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Toronto Raptors name Darko Rajakovic as 10th head coach in franchise history

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujuri attends a news conference in Toronto, Friday, April 21, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov. CKL

Changing the Toronto Raptors’ culture will be an everyday project, with every player and member of the organization having to buy in.

New head coach Darko Rajakovic knows that level of commitment has to start with him.

Rajakovic was officially named the 10th head coach in the Raptors’ history on Tuesday, ending days of speculation that the former Memphis Grizzlies assistant coach was coming to Toronto.

“For me, culture starts with your daily commitment to yourself and your team,” said Rajakovic in a news conference outside Scotiabank Arena. “And that starts with me, and starts with the players, starts with everybody in the organization.

“That unity and that trust that we’re going to have between us, for me, is everything.”

Raptors president Masai Ujiri nodded along as Rajakovic spoke.

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After Nick Nurse was fired as Toronto’s head coach on April 21, Ujiri had said the team needed to reset its culture and get back to the cohesiveness that propelled the Raptors to the 2019 NBA championship.

“Honestly, appreciate this moment with the Toronto Raptors because I think we’ve changed eras a couple of times, we’ve made changes a couple of times,” said Ujiri, who noted that it was almost exactly four years ago that Toronto held its parade to celebrate the Raptors’ championship. “I’m calling on all the fans, on everybody, people in the organization, everywhere, this is a time to follow it.

“Let’s go out and win. Let’s go out and do it again. ? We’ve done it here before and we’re going to do it again. Amen.”

Raptors players Dalano Banton, Ron Harper Jr., Jeff Dowtin, and Joe Wieskamp were seated in the front row as Rajakovic and Ujiri addressed media and hundreds of fans in the space normally used for Jurassic Park. Their new coach said he enjoys seeing his players improve.

“You’re going to win games, you’re going to lose games,” said Rajakovic. “We want to win every single game every single night but seeing the team grow, seeing the players grow, seeing people in the whole organization grow is something that is always my biggest reward.”

Nurse was with the organization for 10 years, including five as head coach. Toronto won its only NBA championship under his watch but the Raptors were a disappointing 41-41 last season and were eliminated in the play-in tournament.

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Rajakovic is the second European to become an NBA head coach after fellow Serb Igor Kokoskov, who lasted one year with Phoenix in 2018-19.

After more than a decade coaching in Europe and the NBA G-League, Rajakovic became an assistant to Oklahoma City Thunder head coach Scott Brooks in 2014.

Following Brooks’s firing in 2015, Rajakovic stayed in Oklahoma City under Billy Donovan. The Thunder made the playoffs four times in his five seasons there, including a Western Conference final appearance in 2016 with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook headlining the roster.

Rajakovic joined the Phoenix Suns as an assistant for the 2019-20 season and then joined the Memphis Grizzlies as an assistant for three years, including a stint as interim head coach in 2022 when Taylor Jenkins was out for health and safety protocols.

“I was in the hot seat for many, many years overseas, coaching in Serbia, coaching in Spain, coaching in G-League,” said Rajakovic. “So I’m very familiar with what it looks like to be the decision maker and to live that life day in and day out.”

Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said that although Rajakovic was not a front-runner when Toronto began its search for a new head coach, he wowed the team’s front office during the interview process.

“As a total package he exceeded our expectations across the board,” said Webster after the news conference. “Whether it’s coaching, in basketball intellect or an ability to work well with others or connect with players, in all the areas that we were looking for he was really good at.”

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