Kokoskov hits ground running as Suns head to Summer League

PHOENIX — At the beginning of each of the Phoenix Suns’ summer camp practices, new coach Igor Kokoskov puts his team through a specific routine.

He calls it “basketball yoga” — perhaps a cheesy nickname, he admits, but a drill that teaches his players two critical fundamentals: balance and control.

Kokoskov is doing a balancing act of his own this offseason as a first-time head coach.

The longtime NBA assistant and European coach has hit the ground running since being hired in May, doing his best to live up to General Manager Ryan McDonough’s description as a “pioneer,” the creative basketball mind that can shake the franchise out of obscurity.

Less than three months on the job, Kokoskov already has many balls in the air.

He personally worked out dozens of prospects during the pre-NBA Draft process in June, helping the Suns decide to take Deandre Ayton with the top overall pick. He will coach the organization’s Summer League team in Las Vegas beginning Friday. He’s trying to implement a new system, too, with a young roster that lost more games than any other team in the league last year.

His plate has been filled in a hurry. Balance will be crucial.

“It’s (the) offseason, but we’re trying to build something different, something new,” he said. “Starting from scratch.”

Kokoskov will be one of just four current head coaches to man the sidelines during the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas and the first Suns coach to do so since Jeff Horneck in 2013. It also was his first season at the helm.

“There is no one game that’s not important,” Kokoskov said of the Summer League. “We never play the game to lose. That’s what our approach is going to be, to try and win every quarter and control what we can control. We’re going to take it seriously.”

The Suns’ practices leading up to the tournament have reflected that attitude. Forward Josh Jackson, who will be participating in the Summer League for the second straight year, said the energy in the Kokoskov-led practices has been “amazing.” After practice on Wednesday, Ayton recognized the step-up to the pros.

“Now I’m playing against some competition, scratching each other, fighting each other,” Ayton said. “This is a man’s game, for sure.”

Ayton has taken quickly to Kokoskov’s style. The new head coach has made a strong first impression on the first pick in the draft.

“That dude is very smart,” Ayton said. “He’s very different.”

Ayton used the “basketball yoga” as an example.

Near the beginning of each practice, Kokoskov has his players go through a series of motions: Jump to the side, land on one leg, shoot the ball. Or do a 180-degree spin, then another one, then shoot the ball.

If players can learn to launch shots on one foot or after spinning through the air, shooting normal should be second-nature. They’re learning how to control their bodies in uncomfortable situations.

“Yoga equals harmony, controlling the body,” Kokoskov said. “We’re just trying to (get) them to feel comfortable to control their body. They realize and recognize all these stationary body control drills, simple drills that we’re doing, that’s a big part of a basketball game.”

Ayton said he had never heard of basketball yoga before, but those who have had vouched for its effectiveness.

Second-round pick George King said basketball yoga’s “one-legged, funky shots” were part of his successful pre-draft program earlier this offseason. Dragan Bender said he’s been doing variations of the routine for years while growing up in Europe.

“It’s small exercises that are definitely going to help when we start playing,” Bender added. “It’s all about the core, all about keeping your balance in place.”

Kokoskov’s personal balancing act, meanwhile, will continue in Las Vegas this weekend. He didn’t go into specifics on how he will divide minutes among a roster mixed with rookies and returners, nor did he reveal much about which roles his players will fill — besides saying on Wednesday that Ayton will play center and Bender will play power forward.

While most coaches are quietly observing this time of year, Kokoskov is going hands-on, trying to mold his team into the balanced unit he thinks can make the Suns relevant again.

“And at the end of the day I know it’s a job, it’s a business to do but if you don’t have a passion for the game, if you don’t like what you do, then it’s hard for you,” he said on Wednesday. “So I would never consider myself that I have to go to work. It’s something. It’s my really great pleasure to do.”

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