MEMPHIS – Among the highlight moments from the Grizzlies stint at this week’s Salt Lake City Summer League has been a special anniversary for one of the staff’s top assistants.
Darko Rajakovic wouldn’t want to commemorate his 25th year in coaching any other way.
As lead coach of the Grizzlies’ summer league team, Rajakovic takes pride in grinding this group of players through the team’s summer development program. After all, helping prospects build foundations to pursue professional basketball careers is a mission and passion Rajakovic has embraced since his taking his first coaching job at age 16.
That’s right – 16!
There is a mutual trust. We have a great relationship and are consulting on everything. We’re helping each other in so many ways.
Over the past 25 years, the teams, leagues, players and countries have changed for the native of Serbia. But the standard of developmental success remains the same for Rajakovic, who leads the Grizzlies into Friday’s final game in Salt Lake City before the team transitions to Las Vegas for next week’s start of the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League.
“There’s so many areas to improve with a team that’s only been together a couple of days,” Rajakovic said of the task he was assigned when head coach Taylor Jenkins pegged him to run the summer league team. “There is a mutual trust. We have a great relationship and are consulting on everything. We’re helping each other in so many ways.”
After splitting their first two games against a split roster of the host Utah Jazz, the Grizzlies could close out the Salt Lake City leg of summer league play with a win Friday against the Spurs. Memphis won Tuesday’s opener by 39 points in a balanced performance sparked largely by returning roster players who participate in a combined 206 NBA games last season.
That’s ball-movement and playing hard on the defensive end. The moments we did that, we played well. We just didn’t do it enough (Wednesday). We’ll need to do more scripting and playing well together.
The Grizzlies sat their more experienced young players in Wednesday’s loss, but are likely to have their returning core of Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman and John Konchar available Friday.
Rajakovic wants to see the Grizzlies close out the week with the same energy, relentless defensive effort and execution they showed to start the week. On Tuesday, Memphis produced balanced scoring, 12 blocked shots, forced 21 turnovers and scored 104 points on 26 assists.
“We’ve got to stick with our identity, what we do,” Rajakovic insisted. “That’s ball-movement and playing hard on the defensive end. The moments we did that, we played well. We just didn’t do it enough (Wednesday). We’ll need to do more scripting and playing well together.”
Rajakovic and Jenkins are certainly working well together as the Grizzlies continue to build on a team that last season was the youngest to make the NBA playoffs in a decade.
Jenkins added Rajakovic to the Grizzlies staff last year after he spent parts of the previous nine seasons with the Phoenix Suns and Oklahoma City Thunder organizations. Rajakovic, 42, also coached in the G League as well as internationally in Spain and his native Serbia.
We’re trying some new things, some different things and are just trying to learn from this experience together.
“He has shown a passion, drive, high basketball IQ and love for teaching the game at a high level, both internationally and in the NBA,” Jenkins said of adding Rajakovic to the staff. “He will continue to help enhance the development of our players, staff and team for the future.”
From coaching his first national youth teams in Serbia as a teenager to leading the Grizzlies summer league entries this month, Rajakovic has traveled a unique global basketball journey.
“I’m grateful for coaching summer league this year,” Rajakovic said. “We’re trying some new things, some different things and are just trying to learn from this experience together.”
From sweet 16 to Salt Lake City, the growth and grind define Rajakovic’s path.
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