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Kia Nurse: Leading & Still Learning

ByShawn Medow|@ShawnMedow| February 18, 2021
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When players get traded, their lives are upended. New team, new city, new teammates, new fans, and a new lifestyle. It’s an intimidating time for any athlete. But when Kia Nurse was traded for the first time in her young career to the Phoenix Mercury from the New York Liberty earlier this month, she had her family of athletes to lean on. 

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Kia Nurse got a phone call from her brother, Darnell, who is an NHL player and alternate captain for the Edmonton Oilers.   

“He was the first one to say ‘look this is a good situation for you. And you’re happy.’ And I know it’s a little bittersweet the moment it happens. Because I obviously made tons of friendships in New York, but I’m super excited,” she said in an introductory Zoom call with the Phoenix Mercury on Feb. 11, 2021.

Kia comes from a family of athletes. Her father, Richard, played in the Canadian Football League. Her mother, Cathy, played college hoops in Canada. And her older sister, Tamika, played college basketball for Oregon and Bowling Green. 

Despite Kia being from Canada, the trade means she will be closer to family. Her uncle through marriage is six-time Pro-Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb, who lives in the Phoenix area. 

“It’s cool to have people in this situation like when I get traded, someone’s already been through that before,” Kia said. “Just call them, ask them how they dealt with it, and have any questions, throw them their way.”

The move wasn’t a total surprise to Kia, who heard some rumblings. But she wasn’t entirely sure it would happen or where she would end up.

“I don’t think I had a solid idea that it (the trade) was coming,” she said. “I was pretty intuitive so I caught onto a couple clues here and there. But it wasn’t solid until I got that phone call. So my initial reaction was ‘This is part of the business. I knew it was coming. Where, what, when, who? No idea.’”

That’s all part of the WNBA nowadays. With an offseason full of trades and acquisitions during WNBA free agency, Kia is one of the players on the move after some speculation. The WNBA has gained a new level of attention from fans around the world who are watching daily for the next big move. 

“As a player, I’m excited this is how it is. And there is so much movement. And there’s so much excitement around it,” Kia said. “It’s nerve-wracking as a player when you see your name getting thrown out there on Twitter. And you’re like ‘I knew nothing about this’ but it’s exciting for sure.”

After three seasons in New York with the team that drafted her, Kia has a new adventure with the Phoenix Mercury, where the young leader hopes to learn from league veterans as they seek a shot at the title.

Kia Nurse joins the Phoenix Mercury

The Phoenix Mercury was keen to sign Kia Nurse. She was target No. 1.

“With a hard salary cap and great parity in our league, you rarely get the opportunity to add a 24-year-old All-Star. Much less a player whose skill set and temperament fits seamlessly with our roster,” Mercury GM Jim Pitman said. “Kia Nurse was our top acquisition target this offseason. Because of her outside shooting, aggressiveness off the dribble, size and versatility on defense, and competitiveness. We welcome her to the Mercury family.”

Now Kia wants to pay back the Mercury for having the faith they have in her by stepping up her game and helping lift them in the 2021 season. 

“Being said that I was a top priority is humbling,” Kia said. “I’m extremely grateful that they value my game. And what I’ve done in the past three years in this league. And hoping that I can live up to those expectations and a little bit more.” 

Kia Nurse’s Basketball Evolution 

Kia picked up basketball at the young age of 4. And when she was just 7 years old, she was playing competitively, according to the Toronto Star. 

In high school, Kia won three consecutive championships between 2011 and 2013 with St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School in Hamilton, Ontario. Her club team, Hamilton Transway Club, won seven provincial titles. At the 2012 FIBA U-17 World Cup, Kia was a key part of Canada’s third-place performance, missing out on playing in the final after losing to USA

Her play drew the attention of colleges in the United States. And Kia chose to go to the perennial powerhouse that is Connecticut, where she had wanted to go since the seventh grade

Kia Nurse was a key player for Geno Auriemma’s UConn team, playing a consistent starting role from her freshman year through her senior season. 

In 2015, Kia’s freshman season, UConn, led by Breanna Stewart, marched through the season with a 37-1 record. And cruised through the NCAA Tournament, capturing the national championship. UConn won a blowout 81-58 game over Maryland in the Final Four national semifinal, in which Kia recorded 2-for-5 shooting. In the championship game, Kia scored nine points as UConn played its closest game of the tournament: a 63-53 win over Notre Dame. 

Her sophomore season, UConn went back-to-back, dominating Oregon State in the semifinal and Syracuse in the championship 82-51, in which Kia scored nine points. 

During her time at UConn, Kia received the chance to play in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games after the Huskies’ 2016 NCAA title. Canada finished in seventh place in Rio. 

Kia’s remaining two seasons did not produce titles. But in the 2018 season, she was named the WBCA Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. 

Kia Nurse’s WNBA 2018 rookie season

At the 2018 WNBA Draft, Kia was selected with the 10th overall pick by the New York Liberty. She joined the 2017 Eastern Conference champions, which lost in the second round of the playoffs. 

In her first season, the Liberty failed to make the postseason. Finishing the regular season 7-27. Kia didn’t have a bad rookie season, though. While only starting in seven games, she played in all of the team’s 34 games. After scoring 17 in her debut, Kia put up a career-high 34 points against the Indiana Fever, which was a Liberty rookie record. 

After her rookie season, Kia joined Australian side Canberra Capitals in the Women’s National Basketball League. Where she went on to win titles in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. She was named the 2020 WNBL’s most valuable player. 

Kia Nurse’s WNBA 2019 season

The 2019 season was not much better for the Liberty, finishing with a 10-24 record. For Kia, it was a big season. She became a regular in the starting lineup. Starting all 34 games and playing nearly 300 more minutes across the season. Her strong performances earned her a starting spot in the 2019 All-Star Game. She became just the third Canadian to play in a WNBA All-Star Game. 

In 2019, Kia elevated her three-pointer. After shooting 29.4 percent from beyond the arc her rookie season, Kia shot 35.4 percent while attempting 42 more threes. 

While 2019 was a disappointing year for the team, Kia’s personally good year truly solidified her as a “baby vet” for the team because of her leadership at only 23. Kia says that part of why she became a leader at a young age in her professional career is because of her eight years now with the Canadian national team where she has emerged as a leader. 

Now that she’s headed to Phoenix, the role of being a veteran changes with the likes of Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner on the team. 

“The cool part about going to a team like Phoenix that has such incredible vets already is that I don’t necessarily have to be a “baby vet” but the better leader I become is because the leaders before,” Kia said. “I’m really excited to be on a team that’s full of vets. Because I get to learn. And continue to figure out what are good ways to be a leader. And what are some ways that people might not really understand.”

Kia Nurse’s 2020 WNBA bubble season and beyond

The 2020 bubble season in Florida started with bad luck for Kia.

In the first game of the season, Kia injured her ankle against the Seattle Storm. The injury was a setback. And when Kia returned, she had a tough time acclimating to the game. Shooting below 30 percent in the 20 games she played. Despite the injury and low shooting percentage, she was tied for a team high 12.2 points per game with a pair of 21-point games. 

“There were a lot of things that I did really well toward the end of the season overall watching the film once I was out of that situation,” Kia said. “There were a lot of good things on the court that I think were improvements in terms of my ability to move the ball. And my assist rates went up. And so that was different for me.”

The Liberty had another down year as it continues to rebuild with the likes of 2020 No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu. New York finished last place in the league with just two wins. 

“The mental side, obviously it wasn’t an ideal situation to be in a bubble,” Kia said. “I think it would have been different if I were not injured in the first eight minutes of the season. But I think the ability to sit in the room and understand what went well and what went wrong, the mental side – I went into a lot of meditation and reading and whatnot. And things that could help me get away from the game. 

“I’ll take that stuff with me for sure. Because any given night you could have a bad day. But I think the cool part about the WNBA is that there’s probably not many days in between for you to sit in it and wallow. Because there’s a next game and a next opportunity to get better.”  

The 2020 season meant more than just basketball with the WNBA playing a big role in the Black Lives Matter movement with the Say Her Name campaign and a league Social Justice Council. 

Kia Nurse took to Twitter on June 1 to express her emotions. 

“This is not a new problem, there is no justification, there is no reason racism should exist anywhere,” she wrote. “Enough is enough. Use your voice, take action toward change…donate, educate yourself, engage in meaningful conversations, refuse to be silent.”

During 2020, Kia joined Canadian broadcast network TSN as an analyst for NBA and WNBA postseason broadcasts. From this experience, Kia has been able to become better at watching games for specific moments. Allowing her to now implement them as part of her own game. 

“I love the way Jayson Tatum plays. The way he creates space. So it’s things that I try to add into my game a little bit here,” she said. “I’m starting to pick up a lot on defensive coverages. And just watching the film of who’s guarding where and what certain bigs are going to do.”

Now that the 2020 season is behind her, Kia Nurse has felt a sense of relief. 

“The Wubble season is over. Thank goodness. Obviously there was a lot going on in there,” Kia said. “I think with a new team and a new clean slate, anything is possible. I’m really excited to go in there and learn from the great players who are super competitive and ready to win and I’m happy for that.” 

With Kia’s chapter ending at the Liberty, she was reflective of her time with her first WNBA team. 

“This is a part of the business. At any time you could get moved around,” she said. “Just putting my best foot forward every single night. In the bubble season, go out there and try and compete every night. And make sure no matter the outcome of the game we played our butt off every five seconds and that was important for me. … They gave me a chance to play in the WNBA so I’m forever grateful for that.”

Kia’s move to Phoenix will give her the opportunity to team-up with a fellow UConn alum in Diana Taurasi and Bria Hartley and other veteran players like Brittney Griner and Skylar Diggins-Smith

“I’m extremely excited to play alongside DT. Obviously I’ve looked up to her and watched her play. She’s the GOAT for a reason,” Kia said. “I’m excited to learn. I think there’s a lot of intricacies of the game that you can only get from experience and being who she is on and off the court so i think there’s a lot to learn from that as well.”

As for playing with Brittney Griner, the opportunity to have a player in the paint of her stature is promising for Kia. 

“Any time you have a player of her caliber and her size and her skill, for a guard you have to love that because you know that teams are gonna have to really collapse onto that paint. And as the shooter, you can’t be any happier having to go inside-out so I’m really excited,” Kia said. “I think she makes great decisions in the paint whether it’s her going to score or finding her teammates so I’m excited to be a part of that.”

The expectations will be high on this Mercury team with Kia’s addition to the 2021 roster. Competition will be high in the WNBA this season with a re-strengthened defending champion Seattle Storm, a hungry Las Vegas Aces, and many other WNBA teams with shots at the title. 

“I think in terms of expectations, you’re gonna have to deal with the expectations that you not only put on yourself but what comes in from the outside,” Kia said. “One of the things that I learned at UConn is when the expectations are there, the outside ones don’t matter. It’s what you expect from your team and expect from yourself on a given night so I’m excited to jump in.”

Kia Nurse’s stats

Kia averaged 48.3 percent shooting at UConn. With her 51.9 percent senior season, in which she was named the national defensive player of the year. 

In 2018, Kia shot 40.2 percent, including 87 percent from the free throw line. Her three-pointer vastly improved in 2019 following a near 30 percent rookie season beyond the arc. Kia’s lockdown defense game doesn’t quite show up on the stats.

Kia Nurse's WNBA per game stats
Kia Nurse’s WNBA per game stats via Basketball Reference

Per game, Kia has slowly gained more confidence as evident by her increased shot attempts in total and beyond the arc. Her shortened 2020 season doesn’t reflect it in her totals. But per game, Kia shot more frequently. Raising her field goal attempts from 7.5 her rookie season to 11.9 by her third year. 

Kia Nurse's per game WNBA stats
Kia Nurse’s per game WNBA stats via Basketball Reference

As for Kia’s points, she became a key player by her second season, averaging 13.7 points per game. Her injury and slow start to the brief 2020 season meant a dip to 12.2 points per game. But with a move to Phoenix, a spike could very well occur when she has better players around her than she did in New York. But it could also mean the opposite with Kia possibly getting fewer chances to shoot. 

Kia Nurse’s career highlights 

  • 2015 NCAA Champion
  • 2016 NCAA Champion 
  • 2016 Olympian 
  • 2018 WBCA Defensive Player of the Year
  • 2018 WNBA 10th overall pick
  • 2019 WNBL Champion 
  • 2019 WNBA All-Star
  • 2020 WNBL Champion

Kia Nurse’s strengths

1. Driving 

Since she was a rookie, Kia has been driving to the rim. As a taller guard than others in the league, she has the advantage when she can get inside while matched up with other guards. 

2. Three-pointer and jump shot

Kia Nurse’s rookie season was a mixed bag of strengths. She showed that she could drive to the basket, pull up for mid-range jumpers, and hit three-pointers. 

Over time, she’s improved her three-point shot. And become a real threat from deep, which at Phoenix, could be lethal thanks to the inside-out game that the Mercury plays. 

“I love the way that Phoenix plays, I love their tempo,” Kia said. “I think they have an incredible inside-out game. So for me I just want to do my role whatever the team needs that to be. Whether that be a spot-up shooter, an offensive threat that people have to guard, and on the defensive end be a defensive presence to guard anybody on the perimeter.” 

3. Work rate

Hussle is something that is hard to teach. Most players are either hard workers are aren’t from a young age. For Kia, she’s always been one, and it shows. 

“I go out there and I will play my butt off every single possession,” Kia said. “ It’s defense and offense, both ends of the floor. I think I can shoot it, I’m pretty sure I can (laughs). I’ve got the confidence to do it. I like to get to the rim and visit the free throw line a couple of times as well. Just my compete level is going to be the big thing that stands out. And effort and hussle plays.”

4. Defense 

Defense is hard to show up on the stat sheet. But Kia is a strong defensive presence. Standing at 6 feet tall, Kia is a guard who can put pressure at the perimeter to deny shots and close down lanes. As GM Jim Pitman put it, she’s versatile on defense. 

5. Free throws

Not a lot of players might emphasize their use of the free throw, but Kia Nurse isn’t like most players. She takes pride in her career 86.9 percent free throw shooting. 

“I talk trash with my game. I know some people don’t necessarily like how I get to the free throw line sometimes. So I just make my free throws and that’s my trash talk.”

Kia Nurse’s opportunities 

1. Consistency 

Kia has the chance at the Mercury to make her play more consistent. Kia is still incredibly young and hasn’t had a chance to have consistent basketball as a professional in the WNBA yet. Her chances will come in Phoenix to be a part of a team that could compete for a title. And now is a key time for her to up her game and become consistent. 

Her most consistent parts of her game have been her work ethic and free throw percentages. But her 2020 injury on top of a bubble season gave her a difficult time to create an edge to her game. Now, she has a chance to do just that. 

What’s next for Kia Nurse?

Phoenix will be a major change in scenery for the 24-year-old (and soon to be 25-year-old). Kia Nurse’s career is really just getting started. She and the Mercury could make a run for a title in 2021 with a strong balance of veterans and young players. With the 2021 season around the corner, and a chance for teams and players to play in front of their home fans again, Kia seems eager to get going in front of her new fanbase. 

“I’m extremely excited to be a part of the Mercury team and the family. And to play in front of the X-Factor. I’ve played against them so I’ve felt their energy so I’m glad to be on the other side of it now.”

As part of Canada’s national team, Kia, like many athletes around the world, is hoping to have an Olympics this upcoming summer. The Tokyo Games would be Kia’s second Olympics and a chance for her to put her mark on the tournament. Her third-place U-17 FIBA World Cup finish in 2012 gave her a taste of international glory. And making a run in the Olympics would be a crowning achievement for Kia, who relishes the chance to represent Canada. 

“That’s a big part of my game and who I am and who I’ve come from,” Kia said. “I’ve been on that team for eight years now. Very excited to be a part of that. We haven’t been able to really get together because of Covid. But looking forward to making some noise in the Olympics as well.”

Growing the game is important to many WNBA players, and Kia Nurse is no exception. A big part of that is due to being from Canada where there is no WNBA team (yet). She’s become the face of Canadian women’s basketball and with endorsements such as Nike’s Jordan Brand, she has made a name for herself in the basketball world as Canada’s star. 

“I think everyone has figured out there is a market for women’s sports, there is a market for female athletes,” Kia said. “People want to see them. People want to see them being endorsed. People are definitely taking a lot more understanding of that and understanding of their brands and how they can make them better because the bigger each and every individual player’s brand is, the more that people know about us, the more fans we’re going to bring into the WNBA, the more interest we’re going to garner. So it’s only good from there.”

Up next, learn more about UConn players in the WNBA.

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