New Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren relayed a story from early in his professional coaching career.
As an assistant under Nick Nurse in the G League with the Iowa Energy in 2007, Bjorkgren and Nurse spent hours together in the basement of Nurse’s home drawing up plays.
“After that first G League season together, we spent 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., 12-hour days, he had a basement and we had whiteboards all over the walls,” Bjorkgren said. “We spent every waking second on how we wanted to coach professional basketball.”
After working for four years under Nurse in the G League, the duo reunited in 2018, with Bjorkgren working under Nurse with the Toronto Raptors. Together, they helped guide the Raptors to the 2019 NBA championship.
In that sense, the 45-year-old Bjorkgren checked off all the boxes for the Pacers’ coaching search, a basketball junkie with a championship pedigree who learned under an innovative coach willing to take risks. But even more, Pacers president Kevin Pritchard came away impressed with Bjorkgren’s positivity and ability to communicate.
“There are people in this world that bring energy and they make you feel better about yourself,” Pritchard said. “They just are around you. You like being around them. I think the litmus test is when one of those guys calls you, you can’t wait to pick up the phone. To me Nate has those characteristics. …
“He brings good-natured fun, brings joy back to basketball, and that doesn’t mean he can’t be tough. And I think the balance that he will bring is he’ll know when to be tough, he’ll know when to push the players but he’ll also know when to put his arm around him and say, ‘We’ve got this. It’s important that we do this together.’”
Bjorkgren laid out his vision on how he wants the Pacers to play, which is disruptive, both offensively and defensively. He believes in switching defenses, even when things are going well, sometimes, even switching mid-possession. Offensively, he believes multiple players can bring the ball up the floor.
“If you look at our teams as a fan and media and as a member of the Indiana Pacers organization, it will be a fun team to watch,” Bjorkgren said. “You’re going to see a lot of movement on both sides of the ball. You are going to see weak side movement on the offensive end. You’re going to see different players handling the ball and pushing it up the floor. We want to look for more possessions. We want to be attacking and utilize the free-throw line on getting to the rim, utilize that 3-point line and taking the shots that we want in the offense.”
Bjorkgren also said he believes in using and developing all 12 players on his roster.
“The players will find out early that I’m not afraid to play any of them,” Bjorkgren said. “I don’t there should ever be a set rotation and this is how we’re going to play, these are the certain guys. I think every game is different. Every game will get different circumstances. Sometimes you play big, sometimes you play small, sometimes those are the things that Kevin talked about early that you have to go through during the course of the regular season so when it comes playoffs, you are not doing something for the very first time that you have never done before.”
The G League, Bjorkgren said, taught him adaptability. He spent four years as an assistant under Nurse and four more years as a head coach with three different G League teams until landing his first NBA assistant job with the Phoenix Suns in 2015.
“You could wake up that morning and be at a shoot-around and all of the sudden, two of your players got called up to the NBA, and one player left overseas and you have to be able to coach on the fly,” Bjorkgren said. “You have to be able to make decisions quickly, and you can’t worry about things. You can’t worry about injuries or a player not playing that game. The next man will be there and ready to perform, and that’s the part of coaching. I’ve got to keep everybody ready at all times.”
In the coming months, Bjorkgren will gain more familiarity with Pacers players. He already knows one key player, forward T.J. Warren, whom he coached as an assistant with the Suns from 2015-18. Bjorkgren also recounted when he first coached Warren when he came for an injury assignment with the Bakersfield Jam, the Suns’ G League affiliate.
“He quietly knocked in about 41 points and was 12-for-15 from the field, so T.J. and I go way back,” Bjorkgren said. “He is a big-time, big-time scorer, and he’s an ever better person. Talking to him yesterday, it was nice to join forces with him, and I’m looking forward to coaching him again.”
Bjorkgren said he also received a congratulatory text from All-Star guard and former Indiana University standout Victor Oladipo, who is entering the final year of a four-year contract with the team. Bjorkgren followed up that text with a phone call.
“We had a great talk, talked about what I thought he could do, what I thought he could bring to this team, how he can make this team better and we can make him better,” Bjorkgren said.
Up front, Bjorkgren said he believes center Myles Turner and All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis can play together, pointing out the Raptors had success playing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol together during their 2019 NBA title run.
Player development, Bjorkgren said, will be emphasized in training camp and throughout the season.
“Players want to know how you are going to make them better, and as soon as they know that and they trust you in that situation, the sky is the limit,” Bjorkgren said. “Because as they get better as individuals, the team gets better. They trust each other more, and you see the ball move and nice things to come.”