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Pacers hire Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren as head coach

Raptors coach Nick Nurse and new Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 18: Assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren of the Toronto Raptors looks on against the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center on October 18, 2019 in New York, New York. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

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After the Rio Grande Valley Vipers beat the Santa Cruz Warriors in the 2013 D-League Finals, Vipers coach Nick Nurse and Warriors coach Nate Bjorkgren shook hands. Nurse told Bjorkgren, “There’s no reason why we couldn’t do this at the next level.” Nurse eventually became Raptors head coach, guided them to a championship in his first season and is now recognized as one of the NBA’s top coaches.

Now, Bjorkgren – who worked as an assistant under Nurse in Toronto – will get his chance with the Pacers.

Pacers release:

The Indiana Pacers announced Tuesday that they have hired Nate Bjorkgren as head coach. Per team policy, the terms of the contract were not released.

Bjorkgren (pronounced BEE-ork-gren) served as assistant coach of the Toronto Raptors during the past two seasons (2018-20), and helped the Raptors win their first NBA championship during the 2018-19 season. He also served as player development coordinator and assistant coach of the Phoenix Suns for two seasons from 2015-17 before joining the Raptors as an advance scout during the 2017-18 season.

“We are very pleased and excited to have Nate as our new coach,” said President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard. “This was an extensive and thorough search, and when we reached the conclusion, we felt strongly Nate is the right coach for us at the right time. He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous. We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward.”

This was an odd saga, starting with firing Nate McMillan two weeks after announcing his contract extension. Mike D’Antoni and
Chris Finch took turns as rumored favorites.

Now, Bjorkgren lands the job.

Bjorkgren got his start as a high school coach then became an assistant coach (under Nurse) and eventually head coach in the NBA’s minor league. In each stop, his teams won. Bjorkgren then became an assistant with the Suns and Raptors.

He developed a reputation for competitiveness that should fit a team always trying to win in the short-term. The big question: Will he implement the right strategies to make it happen?

His success at lower levels shows he can handle being in charge. Time in the NBA adds perspective.

But he has never been head coach of a team with a star player seeking a max contract and considering leaving in free agency the next year. Victor Oladipo is one challenge. Managing the unique big-man pairing of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis is another.

Bjorkgren gets his opportunity to show he’s up to the task.

After Nurse’s success, this could be the start of open floodgates on former or current minor-league coaches getting NBA head-coaching jobs.