SALT LAKE CITY — As the Utah Jazz went through one of the greatest turnarounds in NBA history last season, it wasn’t a secret that assistant coach Igor Kokoskov was being courted by opposing teams.
All along, Jazz head coach Quin Snyder had considered him a head coach in the NBA — even as he served on his staff — so when Kokoskov interviewed for the vacant Phoenix Suns job, he wasn’t offended.
“I think Igor is capable of doing two things at once,” Snyder said during the Jazz’s first-round playoff series against Oklahoma City. “It’s a credit to him.”
Then, ahead of Game 2 in the Jazz’s Western Conference semifinals series with Houston, news broke that Kokoskov had agreed to take over in Phoenix the following season.
Even with that, Snyder is extremely supportive and proud to welcome the league’s first-ever European-born head coach back to Utah as the Jazz face the Suns at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Vivint Arena. It’s the first of four regular-season meetings between the Western Conference foes.
“I care deeply about Igor as a person and respect him so much as a coach from the time I’ve spent with him,” Snyder said. “I know anytime you’re in your first year of building something, there’s challenges.
“We correspond throughout the year, usually by text,” he added. “Everybody’s kind of emotionally drained so it’s hard to get on the phone but he’s doing a heck of a job and there’s no shortcuts in what they’re doing.”
Ironically, both teams are looking to bounce back from losses against the Rockets. Houston beat Phoenix, 118-110, on Monday night while the Jazz fell to the Rockets, 125-98, on Saturday as reigning MVP James Harden posted 40-plus points in both games.
Kokoskov, 47, served on the Jazz coaching staff from 2015-18. However, his relationship with Snyder was formed over two decades ago when Kokoskov toured the United States as a young coach while living in Belgrade, Serbia, and Snyder was an assistant coach at his alma mater, Duke University.
The Jazz went 139-107 with Kokoskov on the coaching staff, reaching the second round of the postseason twice while winning at least 40 games in all three seasons.
“He’s just a great guy, I really like Igor,” said Jazz center Rudy Gobert. “He’s a great person and he always brought great energy to practice and to the game. To me, that’s important and then he’s a very smart coach so I’m sure that he was helping Quin a lot during the season and that’s why he is where he is today. He’s got a great opportunity and we’re all happy for him.”
In Phoenix, the wins certainly haven’t translated as the young team is 11-44 and dead last in the Western Conference standings, but Kokoskov also went into the situation knowing the organization hadn’t reached the postseason since the 2009-10 season. Success won’t come overnight.
“I just have full confidence that he knows how to build in what they’re trying to build,” Snyder said.
Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, Josh Jackson and Kelly Oubre Jr. are some of the young talent on the Suns learning from Kokoskov, but last year it was Donovan Mitchell and Ricky Rubio in the Jazz’s backcourt. Mitchell was selected to the NBA All-Rookie First Team while Rubio put up a career-best 13.1 points on 41.8 percent shooting with 5.3 assists per game while reaching the playoffs for the first time.Comment on this story
Some of those lessons they took from Kokoskov are still helping them today as Utah is in seventh place in the Western Conference standings.
“He’s a genius. He’s such a smart coach,” Mitchell said. “He’s taught me different things as far as keeping the game simple and that’s where I kind of get a lot of my stuff from Ricky (Rubio), too, because just being able to not have to do all the herky-jerky stuff, but keeping it simple, keeping it fundamental.
“That was his big thing, especially when it came to talking to me personally,” he continued. “I’m excited to play against him, I’m excited for him.”