Rajakovic Thrilled to Join Thunder Staff

By Nick Gallo | Thunder Basketball Writer | mailbag@thunder-nba.com

When a coach begins his career at 16 years old and has traveled half-way across the world to pursue his dream, the transition 90 miles down I-44 doesn’t seem too daunting.

Darko Rajakovic, the Thunder’s newest assistant coach, comes to the team from just down the road after he spent the last two seasons as the head coach of the Tulsa 66ers. The native of Serbia began his coaching career as a teenager, because he realized that despite his love for the game of basketball, he wasn’t going to make it as a professional player. As a coach, he worked in Serbia starting at 16 before eventually taking over the Espacio Torrelondones of the Spanish EBA League. It was there that he caught the attention of the Thunder, who brought him over to lead the 66ers for the last two seasons.

“It meant a lot to me,” Rajakovic said. “It turned out to be better (than my dream), to come and coach at the professional level and working for such a great organization like the Oklahoma City Thunder. Working in Tulsa was a huge experience and I think I got much better and learned a lot over here and became a better person and better coach.”

Rajakovic became the first Development League head coach born outside of North America in the league’s history. During his time in Tulsa, he led the 66ers to a 51-49 record while also overseeing 50 assignments of Thunder players to the 66ers. Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones, Jeremy Lamb and Andre Roberson all spent time with the 66ers over the past two seasons, and all four went on to make significant contributions for the Thunder. Regardless of whether the players he coached eventually returned to the Thunder or were with the 66ers throughout the year, he made a deep impact on their careers.

“I love him,” Lamb said. “He’s great on the court but he’s great off the court too. He always lets me know, whether I’m playing well or badly, that he believes in me. Even when I was with the (Thunder) and he was still in the D-League, he was watching my games. He would text me not to get down off of shooting badly or a bad game, just bounce back. We had a good time in the D-League together. He taught me a lot and he always believed in me and that’s what you want in a coach.”

As Rajakovic transitions to working full-time for the Thunder, he brings with him a deep knowledge and understanding of the core principles and philosophy encouraged by Head Coach Scott Brooks and the rest of his staff, which includes Rex Kalamian, Robert Pack, Mark Bryant, Brian Keefe and Mike Terpstra. The synergy between the coaching staffs in Oklahoma City and Tulsa provided Rajakovic with the opportunity to learn and develop the same methods used by the Thunder and employ them with the 66ers.

“We have a very good relationship and a lot of trust,” Rajakovic said. “I trust the system and believe in the system that those guys developed and we tried to incorporate the same system in Tulsa. My knowledge of the system and experience with Tulsa is something that is going to be valuable.”

“One thing that is very important for the Thunder is that we want to fight for every possession and every ball,” Rajakovic explained. “That’s huge for us. It doesn’t matter if we’re winning or losing games. Every possession is huge for us.”

In Orlando, Rajakovic gets the chance to be a head coach once again before joining the assistants on the bench in Oklahoma City. He’s helming the Thunder’s Summer League team, and already getting to know some of the players he’ll be working with this off-season and during the 2014-15 campaign. With the Thunder’s system already in mind, Rajakovic has been able to incorporate some new designs and wrinkles during Summer League, as the organization uses the week to test out certain sets and concepts while also getting a baseline reading on each player and where they must continue to develop. Both veterans and rookies alike have enjoyed having Rajakovic lead the club here in Orlando, and look forward to continuing to grow with his help this year.

“He’s a great coach,” rookie forward Mitch McGary said. “I consider myself a coachable player, and he’s really taken me under his wing and showed me the offense and told me a few pointers to work on during the game. It takes me a little bit to learn it, but I’m a quick learner and he’s given me some time to fix some things.”