When Nate Darling checked into the game for the Charlotte Hornets in a recent game between the Hornets and Toronto Raptors, he made history. The 22-year-old became the first Nova Scotian to ever enter a regular season NBA game. Darling made history again 11 days later, when he scored his first points in the NBA - a three-pointer, naturally - against the Houston Rockets.
Though it was a thrilling moment for sure, it was also a moment that Darling had envisioned since his childhood days growing up in Bedford, Nova Scotia.
"I just kind of pictured it all when I was young, you know?” Darling said in a recent interview. “I always thought I was going to be in these situations.”
Darling had set the goal of making it to the NBA at such an early age. Because he has spent so many years working toward it, the first minutes of his NBA career weren’t cause for celebration for him. Instead, Darling’s focus is firmly zeroed in on what’s to come.
“When I get [to these moments], it's not like, ‘Wow, I got here’, it's kind of like, ‘Okay, I got it. I'm here. How do I keep going?’”
Darling has made a case for himself to keep going since he went undrafted in the 2020 NBA Draft. After the Charlotte Hornets signed the 6-foot-6 sharpshooter on a two-way contract, Darling spent the first half of his rookie NBA season playing for the organization’s G League affiliate team, the Greensboro Swarm, in the NBA’s G League bubble in Orlando, Florida. At the conclusion of the G League season, he returned to Charlotte to practice with the Hornets and be ready when his name is called to be on the active roster.
Early into the process, Darling wasn’t able to practice with the Hornets as he waited for his visa to come through. Despite not being allowed to join in on practice, or even be on the practice court when his teammates were practicing, Darling continued working on his game.
“Gym. Rat,” Hornets assistant coach and fellow Canadian Nathaniel Mitchell said. “Nate is a gym rat. We would be practicing at 11 a.m. and Nate was coming in at 8, 9 o’clock in the morning. He’d shoot until 10 a.m. and then he’d have to leave because the guys would come in for practice. We’re done practicing at 1, 1:30 p.m., and he’s coming right back in and shooting until 3, 4 o’clock."
It wasn’t just the Hornets coaching staff who took notice of Darling’s dedicated and lengthy shooting sessions.
“Every time we looked up on the screen [that shows what’s happening on the practice court], Nate was up there shooting,” Mitchell said. “The custodians had to come in and clean [between players shooting sessions] because of COVID. Every time they’d go up to clean, they’d have to wait because Nate would be in there shooting.”
Darling’s basketball dreams started at home. His earliest memories of the game are of watching his father, Jason - who suited up for St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia - play in men’s league games.
“I'd go to all of those games at night and watch him play,” Darling said. “My older brother is two years older than me. I would be on his teams [even though I was] two years younger, just starting out. So for as long as I can remember, literally, I’ve been playing basketball.”
While Darling’s father and brother brought the game to him, it was his mother, Julie, who helped to instil a strong sense of confidence and belief in Darling as he was growing up.
“As a young kid, I had this goal and I wanted to do it and people were like, you know, ‘Yeah, whatever Nate,’ but in my head I truly believe, like I felt that this was where I'm supposed to be,” Darling said. “I think that confidence and belief in yourself can literally take you wherever you want to go."
“You create what you want in your life,” Darling continued. “And if you really believe in it and you put in the work, then really, you can do anything. I know it sounds corny, but my mom always said that to me when I was a kid like, ‘Nate you can learn to do anything you like. Anything.’”
Getting from Nova Scotia to the NBA, however, was a path without a blueprint. Or it had been, until Darling and fellow Nova Scotian G Leaguer Lindell Wigginton came onto the scene. Despite the lack of examples for Darling to refer to, he knew there would need to be some big personal sacrifices in order to put himself into a position where making the leap to the NBA could be possible.
“I kind of just realized at a young age that going to prep school is the way to get to D1,” Darling said. “I saw that Andrew Wiggins and those big-time [Canadian] guys who are a couple of years older than me, that was their path. And in my head, I was like, ‘OK, that's how I get to be in D1.’”
A serendipitous meeting helped Darling turn his next step into a reality.
“I wanted to go to D1. In my head, I was like, ‘If I really want to go somewhere, I gotta get out of here.’ And then when I started looking for schools, DeMatha’s [Catholic High School], strength coach, Alan Stein, came to do a camp in Nova Scotia, which is crazy, but then he invited me down to DeMatha and I was just all over it.”
At the age of 14, Darling and his family made the difficult decision to transfer to DeMatha, in Hyattsville, Maryland. Though he knew he wanted to do whatever he could to help himself get closer to his ultimate basketball goal, it was a momentous decision for Darling to make.
“That was really tough for my family,” Darling said. “And for me at the time, but I just was so goal-orientated at that age. I knew I wanted to do it and the opportunity came up. I was like, ‘I gotta do it, guys. Like I got to.’’’
Despite the distance, Darling made sure to speak to his family every day, something he still fits into his daily schedule in between practices, games and workouts. Though Darling’s decision to go to DeMatha definitely played a part in where he is today, he says it almost didn’t happen.
“It was definitely a crazy situation that kind of just fell into my lap and I almost didn't go to the camp,” Darling said. “Alan Stein is all like kinds of footwork and strength and stability. And so I was like, ‘I'm cool,’ but my dad was like, ‘He works for DeMatha, dude. Like, you should go.”
Darling names Steve Nash as his favourite player when he was growing up. In recent years, it’s been Steph Curry. Outside of Curry, Darling says he often looks to players who remind him of himself and his own game.
“I like guys who aren’t supposed to be where they are,” he said. “Where it's like, you know they worked super hard and figured out how to do it. Those guys kind of give me inspiration that I can do it, too, if I just do the right things.”
Doing the right thing has come naturally to Darling. During his time in the bubble, he enjoyed spending time by the pool, soaking up the Florida sun while his family back in Nova Scotia were waiting for the Canadian winter to end. Spending his free time reading -- mostly sci-fi books, sometimes history books -- or doing yoga, Darling is big on keeping his mind clear so he can focus on the task at hand.
“I definitely visualize and I meditate,” Darling said. “I do yoga. I feel like the mind is a lot more capable than people think it is. And once you tap into that or [realize it], your belief in yourself is just huge. My best games are when I'm the most confident. If you’re timid or not aggressive or not feeling confident, that is when you're not playing well.”
The next step for Darling is continuing to adjust to the NBA game. His time with the Swarm helped the transition, but there’s little substitute for getting game reps and playing time to help a player find his footing in the NBA.
“It’s an adjustment period, but I feel like I’m starting to adjust pretty well,” Darling said. “I think the pace of the game is obviously faster, more athletic. I’m still figuring out how quick I can get my shot off. These guys can close out really quick, they’re super athletic.”
Every NBA rookie has to get accustomed to the grind of the NBA. Mitchell thinks Darling is handling the jump well.
“He wants to shoot, he wants to get better, he wants to learn," Mitchell said. “He’s shown his ability to make shots at this level. With his work ethic and ability to get better, he’s just gotta stay after it.”
For Canadians who maybe haven’t had a chance to see much of Darling’s game just yet, Michell provided a scouting report.
“He’s a really, really good shooter,” Mitchell said. “He can really shoot the ball. He can catch and shoot it, he’s working on other things right now [as well]. I told him to look at guys like Seth Curry, JJ Redick, guys who play off the ball like that, who are elite guys at coming off screens and shooting. He has that type of talent, to be able to shoot the ball that way. That’s his skill that’s gotten him this far. He’s continuing to develop this skill and that will be what makes his mark in the NBA.”
In addition to making his own mark, Darling wants to be an example for other young Nova Scotians with their own hoop dreams. Though he didn’t have examples of his own to look toward when he was up late at night, dribbling the basketball in his driveway in Nova Scotia, he hopes that his story will let fellow Nova Scotians know that making the NBA is an attainable goal.
“I think people should believe in themselves more,” Darling said. “Give themselves more credit. Go and see what they can do.”