Darko Rajakovic: “More and more NBA coaches study EuroLeague”

2023-07-06T20:09:53+00:00 2023-07-06T20:09:53+00:00.

Giannis Askounis

06/Jul/23 20:09


The Toronto Raptors hiring Serbian tactician Darko Rajakovic as the new head coach confirms the increasing rate of Europe’s influence in the NBA

By Johnny Askounis/ info@eurohoops.net

The second European and also Serbian head coach in the NBA, Darko Rajakovic is ready to take on the biggest challenge of his career. From working under Sasha Djordjevic and borrowing brilliant plays from the Serbia senior national team to sharing his birthplace with legendary play-caller Zeljko Obradovic, all looks of being destined to succeed with the Toronto Raptors.

Rajakovic, 44, talked to Basketball Sphere about being appointed as the new head coach of the Raptors, Djordjevic, Obradovic, and more.

“Europe has a great influence on the NBA,” he explained during the interview, “There are more and more NBA coaches, who study, watch, and respect the EuroLeague and European coaches.”

“I come from Serbia. I was always close to the ABA League, the Spanish League, or the EuroLeague. I always learned from the best coaches. I was looking to “steal” knowledge from them,” he said, “Whenever I could apply it in working with my teams in order to help us, we used all these things. Not only in offense but also in defense. I will certainly continue to do that now in Toronto.”

“The process was long”

Guiding the Phoenix Suns through the 2018-19 season, Igor Kokoskov, currently an assistant at the Atlanta Hawks, emerged as the first play-caller from Europe in the NBA. Following up, Rajakovic looks to add to Europe’s growing impact in the league.

“Impressions are slowly coming together,” he described joining the lone NBA franchise based in Canada, “Every day I have more and more opportunities to get to know people and how the organization works, which is one of the best, if not the best, in the NBA. This concerns the structure, the people who work in the franchise, the experience they have, and the continuity of success. Everything was brought to the highest level.”

Besides Rajakovic, Italian Sergio Scariolo and Spanish Jordi Fernandez were also considered for the job.

“The process was long. There were different parts of the interview and conversation,” he recalled commenting on talks with the Raptors, “Everything was organized from early in the morning until late in the evening. We had discussions regarding the team and my offensive and defensive philosophy. We talked about the players, the organization. In connection with that, which people would I bring to the coaching staff. We touched on all the points that would concern our joint cooperation and how it would all look like if we were together.”

Path to Toronto

Before taking over the Raptors, his coaching career starting at 16 expanded to the NBA with jobs at the Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns, and Memphis Grizzlies since 2014. Earlier experience included head-coaching gigs with the Tulsa 66ers in the G League and Espacio Torrelodones in Spain’s fourth-tier division between 2009 and 2014. Working at the youth level for Crvena Zvezda and Borac Cacak combined from 1996 to 2007.

“After working in Crvena Zvezda, I felt the need to learn and improve. I just wanted to see a different work system,” he shared, “At that moment, the Spanish national team was making great results. They had the best domestic league, and they still have it. So it was inspiring for me to try myself in a different environment.”

“It turned out to be the right move because there I learned a lot of things that prepared me for the G League,” said Rajakovic, “First of all, in terms of interpersonal relations, professionalism, approach to games. I was able in Spain to upgrade the basic education I received in Serbia.”

Sasha Djordjevic’s play turns to Dario [Saric] cut

Moving to his contributions to the NBA as an assistant, picking the ‘Dario cut’ and revealing the origin shapes a direct connection to working with Djordjevic for Serbia.

“I really liked the action that Aleksandar Djordjevic used with the national team. I later showed it to Monty Williams, who also liked it because of the different options he has from that offense, so we used that action for us back then in Phoenix,” he remembered the ‘Dario cut’ in reference to Croatian forward Dario Saric.

“Zeljko is a good friend”

Both Rajakovic and Obradovic were born in Cacak. A 19-year gap between them, but the common birthplace helped forge a mentoring relationship.

“Zeljko is a good friend and my great mentor. The man I learn from,” he stressed, “Whenever I’m in Serbia, when we have the opportunity to be together, we meet and talk about basketball. We try to spend quality time.”

Building around Scottie Barnes

An eventful offseason for the Raptors went beyond hiring a new head coach. Among tasks, Rajakovic is expected to use expertise in player development, besides producing wins.

“Scottie is so talented that the future of the team can be built around him, and we will do that,” he underlined on the 2022 NBA Rookie of the Year, Scottie Barnes, “He is an excellent passer, has a good overview of the game, is creative. He can play in pick and roll, on post-up. He is excellent in transition, so many things are already good in his game. It needs to be at an even higher level.”

“This should be connected with him improving his three-point shooting, in order to open up even more space for himself and the team in that segment,” added the Serbian boss.

“He wants to be the Defensive Player of the Year. This is his great ambition,” highlighted Rajakovic, “He wants to continue to develop in this direction. It’s very encouraging when you hear something like that from a young player.”

Selecting Gradey Dick with the 13th overall pick of the 2023 NBA draft marked the arrival of the next prospect in Toronto.

“Gradey is a great shooter, but he is also a very talented guy in general. He has a great feeling for passing the ball, for timing. He also has good cooperation with teammates on the court,” Rajakovic previewed the Kansas product, “He will be able to develop, to be complete both offensively and defensively. There is no team in the world that says it needs fewer shooters. Everyone needs more. We were in a great situation because he was available at the 13th pick and we could take him.”

Connecting with Masai Ujiri

The interview additionally featured the promising prospect of a joint effort with Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ president.

“First of all, he is a great man and a fantastic leader. He has great confidence in the people he works with. They are great professionals and loyal to him. Likewise, he is a man who knows how to recognize talented players and form a team so that it competes at a high level, achieves results, and develops. He crowned all that by winning the title in 2019,” he referred to the lone championship of the franchise.

Signing German point guard Dennis Schroder added to the European pack in Toronto, including returning Austrian center Jakob Poelt.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

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