Kia Nurse complements Mercury core with outside shooting, defensive tenacity

By Gina Mizell

Basketball is easy for Kia Nurse these days.

It’s easy when she comes off a screen to loft a high pass where only Brittney Griner can snag it, then finds her spot for a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer. It’s easy when she watches Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith play with such control and patience while making reads and creating space to score. It’s easy when she no longer falls into the trap of overthinking her next cut off the ball.

“And basketball’s supposed to feel that way, right?” Nurse said.

That has not always been the case during Nurse’s WNBA career, when the 25-year-old wing was a “baby vet” for a rebuilding New York Liberty team that went ultra-young in 2020. It certainly was not the case during the “Wubble” season, when Nurse injured her ankle eight minutes into the opener, struggled with her shot and sometimes felt “mentally drained.”

Now, Nurse gets a fresh start with the Phoenix Mercury, who targeted the 2019 All-Star in an offseason trade because her outside shooting, defensive tenacity and enthusiastic personality are an ideal fit with a veteran core. In turn, Nurse relishes the opportunity to play with some of the game’s best while legitimately vying for a WNBA championship for the first time in her career.

“When it’s your first practice back, your lungs feel it a little bit,” Nurse said. “But when I left the gym that night, it was ‘OK, I’m excited to come back and do this again tomorrow.’

“I think that was kind of the big turnaround for me. Every day is an exciting day, and a day where I wake up like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’”

Reading has always been a form of escapism for Nurse. Just ask the fourth book in the “Glass of Thrones “series by Sarah J. Maas — a fantasy adventure following a female assassin recommended by former UConn teammate Napheesa Collier — which is sitting on Nurse’s bedside table ready to be opened as soon as she flips the final page of the third installment.

But Nurse added meditation to her routine last summer, as a way to quiet her mind during a trying 2020 WNBA season played entirely on the IMG Academy campus in Bradenton, Florida.

Her ankle injury meant she essentially “had one foot to shoot off of,” leading to career lows in field-goal percentage (27.3) and 3-point percentage (23.8) after making nearly 40 percent of her attempts from the floor and 35.3 percent from long range when she was an All-Star in 2019.

It was a test in resiliency and adaptability. Nurse increased her focus on facilitating and impacting the defensive end for a Liberty team that finished 2-20.

“What I learned in that situation and in that season for me was how to continue to push through, how to grind it out,” Nurse said. “You’re gonna be in seasons like that. Not every season is perfect. Not every team is perfect. Every year looks different and, for me, that was the situation that I was in.”

Canada’s strict COVID-19 protocols meant isolation could have continued once Nurse returned home to Hamilton, Ontario outside Toronto for the offseason. Instead, she spent about two months living with older her brother, Darnell, a defenseman for the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers who was also in the thick of offseason training.

Kia and Darnell, who are only one year and two weeks apart in age, were often mistaken as twins while growing up. They were two athletic standouts in a family full of them, as dad Richard played in the Canadian Football League and mom Cathy and sister Tamika both played college basketball.

Though the dinner table was the family’s primary gathering spot each day, conversations would regularly shift to playful brags about who had the most gold medals or went to the best school. After meals, Kia and Darnell would hit the driveway to play Around the World or 21, and the loser loaded the plates and silverware into the dishwasher.

But Darnell fondly remembers when Kia got her scholarship offer from powerhouse UConn, something that “was the dream, but probably not something that you thought was very possible” as a Canadian kid. A few years later, both siblings became top-10 overall draft picks in their respective sports.

When Kia and Darnell reunited this past fall, now both a few years into their professional careers, they got to observe each other’s daily routines. Kia called Darnell’s work ethic “unmatched to anybody I’ve ever seen in my life.”

They also had many conversations about how to invest in their bodies — not just in time and exertion, but in money.

Kia hired personal strength and conditioning coaches, along with injury prevention specialists who worked with her joints and muscles and performed acupuncture. She regained strength and mobility in her ankle, allowing her to stop, start and cut like she once did. She worked on her balance when releasing the ball to help fix a jumper that was short throughout her 2020 season.

Her days often started before 7 a.m., then went late into the night when she worked as a television analyst for TSN (the Canadian version of ESPN) for Toronto Raptors home games.

“She probably put the most work in that I’ve ever seen her,” Darnell said. “… To be able to juggle all of that, to be able to manage her time, it shows the maturity that she has. As an older brother, it was very cool to see and very inspiring.”

Naturally, Darnell was the first person to FaceTime Kia after she was traded from the Liberty to the Mercury in February. He reminded his sister of the opportunity at hand — one she jumped at by arriving in Phoenix in early April.

So far, desert life has charmed Nurse.

Though she misses her favorite New York City restaurants, she appreciates no longer needing to pay $20 to park at Target for five minutes. She has reconnected with Mercury guard Bria Hartley’s 4-year-old son, Bryson, who has called Nurse “Auntie Kiki” since she and Hartley were teammates in New York. Nurse’s “Uncle Donovan” — aka retired NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb — and family now live in the Valley, and she loves that she can call them to announce she is about to swing by for Cinco de Mayo tacos.

“They’ll be at our games like I’m their child,” Nurse said with a chuckle, “and that’s fun for me.”

On the floor, Nurse used her individual workouts before training camp to focus on improving her mid-range game and how she attacks the rim. She also started picking the brains of Taurasi and Diggins-Smith, who stayed in market to work out together for much of the offseason.

Nurse asked them how they snapped themselves out of shooting slumps. After watching Nurse drive and finish, Taurasi suggested that she occasionally implement a floater to force defenses to take note. Diggins-Smith walked Nurse through detailed options for each play, depending on the personnel on the floor.

“They’ve really been amazing at just taking the time,” Nurse said, “whether it’s a second in between plays or whether it’s after practice to just talk to me about little things that can help me get better each and every day.”

Nurse’s integration throughout training camp has been as seamless as anticipated.

Based on how quickly Nurse has picked up the system, coach Sandy Brondello said “you’d think Kia’s played here before.” Phoenix’s up-tempo style should create scoring opportunities for Nurse out of off-ball movement or in transition. Her 6-foot frame and gritty mentality allow her to guard the opposing team’s best wing player.

A closed scrimmage against Seattle earlier this week foreshadowed what Nurse could bring to the Mercury this season. She scored 26 points, including a 6-of-9 mark from 3-point distance and 8-of-9 mark from the free-throw line, and added four rebounds, three assists and one steal in 25 minutes.

“She literally fits our team like a glove, with what she brings to the table and what we need,” Diggins-Smith said.

Most importantly, Nurse is thrilled to be immersed in a winning culture once again. She lost three games total — and won two national titles — during her four seasons at UConn. The Liberty went 19-71 during her first three WNBA seasons.

Now, she’s on a Mercury team with veterans and champions, who are all making basketball easy for her.

“I’m very happy,” Nurse said with a smile. “That’s the best way I can put it.”