Last night, the Phoenix Suns announced that lead Jazz assistant Igor Kokoškov will take over as the team’s head coach next season. Kokoškov inherits a team full of young whippersnappers who logged the NBA’s worst record last season, and he has the tricky job of turning unrefined talent into NBA production. Kokoškov, 46, will become the first person born and raised outside of North America to coach an NBA team, and while he’s far from a household name, he’s been coaching top-level hoops in the United States for nearly 20 years.
Kokoškov grew up in Serbia wanting to be a professional player, and Serbian basketball legend Vlade Divac once said, “He could’ve been a great player. He was an excellent player before the injuries.” Kokoškov was involved in a head-on car crash when he was a teenager. He nearly died, and his knee was, per a Salt Lake Tribune profile of him last year, “shattered.”
“I was still a teenager,” Kokoškov said. “It changed my life. I knew from that point on that I couldn’t play the game. But I was always in love with the game, so I told myself that I would stay in the game. I never had a doubt that I would stay in basketball, in some capacity.”
After graduating from the University of Belgrade, Kokoškov got into the Serbian coaching system and worked his way up the OKK Belgrade staff until he took over as head coach when he was just 24. Kokoškov had a stint with Partizan Belgrade, then took off for the United States to pick the brains of American coaches. That’s when he ran into current Jazz boss Quin Snyder, who was then an assistant for Mike Krzyzewski. Snyder took a liking to Kokoškov, who he called a “kindred spirit,” and the two lived together for a month before Snyder took the Missouri job. When Kokoškov went to join him, he became the first full-time European assistant coach in NCAA Division I history.
He only lasted one season at Mizzou, because Clippers coach Alvin Gentry added him to his staff, making Kokoškov the NBA’s first foreign-born assistant coach. Gentry was effusive in his praise for Kokoškov, who stayed with the Clippers for three seasons before going to Detroit to work for Larry Brown and helping Serbian draftee Darko Milicic adjust to NBA life. Kokoškov won a title in Detroit and was on the coaching staff for an all-star game. He then went to Phoenix for five seasons, working under Terry Porter and Alvin Gentry and becoming a U.S. citizen in 2010. Kokoškov drew praise for his offensive wizardry on those late-Steve Nash-era Suns teams, particularly the way he helped develop Goran Dragic from a fringe NBA player into an all-star.
Kokoškov has always been a point guard’s coach, and when the Cavs hired him in 2013, Earl Boykins apparently called Kyrie Irving to gush about how helpful Kokoškov would be. “He’s very, very creative,” he said. “I liked Igor. A real good guy. He only gave you suggestions. He didn’t tell you, ‘You should do this or you should do that.’ The way that he approached players, he’s very personable. He has a lot of tricks.” In Kokoškov’s first season, Irving made his all-star debut.
After a brief few months on James Borrego’s dead-end Magic staff in 2015, Kokoškov joined Quin Snyder in Utah, where he’s been the team’s lead assistant for the past three seasons. George Hill had one of the best seasons of his career last year in Utah, which he attributed to Kokoškov’s tutelage:
“It’s different, working with him,” Hill said. “The things that he has me do is different than I’ve been used to. But what he’s had me do is phenomenal, little things that I didn’t know would help me become a better shooter and better off the dribble, things like that. We take a lot of time doing balance and core. You always want to work with someone who’s experienced, and Coach has been very good for me.”
Given what his former players have said about his work with point guards, it’s no surprise then that Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio have both come up huge for the Jazz this season. The Suns have a stable of confusing guards, as well as Devin Booker, who will probably relish working with Kokoškov. But since the Suns have the NBA’s best lottery odds, Kokoškov might soon get another star pupil to work with.
Kokoškov has spent his summers coaching the Georgian and Slovenian national teams, and he took Slovenia to to their first-ever EuroBasket championship last summer. That team went undefeated and it was led by Dragic and soon-to-be fellow NBA point guard Luka Dončić. The 2017 EuroBasket run is considered to be Dončić’s breakout tournament, and as ESPN draft dude Mike Schmitz showed, Kokoškov put him in great spots to succeed. It’s useless to speculate on how he might use Dončić in the NBA, since the lottery hasn’t even happened yet, but I’m sure the two would love to be reunited.
Kokoškov might come off like a novelty as a relatively young first-time NBA head coach from Serbia, but he’s been around the game forever. He seems like the perfect NBA lifer to breathe life into Phoenix’s strange young roster. Hopefully Robert Sarver’s stink doesn’t rub off on him too hard.