Rajakovic, Tulsa 66ers Ready to Jump-Start Season

The Thunder has always strived to be innovative as an organization as professional basketball continues to evolve. That attitude extends to all aspects of the organization, including its Tulsa affiliate, the 66ers.

On October 31st, when the Thunder and General Manager Sam Presti announced the hiring of Serbian coach Darko Rajacovic to become the Tulsa 66ers’ head coach, it marked the first time an NBA D-League affiliate hired a coach born outside of North America. With a wealth of knowledge, background in international basketball and a wide range of experiences, Rajakovic is a young but knowledgeable coach that will help the Thunder and 66ers organizations continue to build and grow towards the future.

“We are pleased to welcome Darko to the Thunder organization,” Presti said at the time of Rajacovic’s hiring. “We value his diverse basketball background and embrace the European influence that he will have on our development program in Tulsa.”

Presti and Rajakovic have crossed paths before, as Rajakovic spent a number of seasons working with the San Antonio Spurs during summer league. In addition, Rajakovic has continued to deeply study United States basketball by spending time with Mike Krzyzewski at Duke University and Lute Olson at the University of Arizona.

Most recently, Rajakovic coached the Torrelodones in Spain. One attribute that attracted the Thunder organization is Rajakovic’s dedication to player development – a major staple of both the Thunder and 66ers organizations.

“My whole career I have been dedicated to player development and trying to make players better both on the court and outside of the court,” Rajakovic said. “I see this as a perfect matchup and a great opportunity for me. The last couple of days the things we’ve talked about to our players are about being great teammates, playing defense and being unselfish. That is something that I expect from both players but also from the coaching staff.”

Over the past few weeks since he was hired, Rajakovic had the opportunity to spend time with the Thunder coaching staff. What has jumped out to the new 66ers head man is the synergy that exists throughout and between both organizations. The core principles, ideals and goals are the same in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, and as a result, Rajakovic wants the same standards of work ethic he saw with Head Coach Scott Brooks’ Thunder squad to exist with the 66ers this season, starting in training camp.

“There’s a lot of development work, just a lot of energy that all of the players and all the coaches are bringing every day to the court Rajakovic said. The Thunder team is doing a great job with those guys, developing those guys and that’s something that you want to (replicate) with the Tulsa 66ers. Being early, working hard, being good teammates and attention to detail is something that we will be focused on here in Tulsa as well.”

Very rarely does a person start doing the job they love at 16 years old, but Rajakovic is one of the lucky few. As 66ers training camp kicked off with media day on Tuesday, Rajakovic was animated and clearly excited about continuing his career-path 17 years in the making. He started playing basketball when he was seven years old, but at the age of 15, Rajacovic realized his basketball career might not be on the court. When he began coaching the Serbian squad FK Borac at age 16, Rajakovic knew the huddle was the right spot for him.

“When I started coaching it was a completely natural thing for me,” Rajakovic said. “Right now I cannot live without basketball, it is my greatest passion and I enjoy it every day… I’m looking forward to it because I like the (whole) environment and especially this organization working under the Thunder umbrella. It’s something that is a great opportunity.”

The roster currently stands at 16 players, and over the next week and a half, Rajakovic and the 66ers personnel will have to determine which ten players will remain with the squad heading into their opening night matchup on November 23rd. It will be a difficult task to narrow the roster down from such a talented, hard-working group of players, but as Rajakovic and the 66ers coaching staff get the chance to work with the players, they’ll get a better sense of who will fit within the roster. Overall, Rajakovic has been impressed by the group as a whole.

“From the first moment, I can say that the group is really good, they are hard-working guys,” Rajakovic said. “They’re bringing very high energy to every practice. They’re focused and concentrating. From what I saw in the last couple of days is that they’re not just focused on just getting the spot on this team… I’m sure that they will keep the same energy and same focus and same attitude during the whole season.”

Moving forward, Rajakovic will see how his team shapes up based on the final cut downs, then analyze how the players’ strengths can mesh together. With the idea of player development at the highest priority, Rajakovic will assemble the best roster possible to help the team and individual players move forward and improve.

“I will be focused on the team and the team needs,” Rajakovic said. “I have enough experience to play up tempo basketball or to play slow tempo. I can adjust my coaching style to the needs of our team and players. In coordination with our management, we will sit down, we will analyze the players on the roster that we have, the needs of those guys and it will go from there. We will work hard to get those players better and ready for the season.”