Nick Nurse wears two hats.
The bigger one is as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, but never far away is the one he wears as the head coach of the Canadian men’s national team.
At various times during the NBA season, he doesn’t have to choose — such as when the Raptors encounter a national team candidate playing for an opponent and he gets a chance to evaluate him first-hand.
Wednesday night is one of those times, as the nearly healthy Raptors travel to Oklahoma City for their second game in less than three weeks against the red-hot Thunder and their red-hot Canadian guard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
With the NBA increasingly vigilant about the appearance of tampering, Nurse tends to be a bit circumspect in his comments about other teams’ players in his role as national team coach.
But what can a guy say about Gilgeous-Alexander, who on Monday night got the basketball world’s attention. He scored 20 points while grabbing 20 rebounds and dishing 10 assists in the Thunder’s win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, driving OKC to their 12th win in the past 15 games.
The 21-year-old from Hamilton became the youngest player in NBA history with a 20-rebound triple-double – surpassing Shaquille O’Neal, of all people – and joined Steve Nash as the only other Canadian to log an NBA triple-double.
“That’s nuts,” Nurse said after the Raptors’ practice Tuesday as he fiddled on the piano he keeps in his office.
That pretty much sums it up. The number of Canadians in the NBA is at an all-time high – 20, if players on two-way contracts are included. But Canada has been missing star power since Nash retired. Andrew Wiggins of the Timberwolves was originally tabbed for the job, but remains a question mark. Rookie RJ Barrett of the Knicks is too young to project. Fourth-year guard Jamal Murray of the Denver Nuggets continues to develop into an elite scorer, although incrementally.
But Gilgeous-Alexander may have more upside than any Canadian NBA player has ever had and it’s starting to show.
Certainly, Nurse has had a courtside seat.
On Dec. 29, the University of Kentucky product put his name in the record books again as he put 32 points up at Scotiabank Arena – the most a Canadian NBA player has ever scored in Canada – and scored the winning basket in the final seconds.
It’s all part of an eye-popping roll Gilgeous-Alexander has been on recently, which coincides almost perfectly with the Thunder’s heater.
Over the past 14 games, he is averaging 23.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.7 assists on 52.5 per cent shooting, turning an already impressive second-year season into something special.
Marc Gasol will be making his return to the Raptors lineup on Wednesday after missing 12 games with a hamstring injury. The 12-year veteran has seen plenty of young talent rise and fall, but in Gilgeous-Alexander he sees the signs of a young player on his way to stardom in his first year in OKC after an impressive rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Clippers.
“You see it. You see it in his body language, his poise. You see his defensive presence,” said Gasol.
“Now you’re seeing his shooting a little bit, too. You get to see the growth. Because the player that he was last year, you see flashes, you see the potential. Now, they increased his usage by quite a lot, and the responsibility, and you really see what kind of person you also have. Is he a worker? Does he continue to get better? Does he take it for granted? You start to see all those things being answered when you’re put in the position of responsibility like he has now.”
Gasol will see it up close. One of the key pieces in Gilgeous-Alexander’s surge has been his ability to get to the rim and finish. On the season, more than 40 per cent of his field-goal attempts have come within five feet of the rim, per NBA.com, and he’s converting them at a rate of 66 per cent, compared to 53.7 during the first 26 games of the year. By comparison, James Harden of the Houston Rockets is finishing 61 per cent of his chances inside five feet while leading the NBA in scoring with 37.7 a game.
Defensively, Gilgeous-Alexander is a threat both on the ball and in the passing lanes, which allows him to get out in transition.
“He’s really quick,” said Nurse. “He’s got the change of pace, he’s got some anticipation and the length to use it … he’s like a wide receiver out there.”
His rebounding is another dimension, and 20 boards by anyone is noteworthy – from a second-year guard even more so. No Raptor has had a 20-rebound game this season and only 13 NBA players have had completed the feat, per Basketball-Reference.com, with Gilgeous-Alexander being the only guard.
“It’s tough. I mean, I think the first game of the year I had like 18 rebounds,” said Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, who knows something about breakout seasons. “And I was feeling myself and I kind of had a bet with Norm: he was gonna bet every single game that I was gonna get at least 15 rebounds. I don’t even know if I got close to that (he’s had two games with 13 rebounds and one with 12).
“I stopped the bet, because I was getting two rebounds a game, and it was bad. So I just know how hard it is to grab that many rebounds. So, it’s really impressive to be able to do that.”
After Wednesday, the Raptors will be done with the Thunder unless they meet in the NBA Finals.
Nurse’s next viewing of Gilgeous-Alexander will be when the emerging Thunder star suits up for Canada at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Victoria from June 23 to 28. Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the first Canadian NBA players to publicly pledge that he will play for the Canadians.
And the prospect of a six-foot-six, scoring combo guard sharing the backcourt with Murray would excite any coach.
Nurse is at the point where he feels the need to tamp down expectations.
“I don’t think we need any more hype on the national team,” he said. “People are already losing their minds … but (Gilgeous-Alexander) is really good.”
Nurse can only look forward to making music with him this summer – after the Raptors try to figure out how to interrupt his NBA breakout.
But Gilgeous-Alexander is making it awfully difficult to keep expectations in check.