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Nick Nurse adjusts to head coaching role as Toronto Raptors keep winning

Promotion for Carroll native, former UNI player off to good start

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse reacts after a play in a Jan. 25, 2019 game against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. in Houston. (Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse reacts after a play in a Jan. 25, 2019 game against the Houston Rockets at Toyota Center. in Houston. (Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports)
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DALLAS — When asked what his biggest adjustment has been as a first-year NBA head coach, Carroll native Nick Nurse delivered a humorous, if not deadpan, response.

“This right here, these pregame media scrums,” Nurse, 51, said prior to a recent road game in Dallas. “Usually, I’m just back there (in the locker room) chillin’, having a peanut butter sandwich right now. It’s a little less pure basketball to be honest. As an assistant, when you wake up in the morning, you’re opening your laptop and watching film.

“Then the game starts and you’re watching it until you finally fall asleep. Here, you’re doing a lot more talking to the players and your staff and managing that. And the organization’s big with the strength and conditioning and the scouting. You’re having meetings with all those people. That’s probably the biggest difference.”

Nurse, who played at Northern Iowa between 1985 and 1989, was named Toronto’s head coach last June, taking over after being an assistant on the staff of Dwane Casey, who is now coaching Detroit, since 2013.

As of Monday, the Raptors were 38-16, 1.5 games back of the Milwaukee Bucks for first place in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

Some might be surprised at Toronto’s continued success under a rookie head coach, but as longtime Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle, the current president of the NBA Coaches’ Association who led the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA title, is quick to state, Nurse already sported an impressive coaching portfolio, featuring two championships in the NBA G-League and BBL (British Basketball League) before ever becoming an NBA head coach.

“Well, Nick’s got a pretty fast body of work from the G-League,” Carlisle said. “He inherited a good team, obviously, but the success that they’ve had I would think it’s not unexpected. He’s done a fantastic job and he’s very highly thought of by (his fellow) coaches.”

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Toronto guard Danny Green is new to the Raptors this season, but the veteran guard who is now in his 10th NBA season, knows a thing or two about playing for great coaches after spending eight of his previous nine seasons with San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who has led the Spurs to five NBA titles and is widely considered the league’s top head coach.

Green likes what he’s seen thus far from Nurse.

“At the beginning of the season, I felt bad for him because he had so many guys he had to play and rotate to figure out. But he’s done a good job of managing it and mixing different people different ways,” Green said. “For a first-year head coach, he’s very mature and handled stuff pretty well.

“For the most part, he’s allowed us to just play and encouraged us. So far, so good.”

Green, who won an NBA title with the Spurs in 2014 under Popovich, also sees Nurse possessing one skill crucial for any successful head coach — knowing when to push certain players and when to back off, something he saw on full display during his long tenure in San Antonio.

“I don’t know if it was a science (with Popovich), but it was there for sure.” Green said. “I think he (Nurse) knows that because he’s coached many years, in many places and at different levels,

“I guess figuring out certain personalities and figuring out how to coach them is part of it. All in all, I think he’s done a great job.”

But if you ask Nurse what might be most crucial for successful head coaches at any level, he’ll quickly respond that any coach is only as good as those on his staff. And the UNI product has assembled a diverse, but pedigreed staff that includes fellow Iowa native Nate Bjorkgren, who has worked as a G-League and NBA assistant, Adrian Griffin, who played in the NBA and is a longtime league assistant, Patrick Mutombo, son of NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo who played overseas and has coached in college, the G-League and NBA, and Sergio Scariolo, the current coach of the Spanish national team.

“Yeah, I think the games are happening so fast and there’s so many moving pieces that it’s important we have a good staff,” Nurse said. “I’m so happy with the guys we got. Those guys can literally shape the entire gameplan and the entire scout. That’s really important. He (Scariolo) brings us a little different flair and then I brought one of my buddies with me, Nate, that coached in the minor leagues with me forever. Really good group of guys, really lucky to have them.

“One of the things I like to do is let the players play and the coaches coach.”

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No matter what league or team he’s been coaching, it’s a formula which has clearly proved successful for Nurse, even now as a first-year NBA head coach.

l Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas

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