There are five lines of five multicolored balls lined up neatly along the three-point line as the drill begins and Kia Nurse steps up to show off her greatest skill. The gym has somewhat cleared out by now, meaning much of the sound reverberating off the walls is the sound of balls going through the net and screams of “money ball!” every few seconds.
Nurse is preparing to participate in Friday’s Three-Point Competition that kicks off WNBA All-Star Weekend, and she’s lighting up the scoreboard. The Liberty don’t have ball racks present, so an assistant kneels down and hands Nurse the balls and a familiar rhythm begins to play out. The sound of her foot hitting the floor and the ball falling through the net is occasionally broken up by the clang of a ball off the rim, but it doesn’t take long for the initial rhythm to return. Nurse’s shot is what got her into Friday night's event, but it’s her overall play that will see her take the court early on Saturday.
When Nurse found out she was voted as an All-Star starter, she was getting off the plane in Chicago and her teammates were being less than subtle about their excitement for her.
“My teammates were eyeing me from across the aisle and I was scrolling through Instagram and I was like 'Ah!'" Nurse said. “It was just kinda like shock. Very fortunate, very thankful for all the fans and everyone who voted for me. To be able to go and have this experience, something that I dreamed of doing [pauses] chills! Super excited.”
Few can dispute Nurse’s case. She’s taken a massive step in her second year in the WNBA, averaging 15.4 points per game—good for top 10 in the league—and shooting 40.7% from three on more attempts than almost everyone ahead of her in the three-point rankings.
Simply put, the UConn product is a huge reason that the New York Liberty are in the playoff discussion after finishing with the second-fewest wins in the league last year. Her improvement has been especially apparent to second-year coach Katie Smith, who says that while Nurse has gotten more consistent as a three-point shooter, she’s also refined the other parts of her game.
“I think she's putting it on the floor better, I think she's finishing better,” Smith said. “Defensively I think she's the same energy player, she's been great. But that and also the mentality of looking to score and that attack mentality every single possession that 'I'm putting pressure on the defense.'"
And she’s certainly showing opposing defenses what she’s capable of this season. Nurse has only failed to score in double digits four times in 2019, almost as many times as she’s scored 26 points (three).
Part of what’s made her so effective this season is just having a year of professional basketball under her belt and being more familiar with the ins and outs of the league. Coming in as a guard to the WNBA is especially tough, with some of the best players in the league lining up against you on any given night.
“When you get into this league, you see Maya Moores, you see Diana Taurasis and you try to figure out how I'm going to be successful against them,” Nurse said. “Once you come in with a year under your belt, it gives you a bit more comfort level to say O.K., I can do it. I just gotta work really hard at it.”
She’s been helped by the Liberty’s longtime rock and fellow All-Star Tina Charles, who is a consistent force for New York and acts as the leader of the squad. Nurse also pointed to Brittany Boyd and Tanisha Wright as players who have really stepped up this season and helped the team improve. Just how much that improvement means in the grand scheme, however, is yet to be determined.
The Liberty have already won more games this season (eight) than they did during the entirety of last season, and we’re only at the All-Star break. But they remain outside of the playoffs spots and mired in the pack of teams stuck between 8–10 wins, a group that also includes Phoenix and Minnesota.
When asked what the team can do to keep moving up the standings, Smith said she knows what this team is capable of offensively—that it’s the defense that needs to continue to improve. New York currently ranks second-to-last in the league in defensive efficiency, only sitting above the Indiana Fever.
She also believes that the Liberty need to learn to grind out games when they aren’t shooting well, a sentiment that Nurse agrees with. Nurse also said that New York will need to string together some wins in the near future to start building momentum. That will mean closing out some of the tight games that the team failed to finish off during the first half of the season.
“For us, it's going to be a matter of each and every game is a winnable game but it's gonna be tough, it's gonna be a 40-minute grind,” she said. “So with this upcoming game (an eventual 70–63 loss to the Sun) and the ones that come after All-Star break, that will be the main focus. Just finishing out games and getting ourselves out on a little bit of a momentum swing.”
In the meantime, Nurse is excited about her first All-Star game. She is the first Canadian player ever picked to be an All-Star starter and she’s interested to see a new side of the players she’s matched up against during her weekend in Las Vegas.
“Obviously, I get to play with and against some players from other teams, so getting to know them and their stories of what they've gone through, that'll be exciting for me as well,” Nurse said.
And, of course, she’s going to show off some fresh kicks when she hits the Strip. The Jordan Brand athlete perked up when asked about what kicks she would be rocking over the weekend and slyly said that they were going to be very over-the-top and that she’d be showing off some Westbrooks that hadn’t been seen before.
She’ll have plenty of airtime to show off her dope kicks and there’s no doubt that she’ll get to show off her shooting ability and bring back that familiar beat of balls going through the net to Vegas. Only instead of Liberty coaches screaming “money ball” and willing the ball to go in, it will be thousands of fans packed into the Mandalay Bay Events Center.