TORONTO (AP) — Darko Rajakovic has been in a good mood ever since the Toronto Raptors made him the 10th head coach in franchise history.
“The last three days I’ve had a smile on my face so much my jaw is starting to hurt,” Rajakovic joked Tuesday at an outdoor news conference.
Rajakovic, 44, replaces Nick Nurse, who was fired on April 21 after Toronto went 41-41 and lost in the opening round of the play-in tournament.
“We’re really, really excited for this day,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said, seated alongside Rajakovic on a stage set up outside the team’s downtown arena. “I know it’s change and sometimes change is hard, but we believe change is good, and change is good for our ball club and our organization now.”
General manager Bobby Webster said Rajakovic “didn’t go in as the favorite” when Toronto started its search, but won over the Raptors as the process evolved.
“He’s really smart, he’s detailed, he’s structured,” Webster said. “He has a really diverse set of experiences internationally, but also in the NBA. He’s worked for a number of organizations and directly with a lot of, like, high-caliber players and it just kind of all fit. He just exceeded our expectations and just really impressed us.”
Rajakovic said he felt an immediate connection with Toronto’s front office staff.
“The first time we started talking on a Zoom call, what I felt from day one was unity,” Rajakovic said. “Everyone in the organization, you could just feel that everybody is together.”
Born and raised in Serbia, Rajakovic has been involved in coaching since his teens. He coached in Spain before coming to the United States.
Rajakovic was a head coach for two seasons in the G League (then called the NBA Development League) before joining the Oklahoma City Thunder as an assistant before the 2014-15 season. He spent the 2019-20 season as an assistant with Phoenix, then joined Memphis the following year.
At his introductory news conference, Rajakovic fielded a question in Serbian from a Serbian-language broadcaster based in Toronto. The city has a significant population of Serbian immigrants.
Rajakovic said it “means the world” to be the second Serbian-born coach in the NBA after Igor Kokosov, who led the Suns in 2018-19.
“It means so much to the Serbian community here in Toronto,” Rajakovic said. “A lot of people reached out to me. It means a lot to my family back home and the whole basketball community in Serbia.”
Toronto’s new hire was introduced on the four-year anniversary of the team’s first and only NBA title. The Raptors beat Golden State in six games in the Finals in 2019, Nurse’s first season as coach.
“Let’s go and do it again,” Ujiri yelled to a small group of watching fans as the event wrapped up. “We saw this thing happen last night (with Denver winning the NBA title). We’ve done it here before and we’re going to do it again.”
Raptors players Precious Achiuwa, Dalano Banton, Christian Koloko, Jeff Dowtin Jr., Ron Harper Jr. and Joe Wieskamp were on hand for Rajakovic’s introduction.
Webster confirmed Tuesday that guard Fred VanVleet has opted out of the final year of his contract and will become a free agent.
“Obviously on good terms with Fred, spoke to him yesterday,” Webster said. “I think that (decision) was just kind of expected, wasn’t really unexpected.”
Guard Gary Trent Jr. faces a similar decision on whether to opt out of the final year of his deal before the end of next week, Webster said.