In the span of about a minute, Mike Nuga (Toronto, Ont.) caught fire.
The much-hyped London Lightning rookie corralled a long outlet pass in rhythm, set his feet near the baseline and drilled a routine three-pointer from the left corner.
Seconds later, he rattled in an off-balance layup.
Then, a steal and another easy bucket at the other end.
He mugged for an ecstatic crowd at London’s Budweiser Gardens — a hockey shrine for the OHL’s Knights and host to five Lightning championships over the last 11 years.
When the final buzzer sounded, Nuga had 18 points on six-of-12 shooting and a lopsided 110-97 victory over the Kitchener-Waterloo Titans in opening game of their first-round playoff series.
“He’s an animal,” said Lightning head coach Doug Plumb in a post-game interview with BasketballBuzz.
“Yeah, he’s the best kid … OKG. Mike Nuga is our kind of guy.”
Huge impact for NBL Canada rookie
As he nears the end of his first full professional season, Nuga is turning heads.
After five games with the CEBL’s Saskatchewan Rattlers last summer, he earned 2023 Canadian Player of the Year honours in NBL Canada, averaging 10.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
He’s been a coach’s dream with the Lightning, who made quick work of the Titans and punched their ticket to the NBL of Canada Finals against a long-time rival, the Windsor Express.
On nights when league MVP finalist Jordan Burns (Jackson, Tenn.) sits out with injuries, Nuga has helped fill the void. He’s drawn effusive praise for his effort at both ends of the floor.
“He works his tail off,” said Plumb, the league’s 2023 Coach of the Year.
“He watches extra film every single day. He’s asking questions every day. He’s the first guy there, last guy to leave. He’s been fantastic, and I’m really happy for him.”
Mike Nuga thrives with Lightning
Nuga arrives in the pros after a journeyman college career that included time at Portland State, Kent State and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Prior to that, he played two seasons at Eastern Florida Junior College, leading them to the national title game as a freshman. In his sophomore season, he was team MVP and first team All-Conference.
He finished his NCAA career with averages of 10 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game, and started multiple games with the CEBL’s Rattlers after joining them mid-season.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a basketball player,” said Nuga, referring to his development over the last 12 months.
“Coach Doug has done a good job of helping me to mature as a basketball player … just learning the differences between the college and pro game. I feel like I made some good advances — and a lot more to go.”
Nuga is the fourth player in Lightning history to win NBL Canada’s top award for home-grown talent. He’s also the second London player in a row to receive the honour.
Veteran wing Terry Thomas (Dartmouth, N.S.) won the award last season while helping the Lightning to their fifth league championship.
“It’s just a testament to my hard work and the abilities God has given me,” said Nuga.
“I’m not surprised by the award, because I put in the work to get the award. So, I’m just proud of myself and proud of the effort my teammates put into me.”
The Lightning are in the driver’s seat in the Finals series against Windsor, leading the series 2-1 after a 112-107 win on the road Tuesday evening.
Nuga finished that game with 15 points on 7-of-16 shooting, plus seven rebounds and three assists. Thomas led all Lightning scorers with 28 points.
Jordan Burns, the league MVP candidate, was out of the lineup again and has battled lingering back issues.
Several days earlier, as Nuga iced both knees and his left hip after the victory over K-W, he embraced the burden of Burns’ absence.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” Nuga said. “We come together as a group to help fill that void … We’re here, we work hard.”
“If one man’s down, it’s next man up.”