Kia Nurse is Just Getting Started
Nurse showed promise in her rookie year with the WNBA's New York Liberty and built on that during the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup as Canada's star player.
Photo by Cristobal Garcia/EPA-EPE
When she talks about recognition, Kia Nurse is justifiably frustrated. Although she has an active following in Toronto and her nearby hometown of Hamilton, Ontario—she even overlooks a basketball court in Toronto's Harbourfront neighbourhood, in mural form—the gatekeepers didn't make it easy for those in her hometown to watch the rise of her rookie year with the WNBA's New York Liberty.
The WNBA offers an online streaming service, similar to other pro sports like the NBA's League Pass, and in Canada games are occasionally shown on premium channel NBA TV. Broadly, though, these are still barriers to accessing the WNBA if you're from where Nurse is from, leaving her in a weird purgatory of being known but not seen.
"This is where people know me, this is where my family is, and for them to not be able to see games, it gets frustrating in its own sense," Nurse recently told VICE Sports. "For us, it's a matter of trying to get recognition, trying to get visibility for young girls here so they can see it on TV and they don’t have to ask their parents to buy an app in order for them to watch a game."
Even if the platform isn't there, the talent demands for one. Nurse made her name in four years at the University of Connecticut, a tenure remembered for two national championships, an NCAA Defensive Player of the Year award and that iconic 111-game winning streak. In her final season, the school chose to host a regular-season game against Duquesne at Ryerson University in Toronto, finally getting her in front of some of those eyeballs from home. The tickets sold out.
Then she went to the WNBA, where, thanks to the variety of her experiences, she found that the pros weren't so new after all. "The transition was a lot easier than I expected it to be. I'm pretty fortunate to have come from UConn and the program there," Nurse said. "And I think that for me, there was a familiarity in being able to say, 'I've played against the Maya Moores and the Team USAs at the Olympics' and I've been able to be in that situation and that environment."
A week ago, Canada watched as Nurse went off for 29 points and six 3-pointers to lead Canada past Korea at the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup; in the next game, she dropped 18 with six assists to key a second-half run and come-from-behind win over No. 4 France to go 3-0 in group play. Things didn't go as hoped in the knockout stage, but Nurse was steady as Canada’s leading scorer and her 17 points were crucial in salvaging a 73-72 win and seventh-place finish over Nigeria on Sunday.
With involvement dating back to when she was 15 years old, the national team has watched Nurse grow into a driving force. For the tournament, her average of 18.2 points per game trailed only Australia's Liz Cambage, who famously set the WNBA’s scoring record in July with a 53-point game for the Dallas Wings (against Nurse and the Liberty), and Belgium's Emma Meesseman. The feature role for Canada, where Natalie Achonwa is the team's only other active WNBAer, is just another spotlight that Nurse has stepped into, and she should be a cornerstone for years to come.
At every stop, whether the NCAA, FIBA or WNBA, Nurse's upward arc keeps chugging along. When the Liberty selected her with the No. 10 overall pick in this April's draft, player profiles around the WNBA-minded internet identified her as a top 3-and-D player. While 3-point shooting and defence are obviously the identifiers of the mold, it still tends to connote a standstill catch-and-shoot type, someone waved off to the corner and trusted with little else.
In the months since the draft, Nurse has made a case that she can be more than that, that she can put the ball on the floor or threaten to score off screens. In the motion offence installed by Katie Smith in her first year as the Liberty coach, these were freedoms that she thrived in.
"She's added some pieces to her game, she's becoming more versatile offensively—finishing around the basket in different ways, shooting the ball coming off screens, integrating the pull-up a little bit more—so I think that's maybe the biggest growth area that she's made over the last year or so," Canadian assistant coach Carly Clarke told VICE Sports.
Within the flow of chances for the Liberty, Nurse was adaptable, attacking close-outs or secondary pick-and-rolls. In FIBA play, where she takes on more responsibility for Canada, she's showing that she can do the things that actual initiators must, like pull up from behind the three-point line.
When the WNBA announced its All-Rookie Team, Nurse wasn't awarded. Amid a deep rookie class, it isn't so surprising—the scoring breakdown for the Liberty last season shows perennial All-Star Tina Charles leading with 19.7 points per game, and then everybody else clustered along the single-digit spectrum. Even while coming off the bench for most of her rookie season, Nurse's 9.1 points were good for second on the team, but, you know, still only 9.1 points.
Her defence, which she describes as a big key to her game, was where the pros felt most like the pros. "The biggest thing about the pros is that it's not necessarily your speed, quickness or athleticism that's going to outdo them. It's more that they have so much experience, they have the basketball IQ. They know pretty much how to counteract everything that you throw at them."
Although bookended by a strong start and a strong finish—34 points as a reserve in her fourth game, 28 as a starter in her last—Nurse's splits during the season's bridge month of July dipped to lows across the board, including in minutes played. Like for many young players, the lulls between the flashes were her issue.
Still, as it does with the Canadian team, the potential shows. At 22 years old, Nurse's trajectory is without question pointing up. The Liberty face the real possibility that Charles leaves in free agency after a franchise-worst 7-27 year, which may soon become more responsibility for Nurse to fill. She, along with point guard Brittany Boyd, likely represents the team's best chance at cultivating a new offence. The question, if she accepts this role, is how much her game grows toward creating for others in addition to herself, and how often she brings that on a nightly basis.
Like many other WNBA players, Nurse will spend her nominal offseason playing overseas. Now concluded with the national team, her next destination is Australia and the WNBL's Canberra Capitals for a mid-October season tip-off. So far, things have been trending in her favour.
"A big part of the WNBA, and once you get up into that level, is consistency and understanding how you can be consistent on a daily basis," she says. "Understanding, if I'm helping the team in any way [while] I'm out on the court, how can I be consistent with that throughout my entire career?"
Nurse continues to ask the right questions, and maybe, in time, the recognition will follow.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports CA.