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Raptors and Rajakovic make a good match, but they’ve got work to do

Darko Rajakovic Masai Ujiri Darko Rajakovic Masai Ujiri - The Canadian Press

TORONTO – When Darko Rajakovic was a teenager growing up in his native Serbia, he reached a personal and professional crossroads.

At 15 years of age, he had just stopped playing organized basketball and wasn’t doing well in school.

“To be honest with you, it was like the world crashed for me,” Rajakovic recalled. “I just lost my identity.”

What he didn’t realize was that his life was about to change forever, in more ways than one. He was invited to coach a youth basketball camp in his hometown. He even remembers the date it started: August 2, 1996.

He watched the kids – aged seven to eight – play and learn the game and saw their improvement over the course of the week. He was hooked. That’s when he fell in love with coaching.

Oh, and it’s also how he met his wife, Gaga, whose younger brother was one of his campers.

“It was just my path and I’ve really enjoyed every step of it,” Rajakovic said after he was introduced as the Toronto Raptors’ new head coach on Tuesday. “There were times like everybody else, in every other profession, where you’re doubting [yourself]. Is this the right thing? Can I do it? But I never gave up. I never gave up, I continued grinding and working and doing the right things by the teams that I worked on and by the people [I worked with].”

Those qualities have served the 44-year-old well over his three decades in coaching; they’re also attributes that stood out to Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster, allowing him to make it out of an extensive seven-week interview process and become a first-time NBA head coach.

His resume is impressive, having been a head coach overseas and in the G League and spent the past 10 years working for some well-regarded organizations in Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Memphis as an assistant. Tactically, he’s got a good mind for the game. But more than anything else, it’s his presence that sets him apart.

He’s not exactly a household name. Around the league, he’s not especially well known, at least not by NBA standards. It doesn’t even sound like the Raptors knew much about him when they began their coaching search in April, having just let Nick Nurse go. Initially, Rajakovic wasn’t a frontrunner to land the job, as Webster confirmed on Tuesday, but he exceeded their expectations at every step of the process. The more time they spent with him, the more impressed they were.

That’s Darko. He’s made a whole career of it. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has worked with the basketball lifer who doesn’t speak highly of him or wish him well. Listen to him speak for even a couple minutes and it’s not hard to see why. There’s a charisma to him, a salt-of-the-earth charm.

What does he want people to know about him?

“I am a family guy, I’m a basketball junkie and I’m a big-time espresso connoisseur,” he told TSN in an exclusive sit-down interview following his intro press conference. “I’m just a normal human being. I like to treat people the right way, I’m all about trust and building relationships with players, with the people on the staff and everybody in the organization and everybody in the city, with our fans as well.”

“I know it’s change and sometimes change is hard,” Ujiri said. “But we believe change is good and change is a good thing for our ball club and our organization now.”

Ujiri and the Raptors are touting the Rajakovic hiring as the dawn of a new era for the franchise. It’s a new day, a new beginning. But is it?

They held Tuesday’s presser outdoors, so that’s new.

Rajakovic has already started the process of putting together a new and “diverse” coaching staff, essentially from scratch – “I’m one of those coaches that wants to be challenged,” he said. “I want people that are going to be very honest with me, to help me and to help the team. I think we’re on a great path to bring amazing people here.”

They’ve got a new voice, and that should make a difference. Rajakovic comes at the job with a positive approach and, clearly, he has a passion for the game. That’s not to say that Nurse didn’t possess those attributes as well, but after missing the playoffs in two of three years, most would agree it was time for a different perspective, a different message (Nurse included).

Something was missing from last season’s team. OK, a whole bunch of things were missing, but something intangible was off all year. Call it joy, good vibes or swagger – a word that Rajakovic often used in his previous stops. Ujiri has referenced the culture, something they spent a decade working to build and seemingly lost in the span of a few months. With a different voice, maybe they can get it back, or build a new one?

“I cannot testify to what was here before,” Rajakovic said. “I know what I stand for, and talking to Masai and Bobby and everybody in the organization, we have this shared vision of what culture needs to be for us. It’s having respect for each other and having a hard work ethic and working for each other. If we have that and our players embrace that, the sky is the limit for us.”

With the 13th pick in this month’s draft, three key players expected to become free agents after that, and then some doubt regarding their intended direction, the real question is: what type of roster will Rajakovic have to work with when training camp opens in late September?

“We did talk about it and those conversations are ongoing,” Rajakovic said of the team’s uncertain future. “But at the end of the day, Masai and Bobby are the ones responsible and they’re people I have absolute trust in. They’re going to make the right decisions, the best decisions for the team. Whatever decisions those guys make, I’ll be able to follow their lead and to coach the team that we have in front of us.”

Hypothetically, though, let’s say the Raptors opt for status quo this summer. What if they bring back some combination of Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl and Gary Trent Jr. and leave the rest of the core as is? What does that imply about the previous regime? Insisting that change was needed, swapping out the coach and then keeping the top of the roster intact wouldn’t be fair to Nurse and his staff. And given the fundamental flaws in the roster as currently constructed, it wouldn’t be fair to Rajakovic and his staff either.

Will the new era include jump shooters or players that can initiate offence in the half court? Will it include depth behind VanVleet at the guard position? Will it even include VanVleet, who predictably declined his player option for next season on Monday and will officially become a free agent next month? Rajakovic spoke to VanVleet over the phone this past weekend and is planning to sit down with him in person soon, for what it’s worth.

“Fred is an amazing basketball player, he’s a winning basketball player,” he said. “His leadership, his voice and everything that he brings to the team, those are intangibles and those are needed for our team.”

Will the players find Rajakovic as charming as the team’s brass did and buy into his system? They’re probably not going to read his dissertation on the pick and roll, after all. Can he work his development magic on Scottie Barnes, who fell short of the lofty expectations in Year 2?

“Oh my God, that guy is a tremendous talent,” Rajakovic said of the 21-year-old former Rookie of the Year. “Everything that I’m hearing about him as a person, how he brings the energy to the gym, the way he’s working and improving, I’m really, really excited to meet him in person and get on the floor with him.”

Regardless of the path the Raptors choose over the coming months, they believe that Rajakovic is the right fit, and that’s good, that’s the way it should be. It’s the NBA and too much can change in a short enough period of time to be hiring coaches on the whim of, as Webster put it, “a specific team or a specific style of play or even a specific moment in time.”

In Rajakovic, the Raptors found a grinder, the type of coach who puts in the work and doesn’t need or want attention or credit but simply asks, “How can I serve?” That’s not a bad person to be invested in or tied to for the foreseeable future. But even after scratching ‘hire a coach’ off their lengthy off-season to-do list, collectively, there’s still plenty of work to be done before they can reasonably call this a new era.