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Nurse said he had to be sure this Team Canada stint would not infringe on his job as Raptors coach.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Nick Nurse could use a vacation after coaching the Toronto Raptors through a long and exhilarating playoff run to their first NBA championship. Yet, he’ll sacrifice a big chunk of his summer to coach Team Canada at the FIBA World Cup, leading the charge to help the country qualify for its first Olympics since 2000.

Nurse, whose first season as an NBA head coach ended just seven days earlier with a victory parade, was introduced in a news conference on Monday as the new head coach of Canada Basketball’s senior men’s national team. The 51-year-old Iowa native will be at the helm for Canada at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in China from Aug. 31 to mid-September, where seven teams will earn direct entry into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity,” said Nurse, whose contract with Canada Basketball lasts through 2020. “Two great competitions, covering this summer and next. It’s just an opportunity that doesn’t come around in anybody’s life, a coach’s life, whatever, very often. Again, I’m honoured to be able to do it and excited to do it.”

Monday’s news conference was held at the OVO Athletic Centre – the Raptors’ training facility – a nod to the strengthening relationship between Canada Basketball and the country’s only NBA team. However, Nurse did not take any Raptors-related questions Monday. He declined to comment on a report that said Toronto superstar Kawhi Leonard will decline his US$21.3-million player option to become an unrestricted free agent, and that the recently crowned Finals MVP is seriously considering re-signing with the Raps.

Nurse said he had to be sure this Team Canada stint would not infringe on his job as Raptors coach. This opportunity appeals for many reasons. He’s excited by the increased basketball talent in Canada, and sees a unique chance to improve his coaching this summer before another season with the Raptors. He also said he’s eager to return to the international basketball scene, where he has been an assistant coach for Great Britain – including at the 2012 London Olympics.

“He’s a basketball junkie, right? I’m sure if you are a coach like him that has coached at an Olympics Games before you probably have thoughts that you want to win a medal there,” said Rowan Barrett, general manager of the Canadian men’s team. “He wants to continue growing. If I’m a Toronto Raptors fan, I love to hear that [the team’s head coach] is going to be working to figure out how he can get better. Not just attending a clinic here or there or watching a tape, but actually in it, sinking his teeth in to get better and grow.”

Nurse takes over from Jay Triano, who served as Canada’s head coach through last summer, but withdrew his name from the search this spring. The Canadian NBA coach led Team Canada at its last Olympics in Sydney, where it finished seventh. Triano left the program in 2005 but returned in 2012. Last summer, he led Canada to two victories during the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Americas Qualifiers.

While Team Canada has often struggled in past years to get commitments from a full slate of Canadian NBA players to play internationally during the summer, Barrett says that has changed.

“When you go to see an NBA player, you don’t get too far without them they saying, ‘I’m in for this summer. Give me the schedule. I want to know what’s going on.’ When you have that happen, I think the desire of our players is clear,” Barrett said. “But definitely having a coach like Nick Nurse, an NBA champion, on the sideline, if there’s any concern or question about the level of the coach and [whether] he [can] actually get it done, I definitely think it’s going to be a positive.”

Barrett said Nurse’s abilities to be creative, unflappable and to think on the fly were all appealing for this position. Nurse got kudos during the Raptors’ postseason for playing big at times, small at others and trying some new combinations of players he hadn’t used in the regular season.

“I think it’s very clear that he’s a leader. [The players] follow. … He’s a little bit unorthodox in some of the things that he does. I think it adds to his mystique,” Barrett said. “He’s experimenting. From all of our research, if you want to win championships, you cannot play the same style every single game, every single series. You have to be able to switch it.”

Team Canada will be quickly assembling the rest of its coaching staff, then calling its players. Nurse, who won titles in the British Basketball League and the NBA’s G-League before coming to the Raptors, says this is another chance to hone his team-building skills.

“Any time you get a group of guys together and you start trying to figure out chemistry, roles, and kind of the personality that that team can make up, you’re improving your coaching abilities,” Nurse said. “I always say, the x’s & o’s part – super important – but it’s about 15 per cent of it. Getting the right guys to play the right way and play their butts off and give everything they’ve got is really what it comes down to. Any time you get a chance to work at that skill, it improves everybody.”

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