New York Liberty second-year guard Kia Nurse was named a 2019 All-Star starter earlier this week.
The 2018 No. 10 overall pick has stepped into a larger scoring role and helped New York to a 7-8 start, capably filling the vacant role as a No. 2 option in support of eight-time All-WNBA forward Tina Charles.
In her first full campaign as a starter, Nurse has nearly equaled or surpassed many of her scoring totals from last season. Her minutes were all over the place as a rookie, but the team moved on from four of last season’s veteran guards/wings, paving the way for her to become a bigger part of the offense.
Charles, Nurse and point guard Brittany Boyd have started all 15 games so far, though the Liberty were hit hard by EuroBasket absences. Two players (Marine Johannes, Kiah Stokes) were not even with the team to start the season, and two more (Amanda Zahui B, Bria Hartley) are key rotation pieces that only played in nine and five games to date, respectively. (The team announced after EuroBasket that Stokes will not play this season, citing personal reasons.)
Entering Friday’s contests, just three games separated the Las Vegas Aces (No. 1 in the standings) and the Liberty (No. 9). That context has made Nurse’s production all the more valuable. The fit and play of the supporting players took a step back this year, so Charles and Nurse had to deliver for this team to remain competitive through this recent stretch.
However, the Liberty recently rattled off three straight road wins, and Nurse’s performance in two of them showed how far she’s come in a short amount of time.
July 3: New York Liberty 84, Seattle Storm 83
Nurse scored 24 points (9-12 FG, 4-7 3PT) as the Liberty prevailed in Seattle after trailing by 10 at the start of the fourth quarter. She flashed a clear understanding of how she can twist defenders in knots out of simple screening actions:
A shot wasn’t there coming off a Charles screen, so she flows right into a handoff. Nurse leverages her shooting ability with a brief pause. Her defender must go over the screen at that point. Charles holds the screen, and Nurse is able to step into a clean pull-up window.
Nurse didn’t have a clean look from deep coming off the first screen in part because Brittany Boyd isn’t much of a threat—more on that later—and her defender followed the pass for a beat as Nurse’s defender caught up:
Nurse is very quick in a straight line. Baseline screening actions or quick pin downs are staples of New York’s offense. She was able to catch her own defender napping, and the screener’s defender was not in position to pop out and switch or show to run her off the 3-point line.
This season’s jump in production largely comes down to improved 3-point shooting. The ball is going in the basket more often for a shooter that had already flashed some versatility coming off screens and (occasionally) the dribble.
Nurse is second in 3-point attempts (95) and fourth in makes (34), shooting 35.8 percent—up from 29.4 percent last season. She’s attempting 6.9 triples per 36 minutes (5.9 in 2018) per Basketball-Reference.
You won’t find five active players replicating her success and volume on such a steady diet of relatively difficult attempts. The team’s early belief in Nurse has been rewarded, and head coach Katie Smith installed the right schemes to encourage and generate those attempts even while her team was not at full operating capacity.
Charles-Nurse two-player actions on one side of the floor will only get tougher to handle from here with Zahui, Hartley, Johannes and Rebecca Allen—due back at some point in the near future from a hand injury—on the floor. All four are good 3-point shooters.
Nurse is a terror out of baseline screening actions, especially knocking down shots at her current clip.
Watch Alysha Clark blindly sprint to the other side of the floor before realizing Nurse aborted the action to remain on the left side:
The remainder of the possession circles back to Boyd’s shooting and opponents ignoring her at times away from the ball. It can blow up Charles post-ups or some of that screening action if Boyd’s defender can sag off and sit in that player’s lap instead.
Boyd acted quickly around this Charles post up, bolting into the lane after throwing the entry pass. She ended up further collapsing the defense, opening up the kick-out 3-pointer.
The Liberty are so much closer to building an elite offense than some may realize.
Nurse, Asia Durr and Zahui—the three regular starters around Charles and Boyd—are dangerous, versatile 3-point shooters. Durr can be featured in many of the same actions as Nurse; Zahui is a dangerous pick-and-pop threat and can simply spot up behind the arc, pulling an opposing big out of the paint.
You know that Nurse has crossed some arbitrary marker when opposing bigs switch onto her in defending off-ball screening actions. She canned a triple right over 6’6” Mercedes Russell, who was still in good position to contest the shot:
Those switches, whether Nurse gets an immediate shot or not, open the door for more easy scoring opportunities. New York may catch opposing smalls on Charles, who will completely bludgeon them in the post.
Or, at worst, cracks will be left open for that big to secure prime real estate on the offensive glass:
Seattle got caught switching back as a shot went up. Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe slipped through that crack and grabbed the offensive board, setting up a key Charles 3-pointer in crunch time of the one-point victory.
July 5: New York Liberty 80, Phoenix Mercury 76
Nurse went for a cool 26 (8-11 FG, 4-6 3PT) two days later in Phoenix. After being defended by one of the league’s top guard/wing defenders (Clark), All-Defense regular Briann January got her chance with the UConn alum.
Nurse again leveraged her on-the-move 3-point shooting ability with a subtle fake, kicking off a hard drive into the lane for a floater off glass:
Her size, listed at 6’0”, is also important. It makes her more versatile as a guard/wing defender, opening up perimeter combinations for Smith. And as seen against January, Nurse can shrug off and shoot over many 1s and 2s once she uses the threat of the 3-pointer to create an advantage.
She even pulled a 3-pointer off the bounce, saving a jumbled possession after a Mercury deflection:
Draw a line back to the shot over Russell: Mercury center Brittney Griner wasn’t even close this time.
Nurse has already been so effective in year two on some very difficult 3-point attempts that opponents absolutely must run her off the line or stick close enough to mitigate backdoor cuts or blow-bys. As a result, Nurse will have an easier time getting into the lane to score or make plays for others than some of her sharpshooting peers that aren’t quite as versatile.
The season is young, and there have been some growing pains amid this All-Star campaign, including 3-of-13 and 1-of-13 clunkers during losses to the Las Vegas Aces.
But as we collect more data and observe Nurse’s development, it’s clear that she earned this All-Star starting nod.
And more importantly, she has given the Liberty exactly what they needed: A more reliable perimeter scoring option next to Charles, sparking key wins that will continue to keep the team in the playoff hunt.
Ben Dull covers the WNBA, the WNBA Draft and women’s college basketball. His year-round coverage can be found at High Post Hoops, BBall Index, and The Basketball Writers. He is a San Diego native and recent alum of Concordia University Irvine’s Master’s of Coaching and Athletic Administration (MCAA) program.