Raptors lean into international identity with hiring of Darko Rajakovic

Rajakovic becomes just the second European head coach in NBA history.

The Toronto Raptors stand apart from most organizations around the NBA for a variety of reasons. For one, they are the only team based outside of the United States. For another, they embrace it.

If the Raptors wanted — and they mostly did before Masai Ujiri took over as team president in 2013 — they could have pretended they were just like everybody else, ignoring the cultural and economic barriers and advantages of being based in Toronto, Canada and trying to be an attractive organization in spite of their geographical differences.

Instead, the Raptors have increasingly gone in the opposite direction in recent years, doubling-down on their differences and using them as a way to stand out as an atypical yet attractive international market for players, coaches and fans alike. The hiring of Darko Rajaković as the 10th head coach in franchise history was the latest such move, with Rajakovic becoming just the second European head coach in NBA history.

After spending the past three seasons as an assistant coach with the Memphis Grizzlies where he became the right-hand man to head coach Taylor Jenkins, Rajakovic joins the Raptors with a good amount of NBA experience. He was an NBA development coach, an assistant and a G League head coach in Oklahoma City between 2012 and 2019 before spending a season as an assistant in Phoenix in 2019-20.

But that isn’t all Rajakovic brings to the table. In fact, Rajakovic is one of the more respected international coaches in the world. And it’s those experiences that set Rajakovic apart from the 14 other coaching candidates the Raptors interviewed during this lengthy hiring process.

"This means the world to me," Rajakovic said during his introductory press conference on Tuesday. "It means so much to the Serbian community here in Toronto. A lot of people reached out to me. It means a lot to my family back home and the whole basketball community in Serbia... I’m just proud to be here today and to represent."

Rajakovic began his coaching journey at age 16 with the Borac Cacak Youth Team in his hometown of Cacak, Serbia After three seasons with Borac Cacak between 1996 and 1999, he was named the head coach of the U20 and U18 teams of Red Star Belgrade — one of the best and most successful basketball clubs in Serbian history thanks in part to Rajakovic, who led them to two Serbian Youth championships during his eight-year tenure between 1999 and 2007.

Rajakovic then moved to Spain where he was the head coach of Espacio Torrelodones in the lower rungs of Spanish basketball for three successful seasons between 2009 and 2012. He led the team to the championship of the Primera Division de Baloncesto in Madrid in his first year there.

“To be a coach in Europe, you gotta go through school. And I finished the basketball school for coaches in Serbia. When I came to Spain, they made me go to school again. I had to do that this time in Spanish,” Rajakovic, who speaks six languages including Serbian, Spanish and English, said at his opening press conference in Toronto on Tuesday.

“I think that I had a great baseline to learn about biomechanics, to learn about sociology, to learn about psychology, to learn about so many different aspects that are important for the game. So understanding from that perspective, how the game is played and developed, I think is going to be my big strength in working with everybody in the organization.”

From 2004-11, in addition to his coaching duties, Rajakovic simultaneously served as European scouting consultant and NBA Summer League assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs, his first NBA experience. That’s where he was influenced by the Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker-era Spurs and adopted some key principles of their offense, which Rajakovic calls the "point-five [second] offense" and is predicated on making quick, selfless decisions and passing up good shots for great ones.

Masai Ujiri introduced new Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic on Tuesday. (CP Photos)
Masai Ujiri introduced new Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic on Tuesday. (CP Photos)

On the international stage, the 44-year-old was an assistant coach for Serbia at the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China, helping his country led by Nikola Jokic place fifth at the tournament. He received a basketball coaching degree from the Belgrade Basketball Academy in 2004 and a sports management degree from Alfa BK University in Belgrade in 2006.

“I am Serbian, and I'm an international coach with a broad experience in the NBA,” Rajakovic said about his diverse coaching background. “I will say, every time when my season is over, I go back and I watch Euro League and I watch the best teams and learn from the best coaches. But I also watch college and learn from the best college coaches and I learn from the NBA. Learning in this profession does not stop.”

While having a diverse set of coaching experiences around the world is one thing, having endorsements from a diverse set of players is another even more impressive attribute that Rajakovic brings to the table. Since being hired by the Raptors on Saturday, the list of former players who have congratulated or endorsed Rajakovic includes 33-year-old Congo-native Serge Ibaka and 29-year-old New Zealand-native Steven Adams, who Rajakovic worked with in Oklahoma City as young players; 24-year-old Desmond Bane, who credits Rajakovic for helping him develop into a better playmaker in Memphis; 35-year-old Danny Green, who was with him for just a half a season in Memphis before getting traded; 21-year-old Ziaire Williams, who said “the way that he reads the game, it’s pretty different. I haven’t seen it before, honestly.”

And, of course, 2023 NBA Champion and fellow Serb Jokic, who said about Rajakovic during the NBA FInals: “I love it. He’s a great guy and I really appreciate him. He’s [been] here for a long, long time — I’m going to say 10 years — from a G League coach to the head coach in the NBA. I think it [shows] a lot of respect for him and his work. I think he deserves it. He’s seen a lot, he’s been through a lot... He’s going to do a great job there.”

His diverse set of coaching experiences and success connecting with and developing players was a big part of the reason Rajakovic got the Raptors job, which “He didn't go in [to] as the favorite,” according to Raptors General Manager Bobby Webster. “I think we were really open-minded with the approach and who we wanted to look at and just every step of the way he just exceeded our expectations and just really impressed us,” Webster said on Tuesday. “...That was a huge part of trying to get perspective from former players that he's coached.”

After all, Rajakovic’s Serbian roots and international coaching experiences are what shaped him into the person and coach he is today. And just like the Raptors as a whole, the coach he is today is unique.

Rajakovic is unlike most of the typical (American) coaching candidates that seemingly get the same interviews and the same jobs every summer around the NBA. He is relatively unknown and very unproven in the NBA head coaching space, and while going outside the box with a hire that comes from such a different cultural background than most of the Raptors core players is a risk — after all, Rajakovic is yet to meet 21-year-old Florida-native and franchise cornerstone Scottie Barnes — it’s one that is welcomed by the organization. The Raptors find themselves desperate for some sort of change following an all-around disappointing season, and Rajakovic brings a wholly new attitude to the table.

One example of Rajakovic’s different way of thinking is his approach building relationships with players. While most NBA head coaches would admit to not having the time or energy to get to know players off the court in addition to all of the on-court responsibilities coaches have to contend with, Rajakovic is the opposite. Perhaps because of his past experiences and his coaching mentors — which includes European coaches like Zeljko Obradovic, Sergio Scariolo, and Pablo Laso as well as Americans such as Scott Brooks, Monty Williams and Jenkins — Rajakovic believes the key to connecting with players is “to be very invested in them as human beings.”

He went on to say “I see every player as a person with family. Whatever is going on in those lives, I want those guys to know and to feel that I really care about them. I really want to connect with those guys on a personal level. When they know how much I love them and care about them, I have a strong belief that we’re gonna come together as a group and be ready to take it to another level.”

“I think we are seeing a bit more of that approach with the players and sort of an interpersonal approach and getting to know them,” Webster said about the way the league is heading regarding the philosophy of new coaches. “I'm sure we see it around society is like this next generation of kids that are coming up and how do you manage them? How do you criticize them? How do you support them and pump them up? And I think that's a really important skill. And I think Darko has it.”

The work starts now for Rajakovic, who is tasked with bringing together a bunch of talented yet disparate parts and turning them into a Capital-T Team as soon as the 2023-24 regular season begins in October. The hope is that an outsider who had no former relationships with Raptors brass prior to the hiring process can inject a new spirit and culture into the team and get them all on the same page in order to play good, hard, organized basketball once again.

But as always with the Raptors, the hope is two-fold. In addition to winning on the court, the Raptors hope that Rajakovic will add even more of an international flare to the only organization based outside of the United States — a team that had a record seven international players on its roster last season and that is slowly positioning itself as an international entity with global appeal as they continue to add international talent into all areas of the organization and market themselves accordingly. After all, the Raptors just added about 6.8 million potential Serbian fans on their side.

“It’s a privilege to be part of an organization like this with such an international influence and a lot of diversity that we have inside the city and inside the organization,” Rajakovic said. “That proves how the NBA is growing. 20-30 years ago, it was [all about the] United States. Now, it’s such a global game.

“The only team outside the United States being in Toronto, I could not dream of a better city and a better situation to lead a team.”