An outdoor event that included ice cream, balloons, and a photo shoot. Some would say that the Toronto Raptors’ introductory press conference for newly-minted Head Coach Darko Rajakovic had all the makings of a birthday party and in some ways, it sort of felt that way. Birthdays signify a fresh start, a new beginning. It also signifies that you’re one year older and hopefully, with the added perspective of an extra year tact on, a little wiser for it.
The Raptors pulled out all the bells & whistles for Rajakovic’s official introduction to the press and to the fans that stood in attendance in the back. There was a buzz and excitement that trickled into the outdoor seating of the press conference amongst the media members. After all, even though I’m new to this, I’ve been following the team for a while and I have never seen this level of flare for a press conference. Even some of the more veteran press members sighted just how different this felt. And it did, purposefully.
The Raptors, whether it be with the hiring of Rajakovic, a fairly young, first-time NBA Head Coach, or through the glamourous press conference they had set up to present him wanted to let people know one thing:
A new era is afoot.
“Sometimes change is hard but we believe change is good. And change is good for our ballclub and our organization now,” said Raptors President Masai Ujiri as he opened up the press conference outside Scotiabank Arena on a bright, sunny day. Pathetic fallacy, it never misses! “After a long process, we chose what we feel is the right fit with an incredible coach with great passion and great knowledge,” Ujiri said as he finished off his introductory statement.
He’s right. It was a long process. The Raptors were eliminated in the play-in in mid-April and two months later, officially have their new guy. In the modern NBA, it doesn’t usually take that long to find the next coach to take the helm of your franchise but as the Raptors have become known for, they stayed patient.
It was a process that included a litany of names from various different backgrounds and expertise. According to Ujiri, they opened up the coaching search with over 15 names and slowly but surely began to narrow it down to their finalists with Rajakovic’s intellect and passion separating him from the rest of the pack.
At face value, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Rajakovic has done in his 20+ years coaching basketball. He officially began his career in his home country of Serbia in the late ’90s but later moved to Spain in the late 2000s to develop even further as a coach, before eventually landing in the NBA in 2012 as the Head Coach of the then D-League Tulsa 66ers. He climbed up the ranks, becoming an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder from 2014 to 2019 before being pouched by Monty Williams with the Phoenix Suns, and then for the last 3 seasons, he’s served as the lead assistant for the Memphis Grizzlies under Taylor Jenkins.
Despite having an unconventional coaching path thus far, everywhere he’s gone, there has been one undeniable quality about him as a coach: his knack for developing players.
“Since the day I started coaching, for me, the biggest thing I enjoyed is seeing players get better,” Rajakovic said at the press conference when asked what his style was as a coach. “You’re going to win games, you’re going to lose games… but seeing the team grow, seeing the players grow, seeing people in the whole organization grow is something that was always my biggest reward and that’s how I operate.”
That philosophy tracks when you look at Rajakovic’s time in the NBA as an assistant. He is often credited with helping all three of Steven Adams, Mikal Bridges, and Desmond Bane develop into who they are as players now. He has, no doubt, helped develop countless others on his path as well.
The hope is that he does the same in Toronto, where development was a pressing issue for the Raptors’ front office when they let go of Nurse in the first place and began their search for their next coach. Finding a coach who can help nurture and develop their end-of-bench talent was crucial in their hiring process. It’s no surprise that Dalano Banton, Christian Koloko, Jeff Dowtin, Joe Wieskamp, and Precious Achiuwa were all present for the press conference. The Raptors need at least some of those guys to pan out and they hope that Rajakovic is the man that can squeeze the juice out of them, so to speak.
“I want to be very invested in them as human beings, as I see every player as a person with families. I want those guys to know that I really care about them,” Rajakovic said when asked about how he plans to connect with players. “When they know how much I love them and care about them, I have a strong belief that we can come together as a group and take things to another level.”
From that perspective, the well had run dry with Nurse at the helm, development-wise. The message wasn’t getting across anymore. And maybe, by the end of it, the message was rubbing some of the players the wrong way. Getting called out publicly in the media isn’t always the best course of action and Nurse proved throughout his tenure that was his favourite card to play. Sometimes you just need a new voice. Especially with the way players in this new generation receive messaging and feedback — finding a coach that can relate to them and develop relationships with them is crucial.
“A lot of the teams who have hired coaches recently, I think you’re starting to see a bit of that philosophy… we see it around in society, there’s a next generation of kids that are coming up and how you manage them, criticize them and support them, I think that’s a very important skill and I think Darko has it,” said Raptors General Manager Bobby Webster to the media after the press conference.
Finding a new voice to teach and connect with the young guys on the roster was clearly at the forefront of the Raptors’ minds when hiring Rajakovic. And his resume, along with the deliberate mentions of development at the press conference, and the mere presence of all the young guys on the roster, safe for Scottie Barnes, might hint at the team beginning to lean towards a youth movement. At least that’s the impression I got from today’s press conference.
Neither Ujiri nor Webster commented much on the Raptors’ plans this off-season, focusing on the coaching hire more than anything, but it’s hard not to wonder and infer. 3 core pieces in Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, and Gary Trent Jr will most likely be unrestricted free agents, and two other All-Star and All-Defense players in Pascal Siakam and O.G. Anunoby respectively are eligible for contract extensions.
Change is coming for the Raptors. Whether that change is seismic or minute remains to be seen. There’s still a long off-season of decision-making that awaits them. But if there’s one thing that’s clear after today, is that Rajakovic is at the forefront of that change.
And when you consider who he is, what he’s become known for in his career, and what he emphasized in his introductory press conference, it’s hard not to be anxiously excited about what comes next for the Raptors.
The franchise needed a reset, both culturally and schematically. They needed a fresh new face that can usher them into the next era of Raptors basketball. They’ve selected Darko to be that face. And his first day on the job was filled with ice cream, balloons, pictures, and a presentation that much like a birthday party, signified one thing:
A new chapter has begun.