The Pacers conducted a thorough coaching search to replace Nate McMillan, leading to plenty of speculation about which candidate would land the job. First, the favorite appeared to be former Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni. Then, Pelicans assistant Chris Finch emerged as the frontrunner.
But Indiana didn’t go chalk with its choice. The Pacers are hiring Raptors assistant Nate Bjorkgren to be their next head coach.
Even for diehard NBA fans, Bjorkgren is probably not a familiar name. The 45-year-old has a great deal of coaching experience at multiple levels, but this will be his first time in the head chair. He has some big shoes to fill after McMillan won at least 42 games and reached the playoffs in each of his four seasons with the Pacers.
Here’s what you need to know about Bjorkgren as he begins his tenure in Indiana:
Bjorkgren worked his way up the coaching ladder.
After playing college hoops at the University of South Dakota (1994-96) and Buena Vista University (1996-98), Bjorkgren immediately jumped into coaching. He became a high school basketball coach in his home state of Iowa as a 23-year-old while also assisting with baseball and football. He eventually wanted to shift to a bigger city, so he resigned from his position, moved to Phoenix and landed the head coaching job at Cactus Shadows High School in 2004.
When current Raptors head coach Nick Nurse took over as the head coach of the Iowa Energy, an expansion D-League team, in 2007, Bjorkgren took another leap and joined Nurse’s staff. The Energy won a D-League (now G League) championship in 2011.
That sent Bjorkgren down a path that included head coaching gigs with the Dakota Wizards (later named the Santa Cruz Warriors), Energy and Bakersfield Jam.
He then left the G League behind in 2015 to serve as an assistant under Suns coach Jeff Hornacek. After some rough years in Phoenix, Bjorkgren bounced back with the Raptors, once again operating under Nurse. He won a championship with Toronto in 2019, and now he will look to turn Indiana into a top contender in the Eastern Conference.
“We are very pleased and excited to have Nate as our new coach,” Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard said in the team’s official announcement. “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.”
The Bjorkgren-Nurse relationship goes back more than two decades.
Bjorkgren first met Nurse in 1994 as a walk-on at South Dakota, where Nurse was an assistant. His first success as a pro coach came with Nurse and the Energy, and Bjorkgren later faced off against Nurse in the 2013 D-League Finals when Bjorkgren’s Warriors met Nurse’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Nurse prevailed in that contest, capturing another D-League title. When Nurse and Bjorkgren met after the game to shake hands, Bjorkgren said Nurse told him, “There’s no reason why we couldn’t do this at the next level.”
And that’s exactly what they did, guiding the Raptors past the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals.
“Nate Bjorkgren has been with me a long time,” Nurse said in an interview with Sirius XM NBA Radio last month. “[He] was with me in the minor leagues with the Iowa Energy, then he coached a long time in the D-League and the G League and obviously been with me here in Toronto as well. He’s gonna be a finalist for the Pacers job, and he’s a good one. Similar path that I took coaching in the minors and had a lot of success.”
Bjorkgren is known as a ‘super positive’ coach.
Raptors players and coaches have raved about Bjorkgren’s energy and positivity.
Via TSN’s Josh Lewenberg:
Obviously Bjorkgren will need more than just energy to keep the Pacers competitive in the East, but much like Nurse, Bjorkgren is also known for his willingness to be creative and get the most out of his roster rather than force a particular style on his players.
“He comes from a winning background, has experienced championship success, is innovative and his communication skills along with his positivity are tremendous,” Prichard said. “We all look forward to a long, successful partnership in helping the Pacers move forward.”
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