“Igor’s teams have always had a player development focus, a creative style of play and a track record of success,” former Suns GM Ryan McDonough said in a statement following the hiring of Igor Kokoskov 10 months ago.
What a whirlwind it has been for Kokoskov since his return to the Valley as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns.
The man who hired him was fired five months later. He didn’t have competent point guard play until 65 percent through the season when Tyler Johnson debuted after being acquired from Miami. He’s patrolling one of the league’s youngest rotations. Two separate damning stories from ESPN about the front office have been released. Rumors of him being fired occurred at the tail end of a 17-game losing streak.
However, through all of that noise, Kokoskov is helping produce results for Phoenix over the final quarter of the season. After ending the franchise-record losing streak, the Suns have gone .500 since then. Instead of playing like one of the worst teams in the NBA, the level of play has been raised.
Advanced metrics since Feb. 25:
OffRtg = 109.0 (19th)
DefRtg = 110.3 (18th)
NetRtg = minus-1.3 (20th)
The former assistant in Utah was credited with helping Ricky Rubio and Donovan Mitchell put together career years in 2017-18. Rubio’s perimeter shooting was helped by Kokoskov’s “basketball yoga” style drills, which has been put to good use already in Phoenix.
To recall a Suns’ specific example, coaches and players credited Kokoskov for developing young point guard Goran Dragic into a good NBA player and eventual All-Star.
Several members of the Suns’ young core have taken steps forward in certain areas of their game under Kokoskov’s guidance. However, since I already covered arguably the three most important pieces earlier this week, I wanted to hone in on three players who are great examples of why the new coaching system is working: Josh Jackson, Mikal Bridges and Dragan Bender (surprise!).
- Even though Josh Jackson is only shooting 29.3 percent in the restricted area this month, his sudden surge from beyond the arc has him far and away their best outside shooter. Jackson is converting 48.4 percent of his three-pointers in March, and his shooting mechanics continue to improve as the hitch we saw at Kansas and during his rookie year is nearly gone.
Jackson adding an average to above-average catch-and-shoot arsenal into his game would be huge for his development. It truly is make-or-break time for Jackson over the next six months. His spot still isn’t established yet within the young core, and he’s definitely on shakier ground compared to Mikal Bridges and Kelly Oubre Jr.
I’m cautious with this recent stretch because Jackson only shot 25 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities in February but, if this maintains, it does change his outlook. If Jackson can learn to rein in his aggressiveness while becoming a spot-up threat who can also be a prolific cutter, he can carve out defined roles in this league.
- Mikal Bridges has seen his playmaking continue to bud since the departure of Trevor Ariza, but over the past month Kokoskov has trusted his rookie wing with more of these duties. Following the All-Star break, Bridges has averaged 3.2 assists (+3.6 AST/TO) which ranks third behind only Booker and Tyler Johnson, the team’s two primary facilitators. Within Kokoskov’s pass-happy system, I wouldn’t bet against Bridges racking up 3-5 assists per game throughout the rest of his career with how high his basketball IQ is on both ends of the floor.
Another area I would be remiss not to hit on when it comes to Bridges’ all-around improvements is his recent experimentation with becoming more aggressive. Over the same time frame, Bridges has seen his free throw attempts per game nearly double from 1.2 to 2.2.
Possessing a gangly 7’2” wingspan, Bridges’ length allows him to finish around the rim and finish some ridiculously difficult shots in traffic. And it’s proven when you realize Bridges is shooting 18-for-24 (75 percent) inside the restricted area since mid-February, which is an excellent number for a wing.
During the pre-draft process, there was concerns with how well Bridges would fare in these areas but he’s rapidly progressing right now. Even at 22 years old, the former Villanova Wildcat is nowhere close to a finish product. From a coach-player fit, the Kokoskov-Bridges pairing works wonderfully.
- One player who seemed to be on his way out of the league a few months ago has made a sudden resurgence. Dragan Bender was barely playing any minutes up until T.J. Warren’s ankle injury in January and Jackson skipping an autograph signing in Scottsdale last month.
Bender is only averaging 18.7 minutes over the last 10 games, even though he’s starting every one, but he’s proven to be a solid on-court partner alongside someone like Deandre Ayton.
The added spacing element with a longer rebounder and defender (sometimes) gives a nice model for what Phoenix should prioritize this summer at the power forward positions. Someone like Nikola Mirotic, when you see the recent success Bender has had helping out, could thrive within Kokoskov’s system as the 4 next to Ayton, Booker, Oubre Jr. and Bridges.
Somehow, someway, Kokoskov and Co. are helping Bender actually look capable of sticking in the NBA. Who knows where he ends up as an unrestricted free agent — I still doubt Phoenix brings him back after declining his fourth-year option — but Bender has had some sequences here and there that could appeal to a team looking for bench depth.
Jackson, Bridges and Bender are only three examples of improvements from players we are currently witnessing under the watchful eye of Kokoskov.
Plenty of Suns fans wanted to cut the cord on Kokoskov’s tenure as the lead voice during the worst times, but, as we saw in Philadelphia under Brett Brown, sticking with a player development czar paid dividends later on.
As a rookie head coach, he’s still learning himself. Kokoskov didn’t even pick up his first technical foul until Feb. 23 at Atlanta.
For this season to be deemed one of progress, there had to be a turnaround in the final quarter. That’s currently ongoing right now with their 6-7 record since the All-Star break, and it goes to show how different they look compared to eight weeks ago. With two of those wins coming against the league’s two best teams, the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks, it’s time to give Kokoskov his credit for helping course-correct the ship.
Adding in their 2019 draft pick, which is likely to land in the top three, Kokoskov will have four to six important members of his team who are age 23 and under at the start of next season. Patience is a virtue, and the current developments being seen from some gives hope of what’s to come in the near future led by this coaching staff.