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McDonough: Kokoskov a perfect fit for Suns’ head coaching job

Slovenia coach Igor Kokoskov applauds during the Eurobasket European Basketball Championship final against Serbia in Istanbul. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)
LISTEN: Ryan McDonough, Suns General Manager

Setting out at the end of the season on what the team promised to be a wide-spanning coaching search, the Phoenix Suns didn’t waste time in filling their head coaching position.

They spoke with more than a handful of candidates but on Wednesday struck a deal to sign Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov to a three-year deal. The former Suns assistant from 2008-2013 fit a roster that is expected to receive an overhaul but at its core needs to develop young players in Devin Booker, Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss.

Kokoskov’s 18 years of NBA experience as an assistant, his history as a national team head coach and his ability to mold young players all stood out to Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough, vice president of basketball operations James Jones and owner Robert Sarver.

“We think Igor is the perfect guy for our team and our situation,” McDonough said Thursday on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Doug & Wolf show.

“He’s a great tactician, he’s great at player development. He has an understated way about him that players really respect and like. He has a track record of winning and helping players get better wherever he goes.”

When Kokoskov was an assistant for former Suns coach Alvin Gentry, he was credited with helping develop Goran Dragic, who played for Kokoskov on the Slovenian national team that won the 2017 EuroBasket title.

This season, the assistant’s third in Utah, the play by Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell and point guard Ricky Rubio’s best NBA season were viewed as Kokoskov-influenced, McDonough said.

“He’s worked primarily with their guards,” the Suns GM added. “Even young guys like Dante Exum he’s worked with, Raul Neto — they give Igor a lot of credit with helping Neto with his shot.”

Jones told Bickley & Marotta that Kokoskov’s past coaching developing teams in Orlando, Cleveland and the Los Angeles Clippers all stood out on his resume.

“He’s progressive offensively, he’s very flexible — defensively as well. He’s most comfortable in an environment where he’s on the floor, talking to the players, teaching them the details of the game,” Jones said. “I had known Igor personally throughout my time as an NBA player, but I was really blown away when I got a chance to talk to him personally about the game of basketball.”

Kokoskov’s work with the Slovenian national team from 2016-17 and the Georgian national team in 2008-2015 played a large part in impressing the Suns’ brass.

That not only gave Kokoskov a foundation of building and leading a team, but a canvas for showcasing his creativeness as a coach.

“I know I keep going back to that but if you’re a head coach at that level, basically it’s like a mini NBA season every year where you have new players coming in, you have to organize a training camp, lay out a vision for how the team’s going to play, maybe have a few exhibition games and then get going in a very pressure-packed, competitive environment,” McDonough said.

“What he did with that (Slovenian) team was really impressive,” the general manager added. “Not only did they win the championship, they went 9-0 and dominated the field and put together a very impressive attack, especially on the offensive end, that led to a lot of blowouts and led to the first European championship in the history of Slovenia.”

So how does the hire effect the Suns’ NBA Draft?

In short, it doesn’t.

Kokoskov’s relationship to Slovenian 19-year-old Luka Doncic, a likely top-2 NBA Draft pick, of course helps the Suns’ scouting department. But McDonough pumped the brakes on how the new head coach’s influence could change the team’s approach come June 21.

“I’m pretty sure Igor is going to say we should draft whoever the best player is,” McDonough said. “I understand people will make the connection with Luka. He’s a phenomenal player who will certainly be in the mix depending on where we’re picking. In the top couple (picks), we’ll look at him — we don’t think he’ll last long on draft night. That being said, Deandre Ayton, a few other guys will be in the mix as well.

“With Igor, certainly that relationship and that experience with Luka helps. I don’t think any team will be more prepared in terms of evaluating Luka Doncic and knowing everything about him than we will, but at the same time, we’re going to draft who we feel is the best player on the board when we’re picking.”

The NBA Draft Combine takes place from May 16-20, but Doncic will not be able to attend as his Real Madrid team plays in the EuroLeague Final Four.

There, the Suns could use the event to begin assembling an assistant coaching staff if Kokoskov and the Jazz are out of the playoffs by that point.