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Suns hire Igor Kokoskov as next head coach

Slovenia's coach Igor Kokoskov gives instructions to his players during their Eurobasket European Basketball Championship round of 16 match against Ukraine, in Istanbul, Saturday, Sept. 9. 2017. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
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The Phoenix Suns tapped into the franchise’s last coaching staff that made a playoff run and hired Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov as their next head coach, the team announced Wednesday.

The Suns will sign Kokoskov to a three-year deal, 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s John Gambadoro confirmed.

A former assistant of head coach Alvin Gentry with the Suns from 2008-13, Kokoskov will replace outgoing interim coach Jay Triano, who three games into the 2017-18 season took over for fired head coach Earl Watson.

Kokoskov will finish his duties coaching the Jazz in the playoffs before heading to Phoenix, but he released a statement through the Suns on Thursday.

“I am thrilled to be the next coach of the Phoenix Suns and greatly appreciate the opportunity that Robert Sarver and Ryan McDonough have given me. I am certainly proud to be the first head coach in the NBA raised outside North America and just as excited to return to the Suns organization and Phoenix, my family’s second home for the past 10 years,” Kokoskov’s statement read. “It’s a place where I was a part of tremendously talented and successful teams and I look forward to working towards a championship.

“My time here in Utah has been invaluable and we are in the middle of an important playoff run with a very special group of players and coaches who deserve my full attention. At the end of the season, I look forward to turning focus to my next challenge, building a strong program in Phoenix and creating the success the fans deserve.”

The 46-year-old Kokoskov, a long-time NBA assistant, will be tasked with leading the Suns to the playoffs, where they have not appeared since the 2010 team led by Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire made the Western Conference Finals. He will become the NBA’s first European-born head coach.

Phoenix hired Kokoskov after undergoing an extensive search that included contacting candidates David Blatt, James Borrego, Steve Clifford, Jason Kidd, Vinny Del Negro, David Fizdale, Kevin McHale and Frank Vogel. The team also interviewed Mike Budenholzer, who took his name out of the running, and Triano.

Kokoskov met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and vice president of basketball operations James Jones in Houston in between Game 1 and Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Jazz and the Rockets, according to Gambadoro.

The Suns never had a list of finalists and were blown away after a face-to-face interview with Kokoskov, per Gambadoro.

“We are thrilled to bring Valley resident Igor Kokoškov back to Arizona as head coach of the Phoenix Suns,” McDonough said in a press release. “Igor has been a pioneer throughout his basketball career and he brings a wealth of high-level coaching experience to our club. He was one of the first non-American born assistant coaches at both the NCAA and NBA levels and his most recent head coaching stint includes leading the Slovenian national team to the 2017 EuroBasket title, which was the first European title in the history of the country. Igor’s teams have always had a player development focus, a creative style of play and a track record of success.”

The entirety of Kokoskov’s head coaching experience comes with European national teams.

After serving as an assistant with Serbia and Montenegro in 2004-05, he was head coach of the Georgia national team from 2009-2015 and since 2016 has led a Slovenian squad highlighted by former Sun Goran Dragic and potential No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Luka Doncic.

Slovenia won the gold medal in the 2017 EuroBasket competition.

“He’s had some great head coaching experience internationally,” Gentry told Burns & Gambo on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station in April. “I think he’s very much ready to be a head coach. I think he understands the game, (he’s) got great personal relationships with the players … he’s got great temperament for a young team that’s going to have to develop. I think he would be a great choice.

“Goran came a long way when he was [in Phoenix] and Igor had a lot to do with that and his development,” Gentry said.

Kokoskov, who was born in the former Yugoslavia, began his career in the United States as an assistant with Missouri in 1999-2000 before he joined Gentry’s staff with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2000.

He was then an assistant for the Detroit Pistons from 2003-08 under Larry Brown and then Flip Saunders; under Brown, the team won the 2004 NBA Finals.

Following Kokoskov’s Suns stint under Gentry — and for half a season helping interim coach Lindsey Hunter in 2013 — Kokoskov spent the 2013-14 season with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He joined the Orlando Magic staff in the middle of the 2014-15 season. Since 2015-16, Kokoskov has worked under Utah Jazz assistant Quin Snyder, who first hired Kokoskov at Missouri.

Gentry believes Kokoskov would coach a free-flowing, up-tempo type of game to Phoenix.

“I would say he has a great feel for the game,” Gentry said. “I think he has a way of approaching guys. I think he can also be a very good disciplinarian — he’s always going to keep guys in line. He’s never going to be too high, never going to be too low.”

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