It’s readily apparent, talking to players and people around the Raptors through this first month and a half or so that they have been together, that new head coach Darko Rajakovic firmly has their attention and their respect.
That’s no small thing.
Maybe he wasn’t the best known candidate among those interviewed to take over from Nick Nurse, who has taken his clipboard to Philadelphia, but early indications are that Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and the rest of the management team have chosen wisely.
The Rajakovic buy-in has been apparent in numerous ways, from the upbeat practices that echo through the halls of the OVO practice facility to the words themselves from those he now directs.
Thad Young has been coached and taught by countless coaches in his 17 seasons in the league and while the schemes and strategies don’t alter all that much, the man calling them matters.
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Buy-in comes only if the respect is there first and, despite this being his first NBA head-coaching job, Rajakovic has already earned that as far as Young is concerned.
“He’s his own person,” the third-year Raptor said. “He’s a one of one. He’s tough. He knows what he wants to do. He gives us the ability to kind of give him feedback and talk to him about certain things and to make tweaks here and there. And then he has the ability also as a coach — sometimes coaches get stuck into their schemes and stuck in their ways. But he recognizes the personnel and he recognizes how stagnant a play may look and then he’ll say, ‘OK, I effed up. Let’s do it this way or let’s make it easier for you guys this way.’
“I love that in a coaches’ abilities, when they can really dive in and nitpick their own stuff and say, ‘OK, this is how we’re going to run it to make it better for us,’ as opposed to just trying to make it better for him,” Young said. “Because he’s not playing in the game. We’re playing. So he has to make it adaptable for us … to win a basketball game.”
There are certain non-negotiables with Rajakovic, too, and No. 1 sounds very much like it’s something akin to this: Don’t hold the ball on offence.
According to Young, every time in practice the ball starts to stick, Rajakovic stops the proceedings and points out where the ball should be going at that point, whether it’s a pass, a drive or a shot.
“He’s been around,” Young said. “He understands the game. He knows it. It doesn’t feel like he’s (a) first-time (NBA head coach). But obviously there’s going to be things that first-time coaches have to kind of adapt to, like the structure of our practice schedule is a little bit different than the norm around the league or anything I’ve played for. But those are all things that are easy tweaks and stuff like that. … But he’s been great. It’s like he’s a veteran out there.”
As for picking up Rajakovic’s new offensive and defensive schemes, Young is quick to point out that while they may be new compared to what the Raptors ran a year ago, the concepts are still basketball concepts that everyone in a Raptors uniform grew up playing.
Certainly, they are nothing Young hasn’t seen over 17 years and he’s ready to do his part to make the transition period as easy as possible.
“I’ve played for so many different coaches, played under so many different systems,” Young said. “I’m used to change. I’ve played for seven different teams and probably 20 different coaches. At the end of the day, I’m used to that change. I understand it.
“I understand when you come into a new season that you have a new coach, it’s going to take some time to implement the system, implement roles for guys and get guys really focused and locked in on the roles that are going to happen this upcoming season. It’s all really about patience. And I’ve been one of those guys that has a lot of patience, that has the ability to talk to guys and get guys to understand. I’m good at retaining information. So for me, it’s not a big deal.”
And before anyone suggests Young is a party of one in terms of getting on board with the new head coach, listen to these other voices on the roster.
“We got a lot of smart guys on this team that know how to play basketball; coach makes it easy for us, he communicates to us what he wants us to do out there,” Scottie Barnes said when asked about Rajakovic’s half-second offensive philosophy. “He makes it specific on what he wants us to do with moving, passing the ball. That’s what he emphasizes over and over and over again. He makes it easy for us and we’ve got a lot of smart players on this team to execute it.”
Jakob Poeltl has played for some pretty long-tenured coaches in his short career in Dwane Casey and a guy named Gregg Popovich and he likes what he sees already.
“Very positive,” Poeltl said when asked about his impressions of Rajakovic. “Seems to have a very high understanding of basketball, like understanding of what the modern NBA is like. And even on a personal level, I’ve been getting along great with him, had some good conversations with him. We got, like, a serious practice environment, I guess. But he still finds a way to make it enjoyable, like, crack a joke here and there. So it’s been good.”