Toronto Raptors: Theory & Practice from our coaches

Toronto Raptors - Nick Nurse (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Nick Nurse (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Raptors took a giant risk in hiring rookie head coach Nick Nurse. Judging from the team’s annual coaches’ clinic, our squad is in good hands.

The Toronto Raptors hosted a Coaches’ Seminar & Open Practice today at Scotiabank Arena. I’ve been to this event in the past, and was a trifle worried whether it would be held this year. I didn’t know if it was little more than a Dwane Casey vanity project. Happily, that’s not the case, as Nick Nurse and his assistant coaches held court (sorry).

Keeping players motivated to practice hard

Nate Bjorkgren, whom Nurse coached with in the D League (no, you didn’t catch a typo; that’s what it was called until recently), seems to be concentrating on defense. He said they take note of, and indeed count, the times our defenders face their opponents in proper form, i.e., arms out, knees bent, stance wide, and implied our people hear about it if they aren’t doing it right. He held up the fancy belt (think pro boxing) after every game which is given to a Raptor who did best at fundamentals. During a huddle at practice (more on that later), it was awarded to Pascal Siakam.

Nate said the coaches count consecutive defensive stops, with the aim of getting at least four consecutive per quarter. He said the Raptors achieved that against the Bulls, including one quarter which featured six.

Attention is also paid to what Raptor defenders do when a shot goes up. Bjorkgren wants them to “block out, check and pursue”. He’s a strong believer in high-paced practices whatever the age or skill level, and we saw clear proof of that later.

How to keep big men relevant in today’s pace & space era

Jim Sann led this session. The long-time assistant places great store in ensuring his big men spend most of their offensive time in three spots: at the top of the key, “dunker” (just in bounds, outside the key, and on the weak side), or in the corner.

He said that when he was with the Knicks, and they were a playoff team (about a week after the dinosaur extinction), they would run a bunch of post-ups in practice, and a few pick and rolls. Now the ratio (50 to 4, say my notes, but he may have been exaggerating) has been flipped.

Jim made the point that today’s big men have to be decision-makers with the ball, unlike previous decades, because they handle it so much more. They are responsible for keeping the middle open, with the hope that the guards can “punch a gap” to exploit in the opposition’s half-court D.

Another new voice

Ex-NBA player Adrian Griffin was brought in as Nurse’s lead assistant. He spoke to the group about planning a practice.

Griffin stressed the importance of analytics. For him, the 3 most critical statistics are: True Shooting Percentage, Offensive Rebounding, and Turnovers.

Phil Handy knows his stuff

This assistant is particularly concerned with player development. He said no matter what the skill level is, he’s concerned primarily with improving his players’ footwork and balance. He stressed visual learning, which puts stress on coaches who may not be able to demonstrate what they are trying to impart. He performed some serious, high-speed dribbling drills, proof that he’s still got it.

Wrapping up the coaches

Sergio Scariolo talked about in-bounds plays. He stressed the importance of knowing your players, but also thinking about how the defense will react, and how to counter their counter.

Patrick Mutumbo also discussed in-bounding the ball. He pushed the idea of confusing the defense.

And here’s our team

The Raptors emerged, and began their low-speed stretches. Though Kawhi Leonard finished that segment, he departed soon after the 5-man weaves began, and didn’t return. That put him ahead of Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, neither of whom were in attendance. Bobby Webster was, but I didn’t see Masai Ujiri.

I wouldn’t call today’s effort a full-on practice; it was barely above a shoot-around. That’s not a complaint – our team has played a bunch recently, including Sunday’s tight victory over Chicago. We saw lots of emphasis on 3-point shooting, including 5 on 0 drills designed to feed crisp passes to the corner man. There was almost no physical contact in any of the quick and tightly timed drills, which explains why Jonas Valanciunas could participate despite his heavily protected thumb.

Unlike a Casey practice, Nurse had two extended players/coaches huddles, in which topics were discussed we couldn’t hear. These get-togethers appeared light-hearted; when Pascal got his belt for his defense against the Bulls, there was much banter.

The team was dismissed after barely an hour, though a few bench-warmers (Norm Powell, Malachi Richardson, Chris Boucher, C.J. Miles) stuck around. They worked with some of the assistants to take additional shots. Meanwhile, Nick fielded questions from the assembled coaches, after talking about how he worked himself up from the deep minors (oh, the places he’s been!) to the NBA.

He learned a few lessons in his D League days: how to win tight games, and how to cope with wildly fluctuating rosters. That last wasn’t supposed to be part of the plan in his first season at the helm of the Raptors, but non-stop injuries have compelled it.

Next. Can the Raptors survive with their glut of injuries?. dark

Nick is a genuine person, someone who has his ego firmly in check.

Here’s hoping the Raptors continue this event next season and beyond.