’m a little rusty,” Nurse said after the game. “I really feel like, usually, I’m really a good, quick, decision maker late in games but it’s been five years so this is part of the reason I’m coaching. I should have known the foul to give was coming and called a second play or take my other timeout. I had two easy choices, right, and didn’t get to either one of them.”

It’s easy to be critical but the honesty is refreshing. Also, this is exactly what summer basketball is for and, as he mentions, is why he wanted to coach in Las Vegas in the first place.

Another time he learned from his own strategic decision was in their final game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, where after the Raptors shot 1-for-15 and the Cavs went on a 24-5 run, Nurse went to a full-court press to try to turn things around.

Toronto went on a 9-0 run, before the Cavs figured out a way past the press and maintained their lead.

“Probably took it too far,” Nurse said in retrospect after the loss. “Once we got it to there, probably should have went back to playing regular defence, and to see if we could just guard them — they obviously got a couple of layups out of the pressure. That’s usually what happens, right, when you do something to change the game and it works, you got to know when to stop that little change and get back to playing.”

From an overall strategy perspective, you saw the usual high pick-and-roll stuff the Raptors run, a lot of three-point attempts — 33.3 per game to be exact — and an emphasis on driving and kicking and pushing the ball as much as possible. The Raptors finished with 101 assists on 161 made field goals, a healthy mark that could have been a lot more if the team didn’t shoot so poorly, averaging just 81.8 points per game over the six games.

Player development

Definitely some encouraging signs here, including giving OG Anunoby plenty of time on the ball. Nurse had him post-up against smaller defenders, isolate and work on his one-on-one game, and then challenged him to be better off the ball as well.

“For me, it’s important that he adds some specific things,” Nurse said after practice on July 13. “He can add — right now — in an NBA game, that we can get him out and get a couple transition buckets. He’s not a transition bucket maker and we’ve seen a few here. That we can get him inside on a post-up, that he can score that, and he can get a put-back or two and he can get to the line, maybe, one or two more times and all of a sudden you’ve added five, six, seven, eight points to his game.”

Both Alkins and shooting guard Malachi Richardson — acquired from Sacramento in the Bruno Caboclo trade in February — also took strides forward in their respective games. Alkins was a relatively unknown entity coming into Summer League after going undrafted in June. The 20-year-old earned a start in the third game as Nurse looked to balance the starting five with both drivers and shooters, and the move reaped dividends almost immediately.

He shot 36.5 per cent on 211 three-point attempts in two years with the Arizona Wildcats, and shot the ball even better at summer league. His best game was a 25-point outing against the Hornets, where he made 5-of-7 from beyond the arc.

Richardson finished 15-for-36 (41.6 per cent) from beyond the arc and provided the type of catch-and-shoot threat the Raptors don’t really have outside of Kyle Lowry and C.J. Miles.

“There’s a premium on shooting in this league and with our team,” Nurse said after the first game on July 8. “We need guys out there that can bang shots out there. He’s (Richardson) got a quick trigger, he’s got some size, we’re really working hard on him with being more than just a slinger — a gun slinger — but at least he’s that.

“He’s got some deep range, he’s got the ability to get shots off when the shot clock’s winding down. I’m learning that he’s got an ability to bang threes out of timeouts. I’m running a bunch of plays for him out of timeouts and he’s banging them.”

Nurse and Mike Breen must be best friends.

Philosophy

Montreal’s Chris Boucher is someone who finished with a flourish and made significant progress for the Raptors as the Summer League progressed. It was Nurse’s decision to not be rigid in how he viewed the six-foot-ten, 200-pound big man that allowed him to thrive.

“He’s young and he doesn’t understand some of the things that we’re doing so as a coach sometimes you’re thinking, ‘Oh, he doesnt’ really understand what we’re doing,'” Nurse said of Boucher after defeating the Denver Nuggets on July 11. “But then he gets in the game and decides, ‘I’m just gonna play my butt off and run hard and do some things’ and that’s more important but it’s hard to see that as a coach sometimes.

“Sometimes as a coach you fall into stuff. It’s not unlike us falling into the Fred (VanVleet) – Delon (Wright) combination last year. We just kind of said let’s just try it and see what it looks like in pre-season game number two and we were like, ‘Woah,’ and all of a sudden that was what we did and there’s some luck involved in that from a coaching standpoint.”

It’s another example of straight-shooting from Nurse that shows how open-minded and unafraid he is to learn on the fly.

The willingness to work with a player and get the most out of him in spite of the obvious deficiencies — in this case not grasping the plays — stands out. Nurse would have had certain plans on how he wanted to play, saw that Boucher could be more effective at the centre position, and was able to maximize his productivity as a result.

In terms of how this could carry over into the regular season, most of Anunoby’s best minutes came when he was playing at the power forward position, so it will be interesting to see if Nurse gives him more time there in the future.

Outside of that, Nurse emphasized that the theme throughout this summer campaign was about learning, not getting caught up in the highs and lows and trying to stay even keel throughout the process.

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