Raptors host clinic for Toronto-area coaches

TORONTO – Darko Rajakovic remembers what it’s like to be an eager young basketball coach, trying to absorb as much as possible from more experienced teachers.

Now that he’s the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, he’s happy to impart as much as he can to the next generation of young coaches.

The Raptors held an open practice on Tuesday morning at Scotiabank Arena, with approximately 400 Toronto-area basketball coaches from all levels of the game sitting in the stands, watching how Rajakovic runs his training sessions.

“Back in the day, I was one of those coaches. I was sitting in the stands and listening to the clinics and trying to steal any knowledge I could and learn,” said Rajakovic after the practice. “For me, it’s a path that I went through so I can really respect them showing up on a Tuesday morning in a cold arena and ask questions and be eager to find out new information. I take it very, very seriously.

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“Anything that I can do to help any of those coaches and the basketball program in Canada, I’m here.”

He added with a laugh: “Unless when you’re playing against Serbia. Then no.”

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The Raptors usually hold their practices and morning shootarounds at OVO Athletic Centre, about 4.5 kilometres west of Scotiabank Arena, but moved it to their arena for the clinic. The day began with assistant coach Ivo Simovic going through basic drills with rookie forward Gradey Dick as his demonstration player, before Rajakovic explained how a normal practice worked, and then Toronto went through its usual set of drills.

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“We really didn’t change that much of a regular practice,” said Dick of the full squad session. “We’re so in the thick of the season where it’s more about getting prepared for the next game.

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“Not really going too crazy and knowing our bodies because we have a good stretch left.”

As a rookie, Dick’s only NBA practice experience has come under Rajakovic, who is in his first year as a head coach. Guard Ochai Agbaji, who is in his second season in the league after playing for the Utah Jazz in his rookie campaign, said that a Rajakovic-led practice is different than what he experienced in Salt Lake City.

“Darko, I think, brings an intensity to practice,” said Agbaji. “I think that that helps us get ready for the games and put stuff into light and into focus that we need to really take into a game.

“So with his intensity and how intentional he is with things during practice, I think it helps us out.”

The morning wrapped with Rajakovic taking questions from some of the coaches in attendance with Raptors radio commentator Paul Jones serving as M.C.

“I thought that our coaches did a really good job of presenting some of the stuff that we’re doing offensively and defensively,” said Rajakovic. “But it was also very cool to hear coaches ask really good questions.

“We’re really looking forward to continue to build this experience for our coaches and for our fan base.”

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Three of Toronto’s injured players were present courtside throughout. Centre Jakob Poeltl (dislocated finger), took one-handed shots in his flip flops when a basket was free. All-star forward Scottie Barnes (broken hand) and centre Chris Boucher (right knee contusion) of Montreal sat on the bench, occasionally stretching on the baseline, as their Raptors teammates practised.

“I think it’s paramount. I think it’s very important for them to be around our team,” said Rajakovic. “Scottie is our team leader. He can always be there and help with his voice. Even (though) he’s 22, he’s still very capable to help our guys and give them encouragement and instruction or whatever it might be.

“Then for Jak and CB as veterans, it’s very important for them to help other guys. But also, I think it’s very important for them to feel that they are still part of the team.”

RJ Barrett of Mississauga, Ont., was not at practice as he mourns the death of his 20-year-old brother Nathan Tyler Barrett.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2024.

&copy 2024 The Canadian Press

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