Person of Interest: Toronto Raptors coaching candidate Nick Nurse

Nick Nurse back when he coached the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in what was then the NBA D-League. (Nathan Lambrecht/AP)

Two weeks after firing Dwane Casey, the Toronto Raptors head coaching position remains vacant, and it could stay that way for quite some time as team president Masai Ujiri is reportedly willing to be patient in finding the right person to fill the role.

Former Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was interviewed for the position and considered a favourite, but recently accepted a head coaching position with the Milwaukee Bucks. Ujiri has said he will examine all options, but one current Raptors assistant coach may have the edge thus far.

“One candidate that they’re really taking a close look at is Nick Nurse,” ESPN insider Adrian Wojnarowski said of the Raptors coaching search during last week’s NBA draft combine.

While the Raptors recently interviewed Jerry Stackhouse for the head coaching position, and are also taking a close look at another Raptors assistant in Rex Kalamian, Nurse is rumoured to be the leading candidate should the team fill its coaching vacancy internally.

Here’s some background on the man who could be the Raptors next head coach.

Name: Nick Nurse
Age: 50
Hometown: Carroll, Iowa
NBA experience: Five years (2013-present)

Championship pedigree

Nurse made a name for himself in the NBA’s D-League (now the G League), where he was named coach of the year in 2011 and led two separate franchises to a championship.

In 2011, Nurse won a title as head coach of the Iowa Energy. Aside from an eight-game appearance from James Johnson — who would go on to play under Nurse with the Raptors — Iowa’s roster didn’t feature any former first-round draft picks and were a club of mostly-undrafted players. In the ’11 D-League Finals, Iowa beat a Rio Grande Valley Vipers team that featured, among others, former second-overall pick Hasheem Thabeet, and another future Raptor, Patrick Patterson.

The following season, 2011-12, Nurse jumped ship and took the helm of the Vipers. By 2013 he had led them to a title, sweeping the Golden State Warriors’ affiliate, Santa Cruz.

He was plucked from the D-League and hired by the Toronto Raptors that summer. The Vipers led the league in three-point attempts each season Nurse was in charge.

Offensive-minded

Nurse is credited with installing the Raptors’ new offence this past season, a task he took on in the summer of 2017 and passed with flying colours.

In Nurse’s new system, the Raptors made a conscious departure from the isolation-heavy basketball of the previous years and placed an emphasis on fluidity, ball-movement and three-point shooting.

The results speak for themselves: In 2016-17, the Raptors were dead-last in the NBA at 18 assists per game. Last season? They ranked sixth, at 24 assists per. In 2016-17, the Raptors were 21st in three-pointers made (8.8) and 22nd in attempts (24.3). Last season? They ranked fourth in makes (11.8) and third in attempts (33.0) with virtually the same roster.

In the process, Toronto went from the NBA’s 10th-highest scoring offence to fourth.

In this New York Times feature on the Raptors from last November, Scott Cacciola details Nurse’s impact on the team’s fairly dramatic changes:

Change…would need to come from within.

Enter Nick Nurse, a 50-year-old assistant coach who was charged with shaking up the offense. After a recent practice, Nurse was explaining the general importance of passing the basketball when he motioned to Jonas Valanciunas, the team’s starting center. Valanciunas, Nurse said, was no longer tethered to the low post.

“This guy loves it,” Nurse said. “He’s touching the ball a lot more.”

…He seemed especially pleased that every player on the roster except Jakob Poeltl, a second-year center, had attempted at least one 3-pointer this season.

“Poeltl’s the only guy I’m disappointed in,” Nurse said, deadpan.

(All Poeltl has done is shoot 65.7 percent from the field.)

…In Toronto, Nurse has weaned the Raptors from their midrange addiction. Only 14.9 percent of their field-goal attempts this season are midrange shots, down from 24.1 percent last season.

“We’ve got a pretty strict shot spectrum that we follow,” Nurse said.

Raptor connection

Speaking of Valanciunas, he is one of several current Raptors that Nurse has a strong working relationship with having spent five years with the team. Nurse works closely with the Raptors’ bigs and has been instrumental in the development of players like Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam, and played a role in Valanciunas’ career-year last season.

In 2013, Nurse was the coach of the Raptors’ Summer League team that starred the Lithuanian centre. Here he is talking about working with Valanciunas during the annual exhibition tournament.

Valanciunas would go on to be named MVP of the Summer League that year.

Well-travelled

Nurse is a former standout player at the University of Northern Iowa, where he led his team in three-pointers and steals for three straight seasons.

While he may have gone to school close to home and gotten his first coaching opportunities as an assistant at UNI, the Iowa native travelled across the pond to find his first gig in the professional ranks, coaching for Derby in the British Basketball League.

Save for a brief return to collegiate coaching in the early ’90s and one year coaching in the defunct United States Basketball League, Nurse spent over a decade in Britain, where he won coach of the year twice before taking a job in the D-League.

Nurse is a known commodity in NBA circles and was reportedly once targeted for a role with Steve Kerr’s coaching staff in Golden State.

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