Portrait of a shooting slump defeated: Kia Nurse

While battling her shooting slump for the Liberty, what else she found along the way

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Kia Nurse #5 of the New York Liberty shoots the ball against the Seattle Storm on August 18, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

On “The Lounge,” the new Kia Nurse edited and directed web series, the reality show parody portrays Nurse and her roommates or villa mates Kiah Stokes and Amanda Zahui B. smiling, laughing and complaining about relatively frivolous drama. Stokes has an issue with the way in which Nurse and Zahui say the word “alright,” and Nurse has made the case that it is Stokes who is the true “problem child.” But those Wubble shenanigans don’t truly reveal what life has been like for Nurse, the baby of the “Young Vets.”

“Bubbles aren’t as fun as they look,” Nurse told reporters after shootaround on Tuesday afternoon.

This revelation shouldn’t come as shocking from Nurse, as the 2020 season is her least efficient season offensively so far. Before Tuesday’s late-night matchup against the Storm, Nurse was shooting 24 percent from the field and 19.6 percent from three.

Coming into training camp, Nurse reflected on what she had learned in her second year playing during the offseason for the Canberra Capitals in Australia. She had worked on her consistency with the Capitals and was thrown into a situation similar to what Nurse is dealing with with the Liberty in 2020.

“I think there was a lot more emphasis on me having to step up in games where our best player Kelsey Griffin was injured for a little while,” Nurse said back on July 13. “And then I became kind of the number one focus for all the other teams defensively.”

Back with the Liberty, at 24 and in her third year, Nurse has been expected to step up and produce for the New York. Walt Hopkins’ “New Era” system was made for a player with her skillset.

But what if there’s a silver lining to a halt in offensive production? Nurse’s leadership style is based on the example she sets for the younger players, and she had to rediscover her identity on the floor, figuring out how to give New York everything that she could, while most of what she wanted to give she couldn’t control.

Following a first-degree ankle sprain that only sidelined the All-Star for a game and a half, Nurse’s 2020 shooting slump has been an enigma. While assistant coach Shelley Patterson explained that part of the frustration was in Nurse’s lift not being 100 percent due to the injury, the third-year guard has seen a lot of shots going down behind the scenes.

She’s worked with assistant coach Dustin Gray on her mechanics outside of practice time and even during games, Nurse feels confident in her shots from long when they leave her hand. She just hasn’t seen results and hasn’t had many rolls go in her favor. “There's nothing wrong with her shot,” head coach Walt Hopkins said before the August 13 matchup against the Fever. “She's shooting the heck out of it in practice, and you know in warmups.”

Diagnosing and addressing the slump

Kia Nurse #5 and Amanda Zahui B #17 of the New York Liberty celebrate alongside assistant coach Shelley Patterson during the game against the Indiana Fever on August 13, 2020at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Patterson and Hopkins took a two-pronged approach to help Nurse find her shot and her confidence. They wanted her to continue shooting, which didn’t look pretty on paper, but they knew that if she didn’t, the self-doubt would only continue to simmer.

“So now we have to get [Nurse] to mentally believe that, to mentally understand that ‘Hey, this is your role, you knock down shots and this is what we're gonna do,’” Patterson told The Next.

Positive reinforcement has been a key for the Liberty coaching staff in guiding Nurse past her slump. Patterson has instilled in Nurse that yes she “can hit these shots” and “this is who” she is.

When facing an obstacle like a shooting slump, Patterson acknowledged that supporting Nurse without any judgment has been how she’s created a safe space to try to rebuild her confidence. Patterson has been a part of coaching staffs in the past that have given up on players if they aren’t performing at their set expectations. There’s a shift in energy and a disconnect between the individual and the team, and that was something this New York staff wanted to prevent.

“We haven't allowed that to happen,” Patterson told The Next. “We just won't allow that to happen as a staff.”

Rookie Jocelyn Willoughby has noticed the culture around how the Liberty tackle adversity, and especially during Nurse’s shooting drought. Willoughby is inspired by her conviction, noting how difficult it is to be motivated when the shots don’t fall.

“I’m really proud of Nurse and just her continued confidence because that's so hard when you're not shooting well to find the motivation to or drive to keep shooting, even when it's not falling,” Willoughby said after shootaround on August 15. “So really proud of her and I think the team and coaching staff, we've all done a good job of uplifting and supporting each other when we're having those tough bouts.”

The second prong involved soothing Nurse’s inner critic. She expects a lot of herself, and as do the Liberty. How could one of the most versatile and experienced pieces on the floor for New York use her minutes productively, impact the game and emerge as the leader the Liberty need her to be?

Before taking on the Indiana Fever on August 13, Hopkins and Nurse had a discussion about the ways in which she could step up and have more of a hand in her contributions. She simply can’t control her shots not falling, especially when she wasn’t missing by all that much.

That night, Nurse finished with 21 points, six rebounds, three assists and 11 free throws made. She made four total field goals out of 15 shots. Not great. Two treys landed out of ten attempts. Not pretty.

That didn’t matter to Hopkins. She also finished the contest without a turnover. That, however, mattered.

“And Nurse, you know, she found a way,” he said coming off the 86-79 loss. “She found a way to impact the game although her threes weren't dropping. And that was something we talked about. She had rebounds, six boards. She had three assists. She didn't have any turnovers. I mean outside of the shots not falling, I thought the Nurse played really really well, and she did it on a night where it wasn't like things were going her way.”

Teammate Layshia Clarendon could feel Nurse’s energy and her hustle on the floor. She played with pace, dishing a pass to a cutting Clarendon while working outside of the post. It was still early, but the dime from Nurse gave New York a slim one-point lead over Indiana in the first quarter.

The night before, the third-year player phoned almost every family member and asked each one candidly: “What did you do? How did you get out of it?”

That was the ultimate challenge for Nurse, how was she going to get out of her head when in Brandenton there’s no escape from the game or her teammates? In a non-global pandemic inflicted season, Nurse would step away from basketball, visiting family and friends when she needed a moment to clear her head.

Before the Tuesday matchup against Seattle, Nurse admitted after shootaround that 2020 has been a “different season” for her. In addition to hastening through a shooting slump, Nurse feels additional pressure on the floor. Defenses know her game more than the six other rookies she’s been sharing the court with. On scouting reports, she’s a focal point rather than a secondary piece.

Patterson reiterated her commitment to supporting Nurse and getting her through this. Willing to do whatever it took to get the guard out of her head, the Liberty assistant was brainstorming. She joked that she could employ Phil Jackson’s meditations as a new strategy with Nurse. “I’m joking about that…I’m just thinking,” she said.

Three weeks ago, ironically enough, Nurse began meditating consistently. She meditates before games and then when she’s sitting around not doing anything. She uses meditation to escape, something that she finds to be hard-pressed in the #wubble, that ability to step away from basketball.

“Here I wake up, and even if it's an off day, I see Stokes and Zahui every morning for our good morning breakfast,” Nurse said during a video conference before the game against the Storm on Tuesday. “You know I go to the treatment room. I go to the gym to shoot, so [there’s] no real place for me to kind of step away from it and be somewhere else. So I think that's kind of been tough. So I've turned to meditation, it's been working a lot.”

Nurse has also been trying to escape while reading murder mysteries, which also help get her out of her head. She has spent limited her time on social media. Constantly reading “performance reports” from random critics would do her no service.

When asked about Nurse’s approach to meditation on Tuesday evening, Hopkins replied that the success of meditating really depends on the individual. But, if Nurse is using it to clear her mind in order to allow her body to do what it does best and knows how to do, then meditation could be an effective method.

“She's just trying a lot of things,” he said about his 2019 All-Star. “She really, really wants to contribute in that way specifically. She's been doing a good job contributing in other ways, but I know that [shooting] in particular is the thing that she hangs her hat on. So, I'm proud of her for pulling out all of the stops. Trying to make use of everything at her disposal.”

What finding her footing revealed

Kia Nurse guarding Jewell Loyd on August 18, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

In the pregame warmup on Tuesday, YES broadcasters Chris Shearn and Julianne Viani noticed that Nurse hit 10 shots in a row. Again, this is how it’s been for Nurse. The shots go down behind the scenes, but not necessarily when it would matter most. Would a game against the best team in the league bring Nurse’s shot back?

In the first three quarters against the Storm, Nurse was 3-for-9 from the field and 1-for-5 from three-point range. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great.

What was more impressive, however, was how she built on what she put together against the Fever, impacting the game beyond the stat sheet. Against Seattle, it wasn’t even rebounds or assists, but rather it was drawing the defense away for a more open look for a teammate. It was sprinting the latitude of half court, making Jewell Lloyd work on defense.

Even aside from Nurse, shots didn’t fall for the Liberty and 23 turnovers against a team like the Storm is more often than not going to yield another loss. And it did, and it was New York’s worst loss of the season, 105-64.

But with the game beyond out of reach in the fourth quarter, Nurse watched and after she saw an and-one from Sami Whitcomb who took it to Kylee Shook— and the lead ballooned to a little under 50 points—Nurse had it. She couldn’t bear sitting or standing on the socially distant bench. She asked assistant coach Dustin Gray if she could be reinserted into the game, and with under six minutes left, Nurse got to work.

Two minutes later, she charged on a Seattle double team of Ezi Magbegor and former teammate Epiphanny Prince. Both free throws went down. A minute later, Nurse drove past Whitcomb for maybe some sort of revenge, and handed the ball off to Jocelyn Willoughby. Magbegor and Alysha Clarke switched. Willoughby passed to her left to Nurse standing on the left elbow. She trusted her previously injured left ankle, jabbed with it, and shot over the rookie Magbegor, drilling her second three of the game.  

30 seconds later Nurse was found wide open at the top of the key after Willoughby battled three defenders for a rebound. The rookie twisted her body, saw Nurse, passed, and then it was all catch and shoot from there. Nurse drained an open look. Another 30 seconds on the clock passed and Willoughby poked away the ball from Magbegor. The ball landed in Nurse’s hands, and she took it all the way down the court for a pull-up trey right to the left of the Black Lives Matter text on the hardwood. Her fourth three-ball. She finished shooting 50 percent from the field and 4-for-8 from three.

At last.

“I think the most remarkable thing about tonight was her wanting to go back in the game,” Walt Hopkins said about Nurse’s performance after the blowout loss. “She asked us to go back in the game with four and a half or five minutes to go. I think we're down about 45 and she didn't want to rest. She wanted to go in and fight. And you know that that that says a lot. She put together a really nice night, an efficient night, and I think she's been waiting to have a night like that.”

Hopkins called it her best game of the season so far, but he wasn’t only alluding to her numbers. It was her effort as well. Throughout the minutes she saw on Tuesday night, she communicated and willed the team the best she could. She motivated the young players who might have felt overwhelmed by the score.

“At that point, you could go down not fighting or keep on fighting,” Nurse told reporters postgame. “And for me, I knew that I had a lot of energy, and I could play as hard as I could. And hopefully that could kind of help spark things going in that fourth quarter. So I know it's tough, especially when you're a rookie to be on the court at that time, and really have to try and find something and find something that works. So, I just said to Dustin that I would want to go back in I want to be able to help them out.”

From day one in Brandenton, Nurse has understood that this season was about adjustment. The way in which she’d address this slump and come out on the other side would say a lot about who she is. And it has. For someone who has transitioned from a winning culture to a lot of losing, Nurse sees an opportunity that she didn’t see in years one and two. She has bought into the Liberty’s new growth mindset, understanding that she has to grow on her own.

“I mean, at that point, I think you are really playing, and showing your character and showing what you're made of,” she said. “You know the one thing that I've loved about this team from the beginning is how hard that we fight, and that's to the very last buzzer.”