Raptors coach Rajakovic eyes use of versatility, ball movement to be among NBA’s best

The influence of the international game in the NBA is nothing new and definitely no secret.

The NBA Finals between the champion Denver Nuggets, led by Serbian superstar Nikola Jokic, and the Miami Heat served as the most recent example of what winning basketball looks like in the league. Both teams embraced the concept of more ball movement and less isolation play.

Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic — a Serbian himself — wants his team to operate in a similar fashion during the 2023-24 season.

Click to play video: 'Raptors kick off the pre-season in Vancouver'
Raptors kick off the pre-season in Vancouver

“The pass is becoming more and more important,” Rajakovic said earlier in the week ahead of Raptors training camp. “From the Denver Nuggets winning the championship, and Miami, the way they played during the playoff series, that’s becoming a common theme.

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“Basketball is played less and less giving the ball to one guy and just getting that guy to go to work. It’s more of interchangeable pieces, multiple players contributing.

“It’s hard to scout opponents when they play that way, it’s hard to play against teams that play that way. We want to be one of those teams.”

The Raptors are coming off a 41-41 season that saw them miss the post-season for the second time in three years.

Current Philadelphia coach Nick Nurse was fired in April shortly after the season, with Rajakovic brought into the fold in June to lead a change in culture and style of play, one that president Masai Ujiri has called “selfish.”

Toronto was 23rd in the NBA in assists per game (23.9) and 28th in three-point percentage (33.5), being inconsistent throughout the year. In addition, the Raptors had yet another season with multiple starters being among the league leaders in minutes per game.

The Raptors’ roster went through some changes with longtime point guard Fred VanVleet having left for Houston in free agency. Toronto drafted guard-forward Gradey Dick in the first round in June and signed point guard Dennis Schroder, who led Germany to gold at the FIBA World Cup in September and was named tournament MVP.

Dick’s shooting gives the team a boost — he shot 40.3 per cent in his lone season at Kansas — while Schroder’s experience having been coached by Rajakovic — then an assistant — in Oklahoma City (2018-2019) and in a variety of systems provides aid too.

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Rajakovic has a vision for how to utilize the skillsets of different players in more ways, as well as a preference for nine to 10-man rotations to build out the team and have more contributors.

“There’s a pretty big difference in the core principles,” said centre Jakob Poeltl. “Obviously there are things that we’re going to default to, that are going to stay the same.

“But that high-post offence, trying to run the ball, like a motion offence through the five (centre), it’s going to take some time getting used to. I think we had elements of that in the past but it’s going to be a bigger focus now.”

That type of offence is similar to what Denver runs with Jokic, finding players cutting to the basket or open at the three-point line with plenty of off-ball movement.

It’s one that could work with Poeltl’s vision and passing talent, which he’s continued to show since his arrival in Toronto at the trade deadline from San Antonio in February.

It also depends on the versatility of the other four players on the court.

“The style of play we’re going to implement is going be players one (point guard) through four (power forward) are going be interchangeable,” Rajakovic said. “Multiple players will be able to bring the ball up the floor. Obviously different players will have different roles, different responsibilities.”

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One of those players will be third-year forward Scottie Barnes, who Rajakovic plans to use a lot more with the ball in his hands.

“(I) see his system as being able to play more together,” Barnes said. “Being able to move the ball is his main emphasis. Trying less dribbles and more action, playing through different actions. I feel like that’s what our goal is this year, to do that.”

That also means a two-way street between two-time all-NBA forward Pascal Siakam, who has seen double teams often, and his teammates.

“When teams put two players on you, you need to make a pass. Somebody’s open,” Rajakovic said. “It’s going to be (on) us as a team to provide good passing lanes and good options for him.”

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