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Rajakovic thrilled to be taking over as Raptors coach

TORONTO (AP) – Darko Rajakovic has been in a good mood ever since the Toronto Raptors made him the 10th head coach in franchise history.

“The last three days I’ve had a smile on my face so much my jaw is starting to hurt,” Rajakovic joked on Tuesday at an outdoor news conference.

Rajakovic, 44, replaces Nick Nurse, who was fired on April 21 after Toronto went 41-41 and lost in the opening round of the play-in tournament.

“We’re really, really excited for this day,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said, seated alongside Rajakovic on a stage set up outside the team’s downtown arena.

“I know it’s change and sometimes change is hard, but we believe change is good, and change is good for our ball club and our organisation now.”

General manager Bobby Webster said Rajakovic “didn’t go in as the favourite” when Toronto started its search, but won over the Raptors as the process evolved.

Toronto Raptors new head coach Darko Rajakovic poses with team president Masai Ujiri, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd President Larry Tanenbaum and Raptors general manager Bobby Webster. PHOTO: AP

“He’s really smart, he’s detailed, he’s structured,” Webster said. “He has a really diverse set of experiences internationally, but also in the NBA.

He’s worked for a number of organisations and directly with a lot of, like, high-calibre players and it just kind of all fit. He just exceeded our expectations and just really impressed us.”

Rajakovic said he felt an immediate connection with Toronto’s front office staff.

“The first time we started talking on a Zoom call, what I felt from day one was unity,” Rajakovic said.

“Everyone in the organisation, you could just feel that everybody is together.”

Born and raised in Serbia, Rajakovic has been involved in coaching since his teens. He coached in Spain before coming to the United States. Rajakovic was a head coach for two seasons in the G League (then called the NBA Development League) before joining the Oklahoma City Thunder as an assistant before the 2014-15 season. He spent the 2019-20 season as an assistant with Phoenix, then joined Memphis the following year.

At his introductory news conference, Rajakovic fielded a question in Serbian from a Serbian-language broadcaster based in Toronto.

The city has a significant population of Serbian immigrants.

Rajakovic said it “means the world” to be the second Serbian-born coach in the NBA after Igor Kokosov, who led the Suns in 2018-19.

“It means so much to the Serbian community here in Toronto,” Rajakovic said. “A lot of people reached out to me. It means a lot to my family back home and the whole basketball community in Serbia.”