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Nick Nurse brings his on-the-fly approach to a Canadian team that needs to come together quickly | The Star

In many ways, Nick Nurse was an inspired choice to coach Canada’s men’s basketball team as it tries to qualify for the Olympics, something it hasn’t accomplished in two decades.

The 52-year-old Toronto Raptors head coach doesn’t sweat the small stuff and never has. He doesn’t worry about what he doesn’t have, because he needs to concentrate on what is at his disposal. He’s supremely confident in doing the best with what’s there.

And if he has disparate parts to a team that may not fit together perfectly in some preconceived, traditional manner, who cares? You figure it out as you go, often game to game, sometimes quarter to quarter or possession by possession. He ultimately gets a feel for what is going to work.

Nurse has coached in North American and British pro leagues and the Olympics. And if there’s a guy who knows the varying levels of talent and how to get the most out of each, it’s him. Championships in the G League and the NBA and the BBL are a testament to that.

So as he prepared for his debut as Canada’s coach Wednesday at the Mattamy Centre in a friendly against Nigeria, he was pumped up to figure it out on the fly, because that’s the fun and the challenge of the gig.

“He’s really good,” said Canada’s Phil Scrubb, the international veteran getting his first exposure to the head coach. “He’s got a really good attitude, he knows his stuff and I think he brings really positive energy to the team and has obviously a respect from them. ... We have such a short amount of time, so that’s really good.”

Nick Nurse has some familiarity with seven players who have been with the Raptors or their G League affiliate, but much of the Canadian men’s team is still a mystery to him.

Nurse does have to work under some serious time constraints in his summer job. He had just two days of practice before throwing his team out for its first game. He will have six other exhibitions against some imposing global teams before jumping into the World Cup fray with Canada in China from Aug. 31 to Sept. 15 with a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the line.

There are subtleties to the international game he’s trying to recall from his years in England and with the Great Britain team at the 2012 London Olympics. And he has a squad that he’s not terribly familiar with, or it with him. Several Canadian NBAers opted not to play.

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Some players he knows well: Cory Joseph played for the Raptors; and six others — Chris Boucher, Brady Heslip, Oshae Brissett, Kaza Kajemi-Keane, Aaron Best and Duane Notice — have been with either the Raptors or their G League affiliate. But the rest are relatively new, at least as something Nurse has to mould into a cohesive unit quickly.

“I’m really clicking through a lot of scenarios, getting myself back in the swing of what you can do,” he said Tuesday. “And I remember from my European FIBA coaching days that a lot of that end-of-game stuff had to be executed without timeouts, right?

“So you better have a series of things that are in that they know that if the ball squirts out underneath with seven seconds to go, well, what are we in? If it squirts out with three seconds to go, what are we in? If it squirts out on the side of the floor, what are we in? You have to have a package that they can execute.”

One of Nurse’s strength is his adaptability and willingness to try anything to change a game or get the most out of a group that might be on the court together for the first time. It has worked in the NBA - his record with the Raptors last season proved that. Now it has to work with some relative strangers.

“We have a pretty good idea who might run out there, top seven guys or something. (We’ll) keep them together, see what their rhythm looks like,” he said a day before. “Then as you evaluate from there, start moving guys in and out of that rotation, see what the second unit looks like, etc., etc., But, yeah, we need some quick familiarity and we do that in our scrimmaging.”

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So far, so good. But the proof won’t really come until Canada sees if combinations that look good on paper or in practice actually work in games.

“I think (Nurse is) definitely a basketball mind, he articulates things very clearly in a way that everyone understands,” national team veteran Melvin Ejim said Tuesday. “You can see why he’s had some success in the NBA, he really knows what he’s doing. He’s got a great command when he’s speaking and really knows the game. I really appreciate him for being here, I think everyone loves him here, and hopefully it goes well.”

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Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps

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