Malachi Flynn knew nothing about Darko Rajakovic when he learned his Toronto Raptors were getting a new head coach.
Now 10 games in he knows Rajakovic was exactly the change his career needed.
Like any good coach making a move to a new team, step one is learning about the people you will be dealing with whether that’s management, coaches, players or support staff.
A coach like Rajakovic will obviously put a little more focus on the players on his roster as improving or maintaining those talents is his primary role as head coach.
Malachi Flynn’s role coming into this season was a huge question mark.
After a promising rookie year in the COVID season, played entirely south of the border with Toronto setting up shop in Tampa, Fla., Flynn’s following two seasons were disappointments.
He would flash minutes of the player he knew he could be only to be relegated to the bench by then head coach Nick Nurse.
The sporadic nature of the minutes and the reliance on making shots to keep him on the floor played mind games with the now 25-year-old guard and he admits he did not handle it well.
Flynn began obsessing that every opportunity had to be perfect. A missed shot spelled the end of that strive for perfection. Any freedom or joy in his game would vanish and with it any confidence he had of working out of a shooting slump.
It’s the first thing Rajakovic noticed when he was doing his due diligence on all his new players and he got to the Malachi Flynn tape. His goal at that point was simple.
“To put a smile on his face,” Rajakovic said Tuesday following practice. “You know I told him first time we met, when you smile, when you’re having fun out there, when you’re competing, when you play with joy you’re a completely different player. I don’t want you to worry if you’re on the court five minutes or 10 minutes or 15 minutes, just go out there and play your best and try to help the team to win a game.
“So he embraced that,” Rajakovic said. “At the start of the season he didn’t know if (I was) serious about it or not. But now it’s like a huge difference with him. And I (have to) admit that Dennis Schroder played an amazing role (in that), just spending time with him, encouraging him, you know, helping him as a as a teammate. It’s tremendous what those two guys are doing together.”
Flynn recalls his first in-person meeting with Rajakovic this past summer.
“He just kept it real,” Flynn said. “He said he was going to give me a shot, that he thought I could help the team and the ways in which he saw it happening. I’m definitely thankful for that.”
The biggest lift for Flynn was the message that his minutes would not be based solely on shots made or missed anymore.
“He doesn’t mind if I miss shots or make shots,’ Flynn said. “It’s more about how I’m looking out there, if I’m getting other guys involved or how I’m playing defensively. So, I think his last worry is me making shots and when I do it’s just a plus obviously.”
It’s funny how when the pressure, even if some of it is self-inflicted, gets lifted, the results start to turn around.
Flynn isn’t out there hoisting up a ton of shots these days but when he does take one, he’s hitting them at a clip better than most in the league.
A 36% three-point shooter over three years in college and never better than 35.3% in his first three seasons, Flynn is hitting on 45.8% of his threes through 10 games. That’s not just decent, that’s the 16th highest mark in the Association.
His field goal percentage as a whole is also higher than it’s been in this, his fourth year in the league. Flynn is shooting the ball at a 46.3% clip, never having broken 40% in any of his first three years.
But again, the Flynn resurgence is about far more than just his shooting.
He’s playing backup point guard minutes behind Schroder and is having a positive impact. He’s picking up opposing guards full court like Schroder putting opponents immediately on the defensive.
After the Raptors began the year giving up too many second-chance opportunities simply by not rebounding the ball after getting stops, Flynn was one of the Raptors who put an emphasis on finishing out those defensive possessions with a rebound.
His numbers don’t jump off the stat sheet but that’s not the role he plays.
And if Rajakovic was looking for proof of that smile, he didn’t have to look really hard after Monday’s comeback win over Washington.
Flynn was beaming from ear to ear after playing more than nine minutes of the final quarter in the comeback. It was a further extension of that trust that Rajakovic has already placed in him but with the game on the line and in “winning time” as Flynn calls it, those minutes just meant a little more.
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For the first time this season, Rajakovic opted to spend a chunk of that fourth quarter with both his point guards on the floor together and came away pretty pleased with the results.
“We’ve had a plan of doing that, but (Monday) night was just the right moment for us to try to do that and you know, it will probably happen again,’ Rajakovic said.
Chances are, when it does, that smile on Flynn’s face will get a little more radiant.