The Toronto Raptors’ search for a head coach has made its way across the ocean. According to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, Raptors president Masai Ujiri interviewed Sarunas Jasikevicius for the position. This meeting likely took place while Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster were in Italy for the NBA Global Camp this past weekend.
Jasikevicius should be a familiar name, as he spent a couple of seasons with the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors in the middle of a pretty illustrious international career. Undrafted out of Maryland in 1998, he went on to win multiple titles and MVPs in Slovenia, Spain, Israel, Greece, and Turkey, once earning EuroLeague Final Four MVP honors, twice being named All-Europe Player of the Year and All-EuroLeague, and being named among the 50 Greatest EuroLeague Contributors and the EuroLeague All-Decade Team for 2001-10. He was also a fixture on the Lithuanian national team, becoming their only player to participate in four consecutive Olympics. He also famously dropped 27 on the U.S. in a narrow semi-finals loss in 2000 and then helped pull off the upset in 2004 with another 28. (From a personal perspective, he is my favorite non-Canadian international player of all time.)
Upon retiring in 2014, he immediately jumped to the Zalgiris bench as an assistant coach, taking over the head coaching reigns late in the 2015-16 season. Zalgiris has been on a quick upward trend since he took over, placing third in EuroLeague this year (their best finish since 19999) and sitting in a strong position to win an eighth consecutive LKL title. While he had players like Beno Udrih, Kevin Pangos, and Axel Toupane to lead the way, a EuroLeague Final Four finish was still quite an accomplishment for that group and for a team on the lower end in terms of budget.
Did an excellent job this season of taking a team entirely overmatched talent- and athleticism-wise, that couldn't shoot and relied upon guard creation, relentless team glass-crashing, ball movement and a lot of ways of feeding the post, all the way to the EuroLeague Final Four. https://t.co/bTPgtfeYGT
— Mark Deeks (@MarkDeeksNBA) June 5, 2018
Still only 42, Jasikevicius has quickly established himself as a name to watch on the international coaching scene. Obviously, that’s tough to translate directly to the NBA, but the fact that he’s young, recently removed from playing, hyper-competitive, and could bring a fresh and unique perspective all help in his candidacy. He’s shown he can lead, get more out of a team than the sum of its parts, and maintain a very balanced, human approach to the sport despite how fiery he can get. (He’s the kind of coach to get tossed in a semi-final game and joke about it after, apparently, which is appreciated here.) He’s said to be tough on his players but also able to forge lasting relationships with just about everyone, which would be important as a first-time head coach, and he speaks English fluently.
There’s been speculation for a while now that the NBA or a higher-power European team may come calling, and it’s easy to see why. (There’s also been speculation he’ll one day be tasked with coaching the national team.)
Jasikevicius on his summer decision: "If you want to leave Zalgiris, it must be better situation. It's the whole picture: project, city, financial potential, salary. And when you think about it, you understand that Zalgiris is one of the best spots in Europe to work and live."
— Donatas Urbonas (@Urbodo) May 7, 2018
Putting aside any obvious Jonas Valanciunas jokes with the Lithuanian connection, Jasikevicius should be taken seriously as a candidate even early on in his career – he’s received almost nothing but rave reviews and is said to be a strong tactician, and even grading on a curve (since most European coaches who enter the NBA interview cycle are raved about), he’s done enough quickly enough to warrant consideration. Yes, it’s a little outside of the box, and that’s what’s necessary in an evolving NBA where borders are less meaningful, skills are transferable, and the quality of the person and the candidate should matter far more than dogma or status quo.
Excellent basketball mind. Not only knows his X's and O's, but also has a great in-game feel. Intense on the sidelines. A charismatic person. Isn't a afraid to speak his mind. Very interesting to work with for journalists, unless you are a bullshitter. https://t.co/IWtKCCSyQe
— Simonas Baranauskas (@LithuaniaBasket) June 5, 2018
I can’t really purport to know enough about his day-to-day management of a team or what his specific NBA philosophy would be, but it’s encouraging to see the coaching search look at every possible avenue to making the team better. Plus, he could probably also still drop threes, if the team needs shooting.
Here’s a good post from R/TorontoRaptors for more.
Wojnarowski later added, by the way, that the Raptors are still strongly considering Nick Nurse, Ettore Messina, and Ime Udoka, and that further discussions with candidates could still be coming.