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Report: Raptors interview Zalgiris coach Sarunas Jasikevicius

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The Raptors are still without a head coach, and it appears their search is going world wide.

Euroleague Basketball Final Four - Awards Ceremony Photo by Matthias Kern/Getty Images

Hark! There is an update on the Raptors’ coaching search. According to a report from Adrian Wojnarowski, Toronto has interviewed the equally long-named Sarunas Jasikevicius, the current head coach of BC Zalgiris in the Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL).

Here’s the ESPN report and announcement in question:

As the header image up there implies, Jasikevicius, now 42, is a former player of some renown. His NBA resume is modest — just two seasons of active service, 138 games for two different teams (the Pacers and Warriors) from 2005-07 — but on the international scene, hoo boy, there are a lot of accolades to get through.

Jasikevicius got his start in 1998, playing for BC Lietuvos Rytas in the Lithuanian league, before jumping to Slovenia, Spain, Israel, and then the NBA at the age of 29. Then he was back to Europe, playing in Greece and Turkey before finding his way back to Lithuania for the aforementioned BC Zalgiris squad. His list of playing achievements is surprisingly long, and it includes various MVP awards, being named as one of the 50 most important contributors to European basketball, and even being award Mr. Europa Player of the Year back in 2003.

As far as bench experience goes, Jasikevicius became an assistant coach for Zalgiris team in 2014, and head coach in 2017 — the year in which he just happened to win the LKL Coach of the Year award. While on the coaching staff for Zalgiris, Jasikevicius has also won two LKL Championships, and something called the King Mindaugas Cup, which sounds dope as hell. He may not be a well-known NBA name, but he’s certainly been around the basketball world these past two decades.

There’s an obvious Raptors connection here of course: Jonas Valanciunas! He and Jasikevicius played together on the Lithuanian national team at the tail end of the latter’s playing career, circa 2011-12. That squad finished fifth in the 2011 EuroBasket tournament, and managed a quarter finals appearance in the 2012 Olympics. By then Jasikevicius was the oldest player on the roster, and Valanciunas was the youngest by a solid six years. The two are aware of each other, is my point.

Now, if you want my take, here goes: the likelihood of the Raptors hiring Jasikevicius feels very low, though I really do appreciate the out-of-the-box thinking being broadcast here by team president Masai Ujiri. Much like the Suns and their hiring of Igor Kokoskov, it’s a league-wide acknowledgement that there are other types of basketball coaches out there in the wide world, and incoming bench bosses need not be the same handful of names being recycled again and again. If you want true team innovation, it can potentially be found.

That said — and I realize I may already be walking back what I just wrote there — this Raptors squad is not set up to take a gamble on an unproven NBA coach, even one who, we can safetly assume, knows how to play in the ball-movement heavy, bombs-away style of European basketball (which is increasingly the style of the modern NBA). Now, I obviously do not know much about Jasikevicius as a person, how he relates to players and management, how he carries himself professionally, etc., but it feels like this version of Raptors will need to be guided by someone who can immediately command the respect of their most important (re: older) players. Having Valanciunas on side already is a plus, but there’s no telling how Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will react to a coach with such limited NBA-level experience. Maybe Jasikevicius is a play-calling wizard in the LKL and that can offset this concern — but that’s also no guarantee.

If the Raptors (like the Suns) were a rebuilding team, a squad searching for a whole new identity moving forward, this kind of move would make sense. But the Raptors are definitely not that. If anything, they’re the exact opposite: for better or worse, they know who they are. And right now they’re looking for small gains in the margins, for ways to raise the team floor even higher, and maybe, just maybe, keep that high-level competitive window open just a crack for another year or two. As it stands, I’m still left feeling like the only options for Toronto are their internal candidates, or the possibility of hiring a much more experienced coach like the recently interviewed Ettore Messina.

Am I wrong about this? Is there some Jasikevicius insight I’m missing here? And what does JV Hive think about all of this? Sound off in the comments.