Summer Sports

Canadian-born, UConn made: Kia Nurse prepares for WNBA

Throughout her collegiate and international career, it never took long for Kia Nurse to prove that she belonged. Now, she'll embark on a professional career in the WNBA looking to do the same.

With draft on Thursday, Canada coach Lisa Thomaidis says alma mater has prepared her well

After a decorated four seasons at the University of Connecticut, Kia Nurse, centre, will make the jump to the WNBA to play professional basketball. (Jessica Hill/Associated Press)

Lisa Thomaidis, coach of Canada's women's basketball team, remembers Kia Nurse's first training camp with the senior team.

It was 2013 and the burgeoning guard was a 17-year-old still in high school. But Thomaidis and her staff already had Nurse on their radar.

The camp was conveniently located in Nurse's hometown of Hamilton and Thomaidis thought it would be a good chance for the two to check each other out.

It didn't take long for Nurse to make a good first impression.

"Literally, after one day, we knew that she belonged on the senior team right away," Thomaidis said recently. "The things that stood out first was her sheer speed and athleticism ... but then from the mental side of things, she's just a competitor — tough, hard-nosed, extremely strong work ethic — all those things shone through pretty loud and clear right off the bat."

It didn't take long for Nurse, left, to impress Canadian head coach Lisa Thomaidis. (Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images)

It's a pattern that carried over to the University of Connecticut, where Nurse quickly gained the trust of Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma — starting all but three games played over her four years there.

After a standout collegiate career that includes two national championships and defensive player-of-the-year honours, Nurse is ready to jump to the professional ranks of the WNBA, where the 22-year-old is expected to be a late first-round pick in Thursday's draft (7 p.m. ET).

Thomaidis believes UConn has prepared Nurse well for the next level, as each player that goes through the program is conditioned to win and held to very high standards.

Mental toughness

It all starts on the team's practice courts, where Auriemma tests the mental fortitude of his players with the physical demand of each session.

The Huskies' head coach constantly reminds his players that they are building habits each game and that the most important takeaways are beyond the final score.

"Every single game, we're judging ourselves against the game," Nurse told CBC Sports last year. "[If] you judge yourself against the other team, it's easy to say whether you won or lost. Even if you win, there's something that the game probably beat you at and that's what we try to focus on when we go back and fix our weaknesses before our next game." 

Nurse said that mentality is a huge reason why her alma mater continues to set players up for professional success.

She's seen countless teammates, including the 2016 WNBA rookie of the year Breanna Stewart, go on to success in the pro ranks.

Thomaidis believes Nurse will be no different and sees professional basketball as more of a logical next stop, rather than a whole new experience for Nurse.

"She's played that leadership role, knows how to conduct herself, [and] she's a consummate professional. Nothing fazes her; she knows how to be resilient," Thomaidis said.

"Those things are going to serve her well at the next level, alongside all the physical attributes that she has developed."

'It's how you adjust'

As with any newly drafted athlete, Thomaidis expects Nurse to have a period of adjustment that includes learning a new system, playing a different role and developing chemistry with new teammates and coaches.

It's a process Nurse would have witnessed first-hand, growing up in a family that features past and present pro athletes. Her father Richard, played in the CFL and brother Darnell is a current member of the Edmonton Oilers. Her cousin Sarah played hockey for Canada in the 2018 Olympics and her uncle is former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb.

"Everything is not going to go your way all the time," Richard Nurse told the Hartford Courant. "It's how you adjust. It's understanding what your role is and what you need to do to help the team … on a stage like this, it's all about winning. The rest of the stuff, if you don't win, what does it mean? She says, 'What can I do to help the team win, and she's going to go through a wall to do that.'"

The test will come early for Nurse. WNBA training camps open at the end of April, with playoffs running to mid-September. 

And her busy year, which included UConn's run to the NCAA women's tournament final, won't stop there.

Shot at redemption

The FIBA Women's World Cup begins on Sept. 22, where Canada looks to build on its fifth-place finish at the previous worlds tournament in 2014. Canada finds itself in a group with France, which eliminated the Canucks in the Olympic quarter-finals in Rio in 2016.

The defeat left a lasting imprint on the team and perhaps moreso for Nurse, who managed just 11 points on 3-of-17 shooting in the loss.

"I can speak for all of us in that it's devastating, heartbreaking to get that far and come up just short of being able to play for a medal at the Olympic Games — it's what we were there to do," Thomaidis said.

"At the end of the day, we weren't ready to win in that given moment … we've been learning lessons for the last two years since that happened and we've had to bring those forward and show that we were able to develop from that loss.


Chicco Nacion returns to his birthplace of Toronto after growing up in Niagara Falls. He graduated from the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at the University of Western Ontario. Follow him on Twitter @chicco_n


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