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“He definitely has swag”: Get to know Raptors’ new coach Rajakovic

Darko Rajakovic Darko Rajakovic - Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

TORONTO – There’s a four-letter word that Darko Rajakovic likes to use, and it’s not one that you would generally associate with a mild-mannered middle-aged European dude.

It became something of a tagline during his three-year tenure as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies.

“His buzzword is ‘swag’,” said Damichael Cole, Grizzlies beat reporter for The Commercial Appeal in Tennessee. “It’s kind of funny because any time someone mentions the word swag with the players you’ll get a laugh out of Jaren Jackson Jr. or Desmond Bane or one of those guys and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, Darko says it all the time.’”

“He wants them to play with swag. And it’s kind of rubbed off on [head coach] Taylor Jenkins and now you have him saying it as well. But it’s all from Darko. That’s his persona, his personality.”

There’s more to Rajakovic than meets the eye, as the Raptors learned over a comprehensive seven-week interview process that came to an end on Saturday when the 44-year-old native of Serbia was chosen to be the franchise’s next head coach.

The hiring – which will be made official ahead of his introductory press conference on Tuesday – caught some people by surprise, inside and outside of the league. He’s not exactly a household name, not yet anyway, but those who know him knew that this was coming eventually.

With a wealth of experience coaching the game at different levels around the globe, a unique basketball mind and a diverse set of skills, Rajakovic has spent nearly three decades preparing for this opportunity and the folks who have crossed paths with him along the way – from players to fellow coaches and executives – are confident that he’s ready for it.

“I could see it, for sure,” said Danny Green, the NBA veteran and former Raptors guard who spent part of last season with Memphis rehabbing his way back from a knee injury and watching Rajakovic work. “I didn’t think it would happen this fast but I knew he was definitely capable of being a head coach someday. He operated like a head coach. He’s very good at breaking things down and talking to the group in that manner. Certain people you can look at and say ‘I could never see them as a head coach’, or ‘he doesn’t seem sure of himself’, or not yet anyway. But I could see him being in that role.”

After joining the Grizzlies in 2020, fresh off a season on Monty Williams’ staff with Phoenix and five years as an assistant in Oklahoma City, Rajakovic quickly established himself as Jenkins’ right-hand man. He was the yin to Jenkins’ yang. When the more animated head coach would get hot over a botched call, missed defensive assignment or bad turnover, Rajakovic was there to pull him aside and reel him back in. But don’t confuse his cool, calming presence for passivity. There’s plenty of fight in him, that unexpected swagger. He was also the guy who would routinely sprint to the end of the coaching box to point something out that Taylor might have missed, communicate with the officials or direct traffic on the floor.

“There’s a commanding presence there,” Cole said. “He was very involved in what’s been happening with the Grizzlies over the last few years.”

In Memphis, Rajakovic helped guide the Grizzlies’ impressive turnaround, going from a 34-win club the year before his arrival to a contender in the Western Conference, all while featuring one of the league’s youngest rosters. His well-earned reputation for being among the best player development coaches in the game surely contributed to their ascension.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Rajakovic never played high-level basketball. He took up coaching as a 16-year-old in his hometown and never looked back. After honing his craft in Serbia and then in Spain, he cut his teeth in the G League for the Thunder’s Tulsa-based affiliate, where he helped shape Reggie Jackson, Andre Roberson and Jeremy Lamb into future NBA rotation players.

In his first full-time NBA gig, serving as an assistant under Scott Brooks and then Billy Donovan in OKC, Rajakovic was assigned to work with a young, emerging forward by the name of Serge Ibaka. For two straight summers, he would travel to Spain and oversee Ibaka’s off-season training program.

“I loved working individually with Darko,” Ibaka told TSN on Monday. “Everyone knows Serbian coaches are very good at fundamentals and his detailed approach helped me get better. Back then I was a centre trying to develop more skills outside the paint and having a European coach dedicated to me made a difference. He also speaks Spanish perfectly so that was also a bonus when working together.”

When Williams got the head-coaching job in Phoenix ahead of the 2019-20 campaign, he brought Rajakovic – who he shared the bench with in OKC – along to run the offence. In his lone season with the Suns, he worked closely with sophomore guard Mikal Bridges and rookie forward Cameron Johnson – the centrepieces of the deal that landed them Kevin Durant years later – who have both credited Rajakovic for his part in their growth.

With Memphis, he was assigned to the team’s wing players and forwards, with an emphasis on turning them into better and more comfortable playmakers. The jump was most noticeable in Bane, the Grizzlies’ rising star and another Rajakovic pupil, who went from averaging 2.7 assists as a sophomore to 4.4 last season. The team has also seen improvement from Jackson, the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year, who took a step forward offensively in his fifth year, and sophomore forward Ziaire Williams.

“When I think Darko, the D is for development,” Cole joked. “That’s right up his alley.”

Now, he will be tasked with helping Scottie Barnes reach the next level in his game. It’s not a stretch to say that the Raptors’ future hinges on the development of the young forward. It’s a big reason why Rajakovic stood out in their coaching search, being that the franchise’s most important player is a 21-year-old fresh off an underwhelming sequel to his promising rookie season, but it’s not the only reason.

Rajakovic is a players’ coach through and through. He has a natural ability to connect with anybody, from the guy at the very top of the roster – Durant in OKC, Devin Booker in Phoenix or Ja Morant in Memphis – all the way down to the players at the end of the bench. He’s multilingual, which doesn’t hurt in communicating with his international players, and he makes a concerted effort to get to know guys and their families outside of basketball.

Do a quick reference check – or a thorough one, in Toronto’s case – and you’ll see that his approval rating is high. You would be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t speak highly of Rajakovic or wish him well.

“Darko is a good man,” said one-time Raptors guard Ben Uzoh, who played for Rajakovic in the G League nearly a decade ago. “His basketball development, discipline, accountability and yet still personable personality are all what this [Raptors] team needs.”

“He’s a great person, a great coach, very detailed,” Green said. “He’s the right guy for the job. He earned it. He deserves it.”

While his track record for bringing out the best in young teams and young players is one of the first things that comes up when speaking to his former co-workers, a few of them also noted that typecasting him as ‘the development guy’ does him a disservice.

“He’s obviously very good at that, but I hate when people get labelled a certain way and it’s not the whole picture,” said a long-time NBA assistant coach who has worked with Rajakovic. “I would say that he’s very organized, very detailed and very diverse. The biggest thing that I think he brings is he’s a great teacher of the game on both sides of the ball.”

“I’m extremely happy for him. I think that [Toronto] hit a home run and people will realize it once he gets there. I couldn’t tell you [what kind of head coach he’ll be], I don’t have that answer, but I do know he’ll be prepared.”

It’s hard to know exactly what you can expect from any rookie head coach. In nine seasons as an NBA assistant, Rajakovic’s teams have only missed the playoffs twice and finished below .500 once. With Phoenix and Memphis, his teams tended to play fast and move the ball at a high rate, which are things the Raptors would certainly welcome. Those who are familiar with Rajakovic’s core philosophies point to his emphasis on pick and roll offence and quick decision-making. Of course, it’s difficult, verging on impossible to attribute a team’s success, failure or even its play style to any one coach, let alone an assistant coach.

For some, the transition to the big chair can be daunting. It’s a very different gig, with more pressure and a lot more responsibility on and off the court. You’re being pulled in varying directions at once – daily media availabilities, calls from agents and player representatives, scheduling practices around travel, delegating tasks to your assistants and taking feedback from management, all while handling primary play-calling duties and managing relationships throughout the organization.

With the Raptors in a state of disarray, coming off a disappointing season and going into an off-season that could be franchise altering, Rajakovic will be tested early. Fortunately, it doesn’t seem like he rattles easily.

“This guys is a basketball lifer,” said Cole. “This is a guy who’s earned respect, he knows what he’s doing, how to talk it. I think this is a big move for him but the stage won’t be too big.”

“He definitely has swag,” Ibaka said. “[It’s] because of his way of coaching, his teaching method, his basketball philosophy, the way he expresses himself and the passion he has for the game.”