Raptors Cage

Nate Bjorkgren parts ways with longtime friend, Nick Nurse

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Early this afternoon, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that the Indiana Pacers have hired Nate Bjorkgren to be their next head coach. Bjorkgren has been one of the Toronto Raptors’ assistant coaches for the past two seasons, and was an integral member of the 2019 championship team.

A native of Storm Lake, Iowa – not too far from Carroll Iowa, Nick Nurse’s hometown – the two future NBA head coaches coincidentally crossed paths in 2007 after coach Bjorkgren was called up to be an assistant under coach Nurse with the Iowa Energy of the D-League. Together, they brought a D-League championship to Iowa, before Bjorkgren was poached by the Dakota Wizards (now Santa Cruz Warriors) to be their head coach. In two seasons with the Wizards, Bjorkgren was able to lead his team to one finals appearance, but fell short of winning a second championship.

By the time Bjorkgren’s time in Dakota was up, Nick Nurse had moved on to become an assistant coach with the  Raptors under Dwane Casey, and so Bjorkgren went back to the Energy for one season as their head coach this time. In his one year there, he astonishingly improved Iowa from a bottom-of-the-pack team with a 14-36 record, to one of the better squads in the league with a 31-19 record. Such improvement would land him his last D-League gig as the head coach of the Bakersfield Jam for one year in 2014, before he was finally called up to be an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns under Jeff Hornacek in 2015.

Before he even sat on the sidelines of his first NBA game, Bjorkgren was appointed as the head coach of Phoenix’s Summer League team in 2015. Ultimately, he would lead that squad to the Summer League Finals, before losing to the San Antonio Spurs.

During Bjorkgren’s first season in the NBA, the Suns decided to let go of two of their other assistant coaches, making way for Bjorkgren to take on more responsibility. Despite Phoenix’s continual losing, Bjorkgren thrived in his role. That’s why after Hornacek was subsequently fired in 2016, Bjorkgren was right at the top of the list for replacement candidates to become the Suns head coach, however that spot was ultimately given to Earl Watson.

Fast forward another season of grinding on the sidelines in Phoenix, and his good buddy from back in the day was promoted in Toronto. One of the first calls that Nurse made once landing his new job was to get Nate Bjorkgren back on his team. He figured that if they could win a championship together with the Iowa Energy, they could do the same with the Toronto Raptors. Fortunately, he was correct.

While Bjorkgren was not the lead assistant coach in Toronto, he has reportedly been on the radar of many NBA teams for a while now. Today, all of his hard work has finally paid dividends. Nick Nurse’s coaching tree has officially begun, as they say. Nate Bjorkgren is just the first branch to grow.

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