Nicolae bringing creative flair to basketball training

ROMANIA-born individual skills development coach, Nica Nicolae, has created a niche for himself by moving a few boundaries in South African basketball.

Firstly, he has ventured into an untapped aspect of coaching, which centres on players individually improving their skill sets. Secondly, his coaching style is unorthodox, as his training involves flair and focuses on players coming out of their comfort zones.

So, for players who wish to possess the dribble and handles of Steph Curry or Kyrie Irving or even their finishing style at the rim, then Nicolae’s methods may be for them.

“I realised there was a gap in the market because that are not many skills trainers in South Africa. I believe I can help players improve their skill sets by introducing methods that suit each player,” said Nicolae at the University of Johannesburg’s Gymnasium on Thursday.

Nica Nicolae
Nica Nicolae getting ready for a training session. Pictures: The Big Tip Off.

While 27-year-old Nicolae’s methods may be unconventional for the purists of basketball, he stresses that players must grasp the game’s fundamentals.

“It’s okay to have a different opinion and no disrespect to the fundamental way of training, but I believe it can only take one to a certain level. I have also shared that information with players,” said Nicolae, who has been a skills trainer for four-and-a-half years. “They are a basis to advance in the game for players who want to unlock their skill set, but the training has to be efficient. If it is not, then players will struggle in game situations. For example, when I use the blocking guards, it mimics how other defenders will guard you in match situations.

“My training involves players getting their footwork, balance, and core right and improving their hand and eye co-ordination. It’s a fun way of getting the players engaged.”

Two prominent South African players have trained with Nicolae, who holds a Micah Lancaster Skills Development Certificate. WBNL champion and Tshwane Suns player Lungile Mtsweni and Lehlogonolo Tholo, who plays for Mozambique’s Uniao Juvenil de Napipine have worked with the Romanian coach.

Nicolae feels honoured to have worked with two former national team players. He says it has been a part of his ambition to train some of the best players in the country.

“It’s a dream come true and something I can tick off my bucket list. Since coming to South Africa, I have wanted to work with players that play at a high standard,” said Nicolae, who has been in South Africa since 2010. “To have Lungile and Lehlogonolo trust my work. Them trusting that I can help them get better at something they are already good at… It’s a dream come true.

Mtsweni endorses Nicolae’s coaching and says that her game has vastly improved since coming into contact with the exuberant coach.

“I have learnt about the changing of pace when dribbling the ball and my footwork has also gotten better. The way he beats an opponent really works. When I used to dribble past an opponent my feet were not wide enough. Also, I was not as low as I needed to be. Nica has emphasised those things in his coaching and I feel I have gotten better,” said Mtsweni, who represented South Africa at the 2015 FIBA African Women’s Championships.

“I feel I have more control of the ball and I can drive to the rim in different ways. I have also learnt how to protect the ball better in offence, especially against bigger and stronger guards. They will find it difficult to strip the ball of me.”

Nica Nicolae
Nica Nicolae in a workout session with South African player Lungile Mtsweni

Nicolae has made some observations about players in South Africa, and he mentioned how they could better their skills.

“The biggest thing to work on has been player confidence. Another thing was the handling of the ball especially when a player is under pressure, which ranks high in requests from the players on how to improve their style,” said Nicolae. “After that, shooting, angles, footwork are all aspects that players in South Africa have needed to improve on.”

The skills trainer is slowly growing a reputation in South Africa and has an even bigger vision for himself. He wants to work with some of the continent’s brightest talents.

“One of my big goals is to reach the rest of Africa. I have made contact with a couple of players and there seems to be an interest. Maybe one or two players will come to South Africa,” said Nicolae.

Nicolae has an appreciation on what it has taken for him to get this far in his career. He was also thankful for the input of others as it has made him a better coach. “This journey has been humbling. Seeing how things have come together and the feedback from the players has been positive. I am thankful for the love and support I have received and look forward to a bright future.”

There are so many ways of contributing to and building a career in basketball. Nicolae’s journey is an example of avenues that can be explored to further the game in Africa.

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