“I’d never talked to him before. I don’t think I’m alone in that. So you get a perception of him,” Nurse said. “I’ll be honest with you. I kind of went in there thinking, ‘What if he doesn’t say anything? What am I going to do?’ ”
Nurse, a fast-talking basketball lifer with a gift for salesmanship, figured he’d simply introduce himself to Leonard by sketching out his coaching background and the Raptors’ recent history.
“I figured I’ll tell him the whole story, this is how our offence is the way it is … I’ll just talk,” Nurse said Friday. “And if he doesn’t want to say anything, I’ll have plenty of energy.”
So Nurse was pleasantly surprised when, after sitting down alone with Leonard at the BioSteel Centre during Leonard’s brief overnight stay in Toronto last weekend, the popular perception of Leonard was promptly turned on its head.
“I sat down and said, ‘Do you have any questions?’ And he started firing them,” Nurse said. “And it just led us to a really easygoing (conversation). Not what I was expecting. Very smart. Very intelligent. Very engaging. Really enjoyed it … (Management) had to drag us out of there in the end because they had to go do something else. But it was great.”
Surely, as the basketball talk with Leonard went on for some 45 minutes — and Leonard, in Nurse’s words, “lit up like a Christmas tree,” at one point rising to join Nurse diagramming schemes on the whiteboard — Nurse must have been breathing a sigh of relief. The incommunicative enigma who somehow had a falling out with the gold-standard franchise in San Antonio wasn’t some petulant nightmare. Instead, he sounded very much like a typical NBA player concerned about how he’ll fit with his new team, not to mention an elite NBA player deeply hooked on the game’s intricacies.
“We could have gone forever. (Raptors management) kept knocking on the door and I was like, ‘A couple more minutes.’ Because we were really into it,” Nurse said. “It was fun to listen to his take. He asked me, ‘How are you going to use me? Where are you going to get me the ball? What do you see?’ And I told him, ‘Listen. To me, you can do pretty much everything. You can post. You can drive. You can handle it up the floor. You can play screen and roll. You can come off pindowns.’ I said, ‘Did I miss anything?’ He’s like, ‘No, that’s about it.’ I said, ‘You’ll probably be doing all that stuff.’ ”
Nurse had plenty more to say in a wide-ranging chat Friday afternoon. He spoke of the possibilities for an improved defence with Leonard, a two-time defensive player of the year, and guard Danny Green, a gifted defender who came along in the DeRozan deal.
“We’re really going to make it a focus of trying to create more turnovers,” Nurse said.
He spoke of a roster that now includes “six starters,” or six players who are accustomed to starting — including Lowry, Leonard, Green, Jonas Valanciunas, OG Anunoby and Serge Ibaka — and talked of the importance of some of those players being open to coming off the bench. And he reiterated more than once his mission as a rookie head coach: playoff success.
“I’ve got to get them to play the best they can come April, May and June,” Nurse said. “We need to play in June. Let’s play in June. Maybe we can make up some T-shirts.”
Nurse had come to Las Vegas to watch from the sidelines as Gregg Popovich presided over the second day of USA Basketball minicamp. Leonard, who is on the U.S. roster, declined to attend the camp. But Nurse said he was planning to meet later with Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who was at minicamp alongside a bevy of NBA all-stars, including DeRozan.
Perhaps Lowry will be in a more talkative mood with his coach than he was with reporters on Friday, when he declined to discuss his feelings about the DeRozan-Leonard trade. Lowry, who said he preferred to keep the conversation to matters pertaining to USA Basketball, would only acknowledge that he’d spent quality time with DeRozan, whom he called his “best friend.” And while Lowry said he and Leonard share “mutual respect,” Lowry was coy about the details. At one point he was asked if he’d spoken to Leonard since the trade.
“I think so. I don’t know … I’m not sure,” Lowry said.
He wasn’t sure if he’d spoken to Leonard?
What did he mean by that?
“I don’t know.”
After more head-shaking back and forth, Lowry suddenly seemed to come to the realization he had not spoken to Leonard. Go figure.
Lowry’s repeated indulgences in immaturity are familiar to anybody who follows the team. With DeRozan as a rock-solid foil, the point guard’s rebellious streak could be overcome. But with DeRozan now gone, with Lowry clearly not interested in being a team leader and Leonard bringing along a reputation for quietude, Nurse acknowledged team chemistry, a Toronto strength is recent years, is top of mind.
“Obviously when pieces come and go a little bit, you’ve got to see how they fall … Am I worried about it? No. Am I concerned about it? That’s probably not the right word. But it’s always what I think about,” said Nurse.
Not that there’s an easy answer. As Nurse said, there is no “chemistry potion.”
“It’s a tricky thing you have to monitor and hope for a little bit,” said the coach.
Then again, given Nurse’s experience meeting Leonard, maybe it’s best to set aside preconceived perceptions in the lead-up to a season that promises to bring with it plenty of surprises.