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Through adversity, Rajakovic passes first test as Raptors head coach


TORONTO – Darko Rajakovic’s trial by fire is nearly complete.

With his first season as an NBA head coach reaching its merciful conclusion this weekend, the Raptors’ bench boss has had just about everything thrown at him.

From an unprecedented lawsuit implicating him and several members of his staff in the alleged theft of proprietary information before coaching his first game to a late-season gambling scandal involving one his players, franchise-altering trades, season-ending injuries and an ever-changing roster, few have been tested like Rajakovic has right out of the gate.

But in spite of the many challenges he and his team have faced on their way to a 25-55 record, with only two games in Miami remaining on the schedule, there’s something commendable about the way they’re closing out a lost campaign.

You could see it in the way they fought to upset the second-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and avoid a historic losing streak last week, or in the way the inactive starters supported their young teammates from the bench at the end of a surprisingly competitive Game 80 defeat in Brooklyn on Wednesday.

The Raptors have now dropped 17 of their last 19 contests, a stretch that included their 15-game skid. They’ve been without their all-star and best player, Scottie Barnes, and starting centre, Jakob Poeltl, since they each underwent hand surgery in early March. They’ve played games without most of – and, in a few cases, all – their regular starters and, as such, have suffered some of the franchise’s worst losses ever.

But where other teams may have thrown in the towel, splintered or tuned out the coach, this one hasn’t. That’s a credit to the leader of the locker room, a man whose message and sunny temperament have not wavered from his first day on the job.

“More times than not, the team is going to take on the coach’s disposition,” veteran Garrett Temple said of Rajakovic. “This is his first time having a head coaching job in this league, but honestly, wherever he’s been before I would venture to guess he hasn’t had this much change, this many variables, this many things happen. So, he’s done a great job of keeping the team even keeled.”

“No matter what the situation is, no matter what the circumstances are, whether he’s got five G Leaguers out there playing at one time, his approach every day has been beautiful,” Gary Trent Jr. told TSN earlier this week. “He came into a tough situation and knew there was going to be a learning curve, but Darko has been great. Second to none when it comes to making sure team camaraderie is good, making sure everybody is still focused in, trying to make sure everybody feels included, making everybody feel like they’re cared about and thought about.” 

Those qualities were considered prerequisites when the Raptors began their coaching search last summer. No disrespect to Nick Nurse, a clever tactician who spent 10 years in Toronto, including five as a head coach, and led the club to its first ever championship in 2019. But after last season’s team fell short of expectations and seemed divided on the way to a 41-41 finish and play-in tournament elimination, the organization was looking for something different. Rajakovic wasn’t among the frontrunners going into the extensive interview process, but he stood out for his positivity and his ability to relate to and connect with players.

The 45-year-old came with rave reviews from his peers, players and former employers. With nearly three decades of experience as a coach in his native Serbia, Spain, the G League and as an assistant in the NBA, the Raptors felt that he could command the respect of their veteran core, assuming they had opted to keep it together beyond this season. But in the event that they decided to go younger and pivot towards a rebuild, Rajakovic’s background in player development would make him an ideal fit.

“At the end of the day, every player wants to get better and from my experience that does not have an expiration date,” Rajakovic said. “That's my approach with all the players on the roster, doesn't matter if they're rookies or veteran players. I'm trying to help them the best way I can to be better, to be better for themselves and to be better for the team. I do think [my experience has] helped me in a lot of situations to connect with them better.”

As an assistant in his previous stops – Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Memphis – Rajakovic worked closely with former Raptor Serge Ibaka, All-NBA guard Devin Booker and a couple of emerging stars in Mikal Bridges and Desmond Bane, among several others, and many have credited him for his part in their growth.

The demands of his new gig make it more difficult to devote one-on-one time to any particular player, but that hasn’t stopped Rajakovic, who’s frequently on the court working with guys after practice. He’s also looking forward to doing more hands-on teaching over the summer. However, his innate ability to connect with people transcends basketball. It’s in his daily interactions that have gone a long way in building trust with his players.

“Whether it’s a simple conversation of how you’re doing or randomly bringing guys into his office throughout the season just to see where they’re at mentally, he has a positive mindset and a professional approach,” Trent said.

After a win over Washington this past weekend, Rajakovic was asked about Jalen McDaniels, who was benched after four underwhelming first-half minutes. McDaniels broke training camp in the rotation and has been given multiple chances to carve out a regular role this season. To say he hasn’t run away with those opportunities is putting it kindly. The response said more about Rajakovic and his approach than it did about the struggling forward.

“I am still hopeful he can figure it out and help us,” the head coach said of McDaniels, who’s under contract through next season. “I think he’s a very talented basketball player… He just needs to find that niche on the court, to bring the energy, especially on the defensive end. So, I think he’s going to have a great summer. I think he’s going to put a lot of work in. I think next year he’s going to be able to be in the rotation and really help us.”

Rajakovic’s belief in and support of his players have not gone unnoticed in the locker room. By all accounts, the first-year head coach isn’t afraid to challenge his guys or show them tough love in a private setting when necessary, but to this day, he’s yet to call anybody out publically, as his predecessor was known to do.

“You might not hear something or a problem [he was having with you] until you heard it from the media,” Trent said of his former head coach. “Which is fine. He gave me an opportunity of a lifetime that coaches never had before, ever, so I have nothing but love for Nick Nurse. But just something like that makes it kinda different.”

“Darko does an amazing job trying to keep everybody included, everybody focused, everybody locked in. You can trust him. He believes in you. It’s a lot of different things that he’s doing, whether he’s making jokes, being relatable, keeping the energy high, the positive vibes.”

That’s been especially important during such a tumultuous season. In less than six weeks between the end of the 2023 calendar year and the February trade deadline, the front office completely overhauled the roster that Rajakovic was given a couple months earlier.

They moved eight players in four separate deals, including franchise cornerstones Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby. 30 different players appeared in at least one game for Toronto this season – the most in club history. Through it all, Rajakovic was tasked with coaching multiple iterations of this team, while navigating tragic personal loss (the passing of his close friend and Warriors assistant coach Dejan Milojevic, RJ Barrett’s younger brother Nathan, and Immanuel Quickley’s uncle Shawn Hamilton) and jump-starting a rebuild.

“It looks like I’ve had every possible scenario thrown at me this year and I’m trying to figure it out,” Rajakovic said ahead of the Mar. 25 game against Brooklyn, less than an hour before ESPN reported that the league was investigating Raptors big man Jontay Porter for his involvement in betting irregularities. “I'm learning a lot. I'm learning how to get myself in the best possible state that I can to help us be competitive every single night.”

“That's just how I’m wired; I want to win, and that's what I'm trying to translate to our team as well.”

It hasn’t always been pretty, but considering it took a lot less to fracture last year’s team, Rajakovic deserves credit for keeping this group together and getting them to buy in. While it’s not reflected in their record or their offensive rating – they rank 24th going into the penultimate game of the season on Friday – the Raptors have played a more free-flowing, selfless style of basketball under their new coach. They’re fifth in the league in assists, up from 23rd a year ago.

With more experience, consistency and, eventually, talent, the hope is success will follow. If their young foundational pieces – Barnes, Barrett, Quickley and rookie Gradey Dick – can continue to make gains like they have throughout the campaign, it should come in time.

It can be tough to evaluate players in lopsided games over the course of a lost season, and it’s even more difficult to evaluate a coach under those circumstances.

Is Rajakovic a good head coach? Can he become a great head coach? We may not know for certain until the Raptors reach the point where they are competitive every night.

What we can say, as his first season in Toronto comes to a close, is that he’s undoubtedly a great teacher and a proven leader, which makes him the right head coach for this team.