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Igor Kokoskov installing defense built around communication and switching

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The Suns’ new head coach is already making a huge impact on this roster. Some of the things he’s doing are completely different than previous regimes.

NBA: Phoenix Suns-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When Igor Kokoskov was hired back in mid-May to be the next head coach of the Phoenix Suns, many applauded the move. Kokoskov, who’s one of the brighter basketball minds I’ve ever been around, was ready to finally have his own team after learning for nearly two decades under names like Alvin Gentry, Larry Brown, Mike D’Antoni and Quinn Snyder. Kokoskov even helped lead an underdog Slovenian National Team led by Goran Dragic and Luka Doncic all the way to a championship, which first caught the eye of General Manager Ryan McDonough.

Kokoskov’s system is one predicated on ball-movement, spacing and playmaking, but on the other end of the floor it’s one entirely built on the two main pillars of communication and switching.

Training camp is the buy-in portion of this process, but with most of the Suns’ roster staying around in Phoenix this offseason, everyone seems to be smooth sailing under their coach’s watchful eye. Kokoskov hammers it home to his players that in order to talk, you have to understand what’s going on.

Through only two days so far, Kokoskov acknowledges they are nowhere close to ready but it takes time in order to develop top-notch chemistry on all levels of the floor.

“You have to understand concept to be vocal,” Kokoskov said. “We encourage guys to talk, but for you to be able to talk you have to understand the concept, you have to understand the situation to process and to be vocal. Coach (Mike) Krzyzewski was talking about it ... you’re commands gotta mean something. The bottom guy we always call them, the bottom guy talks (Ayton for example). I always talk about big guys gotta be defensive coordinators so they give us commands. It requires time. It’s definitely not there. I would be shocked after first day we have a top level of communication and reaction, so it requires time.”

Before landing back in Phoenix, Kokoskov had the pleasure of coaching Rudy Gobert, arguably the best rim protector in the NBA, for the last three years. As Deandre Ayton let it be known on Media Day, his coach is already drilling in those same concepts the Jazz did with Gobert. On that end, he wants him to be like Gobert. And if Ayton is able to reach a defensive ceiling like that, he will be utterly dominating most big men throughout the NBA.

“Yeah, he’s gotta be our defensive coordinator. That’s his job description,” Kokoskov said of Ayton’s role defensively. “It’s one thing I told him last night we have to sacrifice. Camp is a big sacrifice putting five hours, six hours in yesterday. Sacrifice, but then you start dominating. And that’s a beautiful feeling in any profession as a journalist, as a media guy, as a basketball player, if you dominate in something you’re willing to sacrifice your time. I think understands that. He’s willing to do it.”

The process of Ayton buying in with Kokoskov seems to have already happened with the Suns’ No. 1 pick, though. He’s not only picking up concepts quickly, but he’s communicating as an anchor already. Ayton is pushing himself even when’s exhausted to still contribute by communicating and helping his teammates see what’s coming next.

Ayton definitely sounds like a player who is easily coachable, which meshes so well with someone like Kokoskov.

“Oh yeah, down low you really have to be the general. I’m my point guards’ and my wings’ eyes,” Ayton said. “I gotta be vocal even when I’m tired, so that’s what I’m learning now. That’s what I’ve really added to my game that I’m getting better at. When I’m tired, I’m still communicating trying to give the best directions out there possible and just really build verticality as well. You know, knowing when to jump. Knowing when to stay on my feet as well. Closing out on wings, stuff like that. So, just really moving a lot, because you know in the league everybody switches now. I’m not trying to be a liability on the court not trying to switch.”

Ayton also mentioned that his head coach at the University of Arizona, Sean Miller, allowed him to freely switch during pick-and-roll situations. Under Igor’s tutelage, though, he’s already learned that he can push defenders off screens opening up room for guards to drive.

Simply put, Ayton has been a sponge and he seems to be absorbing everything thrown his way so far. And if that’s truly the case, that’s an exciting development for the Suns’ short and long term goals.

Mikal Bridges is actually used to this scheme, as Villanova head coach Jay Wright taught it to him for four years at Villanova, starting off as a redshirt. If you watched Villanova play, it mimics an NBA system with letting the ball fly from deep and switching often. Bridges thrived in this, and when his usage percentage went up each season he continuously got better as a two-way prospect.

The Suns’ No. 10 overall pick — who they traded for using the rights to Zhaire Smith and what looks to be a mid-late first round pick in 2021 if Jimmy Butler is traded and signs long-term with the Heat — pointed out on Wednesday that when Villanova went up against some teams, they noticed right away something was off.

Usually the team that loses ends up not communicating well. Communication leads to way bigger odds of success, which is something that shockingly has been missing with the Suns for years.

“Oh yeah, communication is the key. I mean I learned that throughout college. You realize if a team doesn’t talk always is the ones who are losing,” Bridges said. “I’ve been on a side where teams we played and they don’t communicate it makes the offense way much easier. Once you communicate, it makes everybody, even if I somebody messes up on the defensive end, if you communicate it’s going to re-trigger your mind and they’ll know it just because they forgot that split second it’s going to come back to them if you just communicate with them. So, communication is key. I mean, that’s what we’re trying to build right now and continue with it.”

When the media was able to watch the final portion of Wednesday’s practice, it featured a drill based entirely around switching and communicating. Already, even though it was against assistant coaches, the team seems to be picking it up. Unfortunately, we rarely saw this last season but McDonough has built a roster that allows them to be switch-versatile with multiple multi-positional players.

Notice how loud it is in that video above. It was like that throughout the media viewing portion, and it’s an area Kokoskov and his staff have made a top priority.

“A lot,” Bridges said when asked about how much Kokoskov is stressing communication. “In whatever we do, not even communication drills, just regular shooting drills making sure we’re talking. He just wants to build that right from the get-go.”

Kokoskov has been unfairly put into a box already of just being an offensive genius. However, that’s not the case as Kokoskov has fundamental principles that rely upon successful defenses. He won a championship with the Pistons during the 2003-04 season, and their roster was built completely around defense.

What has changed since then is the idea of switching. In today’s modern NBA, teams are switching almost everything at this point. Perfect examples of this can be found from this past season’s playoff series, especially in the Conference Finals.

How the Suns’ roster is currently constructed, with plenty of wings available at their disposal, they can pull off this concept regularly. Kokoskov even mentioned how Trevor Ariza and T.J. Warren can play both forward positions without issue. Don’t expect to see Ayton switch a lot as an anchor, at least early on as he will be more focused on directing traffic out there.

“Well, the league is leaning towards it (length). Even in the head coaches’ meeting in Chicago, big chunk of the time we talk about switching,” Kokoskov said. “The league is leaning this way, so we can switch a lot. Ariza is a 4, Ariza is a 3. T.J. is a 3, is a 4. So, all these pieces that we have it gives us another kind of angle or ability to switch more, but you know the 5 man is usually involved in a ball-screen. We’re not necessarily switching with a 5 man, but the ability to switch is going to be something maybe new. And it’s no secret, we can announce it.”

The early results are coming in, and Kokoskov is continuing to build off of his strong Summer League where the Suns finished first in points per possession and efficiency from a defensive perspective.

It’s been awhile since Phoenix had a defense to speak of, but Kokoskov’s staff has one of the league’s youngest rotations on track to eventual have it click.