Former Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov has been given a tall task as the NBA’s first European head coach: Help rebuild a once-proud Suns franchise back into a contender.

Lennie Mahler | The Salt Lake Tribune Utah Jazz assistant coach Igor Kokoskov stands on the sideline before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City.

The days are now longer for Igor Kokoskov.

He’s an NBA head coach now — the first non-American head coach in league history. No longer is he a trusted assistant, as he was for the Utah Jazz and several franchises previously. He’s now running the show.

Even with the start of the regular season a little over a month away, That’s an adjustment for Kokoskov, who was hired by the Phoenix Suns in May. He’s now the flag-bearer for every international coach who wants to make it big in the NBA. His task is daunting as he takes over one of the youngest rosters in the league. But his excitement for his new challenge is real, and substantial.

“I don’t feel any extra pressure, being an international coach,” Kokoskov told The Salt Lake Tribune this past week. “I feel like I’m my own biggest critic. It’s certainly an honor being the first non-American head coach, and I think it’s a special achievement. But, I don’t feel more pressure than normal. I was lucky enough to get this job, and hopefully I’m good enough to keep it. I always said if you stayed around long enough, you could have a chance to make your mark in history.”

Kokoskov and his family are familiar with Phoenix. That’s part of the allure for him, being comfortable with his surroundings. He was once a Suns assistant for five seasons, on the bench during the height of the Steve Nash era.

The roster, the feel of the franchise, it’s different now. Phoenix isn’t a Western Conference title contender like it was a decade ago. The Suns are young and callow. They don’t have an identity. They currently don’t have a starting point guard, although Phoenix is canvassing the trade market in hopes of acquiring one before the start of the season.

What the roster does have is hope. Devin Booker, the smooth shooting guard, is a franchise piece, at least offensively. The Suns are banking on No. 1 draft pick DeAndre Ayton becoming a franchise player. And last year’s lottery pick, Josh Jackson, played better as the season progressed and enters his second season with significant upside.


• Is the first non-American-born head coach in NBA history 

• Is the Slovenian national team head coach

• Is credited as one of the best development coaches in the NBA 

• Was previously a Phoenix Suns assistant coach for five seasons 

• Was Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s top assistant for the past four seasons

When Quin Snyder took over the Jazz, he supplemented a young roster with a bunch of veterans. The Jazz signed Trevor Booker in free agency. They traded for shooting big man Steve Novak. They claimed Joe Ingles off the waiver wire. Those moves came with varying degrees of success on the floor. But their real value came in the locker room, where those three helped set a culture for a Jazz team that’s prevalent to this day.

Kokoskov has followed that blueprint in his first offseason with the Suns. The franchise brought in Trevor Ariza, who was instrumental in helping the Houston Rockets to the cusp of a conference title. They traded for Ariza’s teammate, Ryan Anderson, whom Kokoskov hopes will stretch the floor from his power forward spot.

They are moves that may not move the needle as much on the floor. But like Booker and Novak, they are moves that could pay off three or four years down the line, moves that help people like Booker and Jackson and Ayton and TJ Warren mature as NBA players.

“I’ve always said that you can’t use the fact that you are young as an excuse,” Kokoskov said. “This is the NBA, and I believe there are only two kinds of teams, good teams and bad teams. And, we don’t want to be a bad team. These guys have winning DNA, so we’re happy that we made those moves. We’re young, but we want to be good. So, hopefully these are moves that put us in a good direction.”

In the meantime, Kokoskov has immersed himself in his job. He said the new gig hit him during his opening news conference, but that he’s been too busy since to really think about it.

He has rounded out his coaching staff. He coached the summer league team, and his days consist of organizational tasks and management that didn’t exist when he was an assistant.

“We’re starting from scratch and trying to build something great,” Kokoskov said. “What we want to do is focus on the short-term and long-term picture.”