Darko Rajakovic became the first NBA Development League head coach born outside of North America when he was named coach of the Tulsa 66ers two seasons ago.
Earlier this month, he became the third straight 66ers head coach to be called up to the NBA, joining Nate Tibbets and Dale Osbourne. Rajakovic is now serving as an assistant on Thunder coach Scott Brooks’ staff.
Over his 19-year coaching career, Rajakovic (Rahj-a-KOE-vich) has experience coaching clubs in his native Serbia, Spain and the D-League.
In a Q&A with The Oklahoman, Rajakovic discussed those experiences and what he hopes to bring to the Thunder.
Q: Your bio said you had your first coaching job at 16?
A: “Yes sir.”
How did that happen?
“Well, I started playing when I was 7. By the age of 16 I figured out that I’m not going to be a top level player, and I didn’t want to waste my time trying to play on some low-level teams. And I decided to come into coaching with the desire to one day be part of the NBA.”
What job did you have at 16?
“At 16 I was an assistant coach with youth teams in my hometown and with one of the best coaches for player development. So I was very lucky to have a great mentor at the beginning. Just after a year and a half, I got the head coaching job with the same position coaching 16 and under. I was 18. So a couple of my ex-teammates, they were on the team and I was coaching my ex-teammates. It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it.”
What did getting off to such an early start as a coach do for you in terms of helping progress your career?
“There were a lot of challenges, of course. But I had a lot of experience. I’m still a young coach. I’m 35 years old, and still I have 19 seasons under my belt; the majority of that, 17 years, as a head coach at different levels. So I think that really helped me have a better understanding for the game, a better understanding for players, a better understanding for processes and how much time it takes for teams and players to develop.”
To have had so much experience in different leagues, different countries, how has that helped shape you as a coach in terms of how you see and analyze the game?
“Definitely it helped me a lot, because the style of game is different in Serbia where I was coaching, it was different in Spain and it’s definitely different over here. So all of those experiences together are helping me to learn and see different angles of basketball. I learned one thing: there is not just one way to do something. I think that’s going to help me going forward.”
How would you classify yourself as a coach? Many coaches are either offensive coaches or specialize in defense. Do you look at yourself as one or the other, or sort of a mixture of both?
“Basketball coach. I think that this game has to be played on both ends of the floor. You need to develop players. You need to be good with Xs and Os. You need to be good with communication with players. I think it has to be the full package, and I want to develop the full package for myself.”
When you were with Tulsa for the past two years, what was that experience like for you, and how much better do you feel like you became as a coach because of that experience?
“It was a beautiful experience, and I am very thankful for the organization giving me that opportunity. Thanks to (the Thunder) organization, coaches and processes that we had in place, I think that I improved a lot as a coach, and I want to continue the same way.”
What will your role be with the Thunder as an assistant now?
“I will be an assistant coach. That means I will assist Coach Brooks (smiles).”
What will you focus on? Is there one area?
“On basketball.” (Laughs).
Is there anything specifically about the game or the players that you are charged to deal with?
“I will be helping in all areas. I will be focused a lot on development of young players on our team, and also I will have input on everything that we do offensively and defensively. I just want to help in all areas that I can help in.”