As three Suns players and one assistant coach fly to China later in September to participate in the FIBA World Cup, the influx of international talent to the Suns roster looks stark in comparison with the quick exit of Serbian head coach Igor Kokoskov this summer.
Kokoskov was supposed to bring an offense heavily influenced by the skill and IQ found in international competition to the Suns. He tried to do that, but wasn’t given the parts and found difficulty grafting his message onto a young team. After the failures of the 2018-19 season, Kokoskov was unceremoniously fired after one season at the helm of the team.
That didn’t turn the Suns away completely from international players or coaches. In fact, the likes of Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric are important additions that would have actually blended nicely into Kokoskov’s offense. Saric is the type of playmaking 4 who could have spaced the floor, moved without the ball and set the table for teammates much better than T.J. Warren or Trevor Ariza. Of course, Rubio also had a career year in his first season with Utah when Kokoskov was the offensive coordinator, as his offensive IQ was a perfect fit for the Kokoskov screen and move system.
Instead of Kokoskov, it will be Monty Williams who gets to mix Rubio and Saric into the Suns’ pie and reap the benefits. Add in the New Zealander Aron Baynes, who hails from a part of the world where basketball takes a more physical and rugged identity, and it’s clear the Suns placed value in the know-how that many international players bring to the table. Either that, or at least value in how such players might fit in the type of offense Williams developed as part of the San Antonio and Philadelphia organizations, which are heavily based on ball and player movement.
The final ingredient in Williams’ soufflé as coach of the Suns came when he hired his staff. Williams pried longtime Thunder assistant Darko Rajakovic from Oklahoma City and put the finishing touch on an offseason heavily influenced by the international game. Rajakovic will show his mettle at the FIBA event too, as an assistant for the Serbian National Team under Sasha Djordjevic. This will be valuable experience, as Serbia boasts a roster suddenly full of NBA players, including Nikola Jokic and Bogdan Bogdanovic.
It would have been easy to assume firing Kokoskov meant moving away from principles and characters of international hoops. Not so. General manager James Jones likely understands the future of the game looks more like what will happen on FIBA courts than 1990s NBA tape, and pivoted to several veteran foreign players at the same time he moved on from Kokoskov. The varied experiences that brought Williams to Phoenix will also be important, and several of the coach’s stops will show him how to use the skill sets of Rubio, Saric and Baynes.
Much of this summer was about getting back to full speed with what other franchises are doing, from overhauling the training program, to hiring a more seasoned assistant coaching staff, to finding a roster that made sense. The FIBA World Cup, which takes place from Aug. 31-Sept. 15, will show just how much integrating the international style into the Suns’ scheme and culture was part of Jones’ process as well.