EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Suns’ challenge in Flagstaff is making Kokoskov’s offense reactionary
PHOENIX — Igor Kokoskov likes to talk basketball. He’s constantly thinking it.
Speaking to reporters Monday at the Phoenix Suns’ media day, the first-year head coach jumped between thoughts when asked broad questions by basketball expert standards. His mind was churning.
The challenge for the Suns players beginning Tuesday in their Flagstaff, Ariz., training camp is taking in everything a busy basketball mind can throw at them.
“One of the whiteboards in his office is covered with plays now — I think there’s a hundred-plus plays on there,” Phoenix general manager Ryan McDonough said Monday. “The way he thinks is on a high level.”
The Suns hired Kokoskov because of his creativity, especially on offense. Whether it’s about a team as a whole or individual players, the first-time NBA head coach is known for identifying strengths and weaknesses, bringing out the former and hiding the latter.
Kokoskov has coached Slovenian swingman and rookie Dallas Maverick Luka Doncic, who turned in one of the best international performances from a teen in last year’s EuroBasket championship run. Last year, Phoenix’s new coach played a huge part in directing a Utah Jazz offense that made a pure point guard with a shooting deficiency, Ricky Rubio, better by taking the ball out of his hands. Kokoskov brought out the best of Rubio and then-rookie Donovan Mitchell, a play-making shooting guard whose role might’ve looked similar to what his assistant coach now envisions for the Suns’ Devin Booker.
“In many ways, it was the same way we played in Utah the last three years,” Kokoskov said of Phoenix’s offense. “We use that term ‘blender.’ Put them in a blender. Drive-and-kick and (an) extra pass … attacking from all different angles. Let ’em figure (it) out so it’s not one guy on a spotlight and everybody else standing and watching.
“When the ball is moving and bodies moving, it creates confusion. Now when the ball goes to Book’s hands or (Trevor) Ariza or any of the guys, he can put them in a blender. It’s not necessarily all spotlights and all lights are going to be on Booker. We don’t play that kind of basketball.”
Now, Kokoskov is challenged with giving a young team the formula for success.
And considering his creative mind and seemingly never-ending playbook, maybe that’s a challenge. Or maybe not.
Phoenix hired Kokoskov because he can make the complex simple to understand. Much about his offense he formulated with Utah coach Quin Snyder included seemingly standard NBA sets — only they came with multiple variations with the intent on deceiving and misdirecting opponents, as the Salt Lake Tribune’s Andy Larsen detailed last week.
How’s that going for a young Suns team?
In basketball terms, the challenge after teaching the principles of the offense is about adding and then executing those variations of standard, well-known base plays.
Rookie small forward Mikal Bridges admitted that, easy as it is to learn, it took time to make the offense natural. And Bridges had the advantage of Summer League to grow comfortable with it.
“I kind of had the whole idea even in Summer League, but when we came back — it was kind of like right when we had weeks off and we came back, I already knew what it was and different things to look out for,” he said.
The ultimate goal once things are initiated is to put the ball in the hand’s of a player already in motion with the defense also scrambling. Upon a catch, that ball handler can attack for their own attempt — depending on their skillset — look for a lob pass or shooter beyond the three-point line, or have another passing lane to, hopefully, hit a teammate breaking free off another action. That’s what made Doncic, an average athlete, so potent playing under Kokoskov.
“Constant movement,” Suns forward T.J. Warren said. “The ball’s finding the right guy every time down the floor, the ball’s not really sticking. It’s a fun offense when everybody’s touching the ball and everybody’s getting the shot they want.”
Even for an elite scorer like Booker.
With questions at point guard, it’s Booker who profiles as the best play-maker and scorer on the team. No matter whether McDonough finds a starting point guard via a trade or sticks with the collection of four relatively inexperienced point guards as of Monday, Kokoskov’s offense is prepared to produce in a nontraditional way.
“It’s a lot of read and react. By that I mean, when we run a play, we don’t run a play to get to one thing,” said second-year forward Josh Jackson, who shot 24 percent in Summer League while adjusting to Kokoskov’s offense. “Throughout that play, we have so many different options that you can hit. You just got to read the defense.”
The goal is for everyone to play without thought as the playbook expands. And it’s a good guess, based on what’s known about Kokoskov, that playbook has hardly expanded at all to this point.
Even what they have down will take time to make natural. That’s one overarching goal of training camp and the preseason.
“When I go out there sometimes, I feel like my body is just playing. Like, I’m really not even thinking. Everything’s just second nature to me, my body just reacts,” Jackson said. “I think a lot of our training this summer is tipping to get us to react to certain things.”