A decade before Daryl Morey hired Nick Nurse to be the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, Morey hired Nurse to be the head coach of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the G League (then it was called the D-League) affiliate of the Houston Rockets. In that role, he evolved and showcased the innovative tactical coaching habits that made him a high-priority target in the 2023 head coaching cycle. He landed with the Sixers, pitching them a vision of what's possible with him and Joel Embiid working together.
Nurse not only led the Vipers to the 2012-13 D-League title, but became a central figure on the team from which its key contributors learned a lot. Andrew Goudelock, RGV's leading scorer and the D-League MVP of that season, and Tyler Marsh, a player development coach, both cite Nurse as an influential force in their respective careers and label him a great coach.
Marsh said that Nurse made an impression on him with his “ability to be open-minded, to not doing things the prototypical way. Just kind of being reinventive in terms of what he sees and what he feels. He's a guy that goes a lot off of feeling and he imparts that on his players as well.”
Goudelock said that Nurse is one of his favorite coaches ever, and he isn’t surprised by all that he has accomplished during his time in the NBA. “I thought he was cool,” he said. “The whole time, he was really laid back. He really let everybody have a lot of freedom on the court. He trusted in his guys. He set a good system for us, too, where it was pretty simple, but it was really effective. I loved playing for him. There was never a problem for me at all.”
Goudelock played 40 games for the Los Angeles Lakers in the prior NBA season, but lost out on the final roster spot to Robert Sacre. He was traded to the Vipers by the Sioux Falls Skyforce in early January of the 2012-13 season. He ended the year averaging 21.1 points per game, good for third in the D-League, and was named the league MVP. “I tell people that was the most fun, one of the most fun times I had playing basketball,” Goudelock said about playing under Nurse, who he called the perfect coach for him.
The Vipers posted the most efficient offense in the league with a 110.6 offensive rating that season, which bested the second-place Austin Spurs by a shade under five points. They ranked first in the per-game categories for points, assists, three-pointers made and attempted, and free throws made and attempted, as well as true shooting percentage and pace. Their three-point percentage ranked fifth in the league. Coupled with a seventh-ranked 103.6 defensive rating, the Vipers posted a 35-15 record, one game back from the very best in the league, and won their final 16 games of the 2012-13 season, including a perfect record in the postseason.
Goudelock got another shot with the Lakers in the middle of the D-League playoffs, but the super deep roster around him — featuring key contributors like Toure' Murry, Glen Rice Jr., Tim Olbrecht, Chris Johnson, Kyle Fogg, D.J. Kennedy, and Chris Daniels — got the job done. Hassan Whiteside, who would eventually go on to lead the NBA in blocks per game in two seasons, was a key rotation player on that team, but did not make any appearances in the playoffs.
Nurse had the Vipers prioritize threes, shots at the rim, free throws, and easy scoring looks in transition while emphasizing the importance of defense, specifically in how it can power a good offense. Marsh recalls that the players bought into Nurse's style quickly, which was made easier by Nurse having won the D-League title with the Iowa Energy (then the affiliate of the Memphis Grizzlies) two years earlier using a similar formula.
“The reason that we were so good is because of the way that Nick managed everything,” Goudelock said. “From the Rockets coming down and giving him instruction that wasn't necessarily the way that he maybe [would] have wanted to play, from them sending down four or five NBA guys at a time, and he would have a completely new team from night to night, he managed everything perfectly. It never seemed like there was a moment where he was rattled.”
As is customary in the NBA's minor league, the Vipers' roster churned continuously, bringing new players for stints barely long enough to pour them a cup of coffee. One player, a point guard that played just three games with Rio Grande Valley that season, is now going to reunite with Nurse on the Sixers.
Patrick Beverley, who the Sixers signed to a one-year, minimum deal, played briefly for Nurse with the Vipers, making him just one of two Sixers players to play for him as an NBA coach. P.J. Tucker is the other guy, as he spent half a season with the Toronto Raptors when Nurse was an assistant coach with them. Beverley got an inkling of what it was like to play for a Nurse-led team before making the leap to the NBA.
“I get kicked out of school at Arkansas, unfortunately, and my decision [was] going overseas or staying in the D-League,” Beverley recalled at his introductory press conference with the Sixers when asked about his brief history playing for Nurse. “Me and my mom, we sit down with this coach, I guess he was the coach for the Iowa Energy at the time; it was Nick Nurse. I had to tell him to his face, ‘Yeah, I’m not coming to your D-League team.’ Fast forward four or five years: Houston Rockets, I’m in the D-League, and I’m playing for RGV.”
Beverley played just three games for the Vipers in January of the 2012-13 season. Being around Nurse even for a little bit impressed Beverley, who ignited an NBA career that is about to turn 12 years old.
“He was great. He knows basketball,” Beverley said of Nurse. “His background, pedigree comes from Europe, and that’s always respected. I like what he does — a ton of threes, playing fast, but in order to play fast, you have to get stops. He’s a championship coach. He’s done it at a high level and he’s done it in the East, which is hard. So, I’m excited. I’m excited to work.”
Nurse's coaching creativity has drawn rave reviews from the Sixers. Dialing up tactics specific to each game, series, opponent, and even possession, has earned him a reputation as a strategic mastermind. It's an approach that Marsh called “freedom within structures” and has led to championships at multiple levels of professional basketball. Goudelock said he completely agreed with Marsh's description.
Marsh got his start in coaching professional basketball under Nurse. Since working with Nurse as a player development coach for the Vipers, he has embarked on a coaching career that has featured a plethora of stops in numerous leagues. Most of his roles have specifically involved player development.
When he was a grad assistant for the Texas Southern University men's basketball team, Marsh and the team attended a workout for the Houston Rockets. He had applied for an internship with the Rockets and didn’t land it but was invited back to help the team with workouts, where Nurse went on to offer him a spot on his staff.
In Marsh's initial impression of Nurse, he primarily remembers Nurse's attention to detail. “He's always thinking a step further. He's always looking at the big picture,” he said. In his eyes, Nurse's M.O. wasn’t necessarily to do things no one else was doing — though he showed no fear in mixing things up. Instead, it was to be hyper-attentive on details and excel in key areas better than anyone.
Marsh also worked under Nurse with the championship-winning Raptors as an assistant video coordinator and player-development coach. He then spent two seasons as a player-development coach for the Indiana Pacers before joining the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces as an assistant coach and head of player development in March of 2022. Las Vegas won the league championship last season and is on track to defend its title.
The switchability between schemes played a big part in the Raptors' 2019 championship run. Jumping from defense to defense, famously going box-and-one against Stephen Curry in the 2019 NBA Finals, made a great unit out of a group of very good individual defenders. Those specific blueprints may not work with the Sixers, who have a much different roster.
However, Nurse has made a name for himself with his ability to find the ones that fit the team he has at his disposal. Since being introduced as the Sixers head coach, Nurse has explained that Philly will be trying stuff throughout the season to see what works in the postseason. Few teams are as desperate to find the right plan as the Sixers are, giving Nurse more pressure, but also an audience that is much more amenable to his teachings.
“Once April, May, and June come, that's when we want to continue to get better. That's when we want to be playing our best basketball…When teams drop off, we continue to excel and to climb the ladder,” Nurse preached to his teams in Toronto and Rio Grande Valley, according to Marsh.
Nurse thrives under pressure, Marsh said, because of his thorough preparation, putting players and coaches in the situations that they could face and have to be ready to execute in. That calm demeanor under pressure showed in halftime, where, as Goudelock recalled, he would simply pull up a chair, sit in the middle of the room and just discuss the game, creating a calm environment that comforted players.
Beverley is not the only former Vipers player to join the Sixers. Toure' Murry, who appeared in the two NBA seasons following his stint with RGV, will join Nurse's staff as a player development coach. His previous experience as a developmental coach has come only with Klein Forest High School, which he attended before playing four seasons at Wichita State.
Glimpse here of Sixers’ summer league post-practice scene:
Ricky Council IV form shooting with Toure’ Murry, Fab Flournoy.
Terquavion Smith 3s with Rico Hines looking on. pic.twitter.com/YJOt9Nz9p5
— Noah Levick (@NoahLevick) July 1, 2023
Murry, a frequent shooter from the mid-range, didn’t have a game style that fit seamlessly with the Vipers — but that didn’t matter. “Coach Nurse isn’t somebody that's going to take a certain aspect out of your game, but instead look for ways to implement that and create a situation to where you're able to expand it,” Marsh said, adding that it was “a large focus” for Murry to develop his outside shot.
Murry took more and more threes as the season went on. He didn’t cash in a single shot from downtown until January 26, shooting 0-10 across 18 games. Shooting 2-3 from deep helped him score a season-high 22 points and provided the spark to get him shooting threes more frequently. In the following 34 games, including the postseason, he made 33 of his 80 attempts from deep, good for 41.3 percent.
Meanwhile, Goudelock came to Rio Grande Valley with a style of play that already matched the team perfectly. Over his four years at the College of Charleston, he shot 45.8 percent of his field goals from deep, converting on those looks 41.3 percent of the time. Looking to likewise experiment with his game, Goudelock played point guard for the first time in his career when he got to Nurse. In that role, Goudelock said, he was “working on trying to balance the scoring and the passing and the getting to the rim and things like that.”
The transformation from scorer into creator that Nurse helped Goudelock go through is almost exactly what he plans to do with Tyrese Maxey. Making the young guard more capable of opening up windows to score is the next step in his evolution. He has already proven that he can shoot from deep and play off of the Sixers' stars. Nurse wants him to become a star other guys can play off of more often. His experience unlocking Goudelock and helping mold Fred VanVleet into a star should inspire confidence in the path he plans to put Maxey on.
Above all, Nurse helped Goudelock find a sense of towering confidence that he has taken with him on his long basketball career overseas (which included a brief return to the NBA with the Rockets at the end of the 2015-16 season). “It's almost like the irrational, delusional confidence of somebody that isn't a human,” he said. “I got that confidence from Nick, playing under Nick, and just seeing how he went about everything.”
In addition to Murry, Nurse also brought Matt Brase and Doug West, who both served under him as assistant coaches with the Vipers, to be on his staff with the Sixers. Brase went on to be an assistant coach for the Rockets from 2018 to 2020, giving him familiarity with Tucker, James Harden, and Danuel House Jr. Brase and West join fellow newcomers Murry, Bobby Jackson, Rico Hines, Bryan Gates, Coby Karl and Fabulous Flourney on the Sixers coaching staff.
If the Sixers will be anything under Nurse, they'll be creative, confident, and unafraid to be unconventional. Marsh said that Nurse is “not afraid to stretch the imagination of the staff and the players in terms of what they can do. Just not putting people in a box. I think that's the best thing about working for him and with him; he doesn't put the team in a box and he doesn't put the staff in a box. He allows you to work, he allows you to coach and he allows you to think beyond the scope of what's right in front of you.”