Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, a Kuemper Catholic grad, has lead the NBA franchise to a 19-4 record in his first year as the lead man. The Raptors beat Chicago by 39 points Saturday, Nov. 17. 
BRANDON HURLEY | DAILY TIMES HERALD
Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, a Kuemper Catholic grad, has lead the NBA franchise to a 19-4 record in his first year as the lead man. The Raptors beat Chicago by 39 points Saturday, Nov. 17. BRANDON HURLEY | DAILY TIMES HERALD

The clip board rarely leaves Nick Nurse’s hands. 

It holds the ingredients for the Carroll-native’s rise to the top, where he plans to stay. 

A clip board to Tornoto’s newest leading man is as synonymous with the former Kuemper Catholic Knight as a graduated cylinder is to a chemist. 

The career coaching journeyman has flexed his ability to be much more than offensive guru a month into his latest coaching gig and it’s thanks to his moonlighting as a mad scientist of sorts, conjuring up inventive lineups, producing effective ways to rack up wins. 

And it’s worked to near perfection.

As of Nov. 30, the Raptors were third in the league in scoring (117ppg) while producing the best record in the NBA (19-4), even ahead of two-time defending NBA champion, Golden State, who they knocked off in overtime Thursday, Nov. 29. Toronto is eighth in the league in made threes per game (11.9) despite shooting a less-than-usual 35 percent per game. They’ve knocked off some of the league’s top teams in the process, including the Celtics, the 76ers, the Lakers and the Blazers.  

To put it humbly, Nurse, a former UNI Panther, has had little trouble adjusting to his latest promotion, his first lead gig in the world’s top league. 

Before a recent three-game losing streak, the Canadian franchise had actually won 12 of their first 13 games, the best start of any kind in Toronto’s history. They’ve now won seven straight games following that mini lull. 

Nurse has seamlessly folded in one of the NBA’s best two-way players in Kawhi Leonard (who came over from the Spurs in a swap for DeMar DeRozan in the offseason) while simultaneously tweaking his lineup card on a almost nightly basis. Though the Raptors won 59 games a year ago and secured the No. 1 Eastern Conference seed, it seems as though they’ve only taken a step forward with Nurse at the helm. 

A key cog in Kuemper’s only basketball state title in 1985, the father of two has adjusted to life as a leading man in the continuously chaning NBA quite nicely. He was in a dapper mood as he addressed the media Nov. 17 in Chicago, reflecting on his career and how he got to this point.  

“I am extremely grateful and realize how lucky I am to get this job, primarily because of the players,” Nurse said. “That’s the key. But there are a lot of other things about this job that are unbelievable – the city, the sellouts, the fans, the owner. There are a lot of positives. It’s a great, great job to have in this league.”

It’s well documented by now that Nurse has taken one of the more unusual paths to the top of the NBA coaching tree. He never played professionally but since then has piled up more than 500 career wins between his time overseas and coaching in the NBA development league. The years he guided the Iowa Energy (The former Bulls and Suns minor league franchise in Des Moines) to a D-League title were perhaps his most pivotal in his two decades of coaching experience. The unprecedented success in Des Moines sprang him to a job with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (the Houston Rockets’ minor league affiliate) which later led to his promotion to a Raptors assistant gig. 

“It was the whole key, really. I got a lot of cutting my teeth experience coaching around the world. But (the NBA G League) put me, not really one step away, but at least the chance to get one step away,” Nurse said. “Having success there got me some credibility really fast. 

I had none. All that stuff in England, the Olympics, nobody really cares about. We started winning games and championships and gave us some credibility.”

Nurse was hired as a Raptors assistant in 2013 and spent the next five years helping build the Canadian squad into one of the top units in the Eastern Conference. That extended time with the Raptors allowed him to build relationships with important cogs on today’s roster, including Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and even undrafted, bench jump-start, Fred Van Vleet. 

Nurse has melded the newest members of the Toronto Raptors together as well, including 2014 NBA champion and 2009 NCAA champion, Danny Green, who has played under some of basketball’s most legendary coaches, including Greg Popovich (1,200 wins, 5 NBA titles) and Roy Williams (847 wins, three titles). To say Green knows a thing or two about quality coaching would be quite the understatement. The 10th-year veteran has adapted to Nurse’s lenient yet innovative coaching style, really taking a liking to it. 

“He gives us a lot of freedom,” Green said. “We have fun, we have a chance to express ourselves on the court a little bit. At the same time, he knows his stuff. He puts us in the right place to be successful and it works.” 

Green is averaging 9.8 points per game this year, while shooting 46 percent from three, including a perfect seven-for-seven night Nov. 17 in which he scored 17 points in a win over Chicago. The former UNC Tar Heel has been one of the NBA’s most consistent shooters, setting an NBA Finals record back in 2013 with 23 made threes. 

Everything about the Toronto franchise has been fairly appealing 23 games in, Green said. His teammates get along well and the coaching staff has been a big part of that camaraderie. 

“Everyone knows their roles here. We take it upon ourselves to reiterated it to each other to do what’s best for the team,” the small forward said. “It’s been great. We have a chance to talk about different things and what works. 

We talk about basketball a little bit, but right now it’s about getting these guys in the right place, not just physically but metaphorically.”

A month into his rookie season and Nurse is a little surprised how stress free his transition has been, even after spending half a decade as an assistant, something he’s rarely done throughout his coaching career. 

“I have to learn a lot of things as I go here, too. I thought I’d be more uncomfortable than I am. I feel pretty comfortable,” Nurse said. “There is more sharpness to my coaching that will come as well. I expected it to take 30 to 40 games since I hadn’t been a head coach for awhile and I feel that coming.”

 Leonard, the franchise’s new star, has already sat five games for rest, while several other of the Raptors’ core players have sat with injuries. Nurse has deflected those speed bumps while adjusting his coaching philosophy on the fly. Is a run to the NBA Finals on the docket this year? Only time will tell, but the Carroll-native isn’t getting too far ahead of himself, there’s quite a bit more to be done before the Raptors start thinking of championships. 

“I’m trying to be patience, trying to work extremely hard every day and trying to get these guys to want and play defense together,” the coach said. “It’s constant learning. I’m trying to take the approach that I want our guys to learn. (These) are still really early stages.”