May 4, 2018, 3:24 pm
Welcome back Hoop Ballers to our International Spotlight weekly feature where we will be taking a look into Suns’ new head coach, Serbian-American Igor Kokoskov.
A long list of candidates that included interim coach Jay Triano, Mike Budenholzer, David Fizdale, Steve Clifford, Frank Vogel, Kevin McHale, David Blatt, Jason Kidd, Vinny Del Negro and Spurs’ assistant James Borrego interviewed with the Suns after the end of the regular season. On Wednesday, the team announced that they have hired Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov on a three-year deal to become their newest head coach.
The Phoenix Suns are hiring Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov as their new head coach, league sources tell ESPN. Kokoskov, a native of Serbia, will be the first European born head coach in the NBA.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) May 2, 2018
And while Kokoskov’s name caught many by surprise he is by no means a stranger to basketball circles in the United States as he has a long and very successful career both at the NBA and the international level.
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Kokoskov was born and raised in Serbia, an athletic and very promising guard whose basketball career was cut short after a car accident – a near-fatal head-on collision that caused him various injuries and left him at the hospital for months. Naturally, he turned to coaching and he was on the staff of Yugoslavia’s (now Serbia’s) men’s and junior national teams, becoming the youngest coach in the country’s basketball history at the age of 24. In the next few years he hit a few more milestones becoming the first European to be a part of the coaching staff for an NCAA Division I men’s college basketball program (getting hired by Quin Snyder at the University of Missouri) and the first non-American to be hired as a full-time assistant coach in the NBA, by the Clippers.
He has been one of the most well-rounded and experienced assistants in the NBA the last 18 years working under Alvin Gentry, Larry Brown, Flip Saunders, Mike Brown and of course Quin Snyder with whom he formed a really strong bond. The two men met while Snyder was still at Duke and Kokoskov was on a tour of American schools. They became really good friends and Snyder was the one that brought him with him to Missouri once he landed a job with the Tigers.
Strong Player Development Skills
Kokoskov is widely respected around the league, especially by NBA players, due to his player-development skills, an asset that is critical for a young Suns team that struggled with maturity the last couple years. He is really big on players putting in the work and if you notice his routine before games he has a very thorough and extensive pregame workout with his players.
While in Phoenix from 2008 until 2013, he spent time working with the likes of Steve Nash and Goran Dragic, helping the Dragon develop into the player he became a couple years later. He is also a great teacher and that was put in display by helping Shaquille O’Neal improve his free-throw shooting while with the Suns. Shaq shot 51.3 percent from the line in 2007-08 but that number went up to 59.5 percent next year, Kokoskov’s first season with the Suns.
Former Jazz point guard George Hill had a great season last year in Utah (for as long as he was healthy) and repeatedly acknowledged the help he got from Kokoskov. “The things that he has me do are different than I’ve been used to. But what he’s had me do is phenomenal, little things that I didn’t know would help me become a better shooter and better off the dribble, things like that. We take a lot of time doing balance and core. You always want to work with someone who’s experienced, and Coach has been very good for me.”
Snyder and Kokoskov were also behind Gordon Hayward’s transformation into an All-Star, Rudy Gobert becoming one of the best defensive players in the league and Hoop Ball favorite Joe Ingles continuing to get better with age, something that doesn’t happen often. This year I’ve seen Kokoskov and Rubio constantly working on his shot before games and after practice and the results have been career-highs in field goal (41.8) and 3-point (35.2) percentage. The Suns have a ton of young players including Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, T.J. Warren, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss and most of them should be able to take a major leap forward in the next few years.
An X’s and O’s Genius
Kokoskov’s style involves a lot of ball and player movement with shooters spacing the floor, following the modern style of pace and space, a style that will be ideal especially for Devin Booker. He is a system guy with an innovative mind and the architect of the Jazz offense that has surprised many people who thought the departure of Gordon Hayward left an irreplaceable void. He doesn’t believe in specialization and his philosophy aims at players understanding the game both from an offensive and a defensive standpoint.
He is a big fan of the “single-tag,” an offensive scheme where you put your best shooter behind the pick-and-roll and preferably on the weak side. Single-tag is the hardest thing to guard in basketball today and the Jazz have used this set multiple times this year. Look at Ricky Rubio taking a great screen from Rudy Gobert which brings the Nuggets defense apart as a couple shooters are on the weak side and the French big man rolls to the basket, forcing Wilson Chandler to leave Joe Ingles wide open in the corner.
I also expect Igor to put the ball in the hands of Dragan Bender more as this could help Devin Booker play off-ball and avoid all the grind that comes with the constant pick-and-roll action. I talked earlier this season about Bender’s ability to be a reliable ball handler but this didn’t happen under Jay Triano and it could be something that helps him take his game to the next level.
What he did with the Jazz on the defensive side was to instruct Gobert to drop back and have the team play the pick-and-roll with two-on-two coverage. The idea is to protect the rim and the 3-point line by staying home with the shooters while daring the ballhandler to beat them with pull-up jumpers or floaters. Unfortunately for the Jazz, Chris Paul is probably the best at hitting midrange shots and this was put on display in Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals.
The Luka Doncic Connection
The Suns have the best odds at landing the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft and DeAndre Ayton sure looks like a perfect fit for a team that has been weak inside but the hiring of Kokoskov has definitely complicated things. Igor was Luka Doncic’s head coach last year with the Slovenian national team and he was instrumental into leading him and Goran Dragic to the 2017 EuroBasket title. They have a great relationship which could simplify Doncic’s transition to the NBA and it will be interesting to see what the Suns will do in June if they secure the top pick in the draft.
Under Kokoskov the Slovenian national team played mostly small ball with Goran Dragic, Luka Doncic and Klemen Prepelic scoring a lot of points in transition and spreading the floor while former NBAer Anthony Randolph became the rim protector. They scored the most points in the tournament (813 and 90.3 per game) and hit the second most threes (9.0 per game) in a fast-paced offensive scheme similar to what you’ll see in the NBA.
Kokoskov is an extremely skilled man who has worked very hard at his craft and has earned the respect of players and coaches around the world. The downside is that he doesn’t have the experience as a head coach at the NBA level but he is a young (only 46 years old) and up-and-coming coach and I consider him the most modern European basketball mind in the NBA that has been able to stay up to date with the all the current innovative schemes both on offense and defense. The team had some organizational failures the last few years and this is mostly related to Robert Sarver being cheap and refusing to pay for top-notch coaches like Mike Budenholzer. He is obviously a great hire for the Suns and I’m pretty sure he will coax more out of the young players on that team as a great teacher who will hopefully bring stability to a team desperate for some growth.
Thank you for reading this article and please make sure you check us back again next week and throughout the offseason as more player breakdowns are coming up. Stay up to date on all the breaking news and rumors posted on our website and on our Twitter account @HoopBallFantasy.