After 714 NBA games, 145 international league contests and 91 FIBA matches, Goran Dragic is officially an NBA All-Star.
Injury replacement or not, the 31-year-old Miami Heat guard has played some of his best basketball the past two seasons, maintaining momentum when most guards begin to lose steam. It’s the resilience that Dragic shows on the floor that has been a consistent theme throughout his NBA career — one that almost didn’t last.
“That first year that I struggled, I had thoughts to go back to Europe,” Dragic told ESPN during Eurobasket in Helsinki this past summer. “I was alone. I even cried in my room talking to my dad. ‘They don’t give me a chance. This is not for me’ … If I would have been in a different situation with a different team, probably I would be back in Europe.”
Rise in Slovenia
Growing up in Ljubljana, Dragic was a ball boy for Union Olimpija — the Balkan country’s top club — shagging rebounds and darting chest passes to future NBA center Rasho Nesterovic during warm-ups. Olimpija’s head coach often told Nesterovic that Dragic would play in the NBA someday, which sparked a laugh from the 7-footer.
“I was way different,” Dragic said. “I was skinny, small, really quick. I was not a scorer. I was more as a facilitator. My shot was not quite polished yet. I was so quick, wanting to get inside the paint, so I didn’t work so much on my game at that time.”
Less than a decade later, a 20-year-old Dragic made his Slovenian senior national team debut as Nesterovic’s teammate during the 2006 World Cup (a tournament that featured Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade). Making the team was the apex of Dragic’s young career, and his agent, who represented the Phoenix Suns‘ 2003 first-round pick, Zarko Cabarkapa, informed David Griffin’s front office about Slovenia’s rising star. NBA teams began tracking the ultra-aggressive lefty guard as he developed in his home country. With Dragic’s name gaining traction across Europe, he signed a four-year deal with heralded Spanish club Tau Ceramica (now known as Baskonia), with a buyout of 1.6 million Euro after his third season.
During Dragic’s first year under contract, he was loaned to Murcia, a lesser Spanish club, with which he played a small role off the bench and broke his hand, causing him to miss two months of action. That summer, the 21-year-old Dragic continued to build his FIBA profile, playing 25 minutes per game on a European Championship team that went 6-3, with wins over Tony Parker and France (twice), Germany, Turkey, Poland and Italy.
Dragic was set to finally take the floor with Tau Ceramica as the 2007-08 season neared. But then Union Olimpija called, asking for Dragic on loan and promising him the starting point guard job. Tau agreed to send Dragic back to his hometown, and he eventually emerged as a first-round talent, viewed by some as the draft’s second-best point guard behind 2008 No. 1 pick Derrick Rose.
Dragic started 11 of 13 EuroLeague games with Olimpija, finished fourth in the Adriatic League in win shares and played a huge role in bringing a Slovenian League Championship to Ljubljana. Alongside brash veteran forward Sasa Doncic, the father of potential 2018 No. 1 pick Luka Doncic, Dragic led Olimpija to an 18-2 Slovenian League record and an 84-60 win over Domzale in the final.
“This is a very beautiful memory,” Sasa Doncic said. “[Dragic] loved basketball. He was first in the practice, last at the practice. He had a good, good will. He was ready for the chance. He was preparing for the chance.”
Shortly after the victory, Dragic flew to Treviso, Italy, to catch the last day of the heralded Reebok EuroCamp, drawing rave reviews from NBA teams and ESPN’s own Jonathan Givony. The camp was loaded with studs back then, including Dragic, Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka, Omer Asik, Alexey Shved and Donatas Motiejunas.
As Dragic’s buzz grew, so did Phoenix’s infatuation with the fiery guard. The Suns brought Dragic in for a pre-draft workout run by former Suns assistant and 2017 Slovenian national team head coach Igor Kokoskov, who has become Dragic’s close friend and mentor. After former Suns executive and current ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan picked Dragic up from the airport, Kokoskov put him through a series of drills.
The workout was a long time coming. Kokoskov had been courting Dragic while he was an assistant with the Detroit Pistons, yearning for him to run his team should he land a head-coaching job in Europe.
“That would be the guy that I would love to coach,” Kokoskov said. “I just loved his game. My wish to coach him became true … He was fearless.”
Dragic was widely viewed as a first-round talent for the 2008 draft, but concerns about his buyout saw him fall to No. 45 in the draft — a pick the Spurs made for the Suns before later swapping their 48th pick (Malik Hairston) for the rights to Dragic.
Once the buyout was finally negotiated, Dragic signed a four-year, $10 million contract with Phoenix — three years guaranteed and an option on the fourth. It looked like Phoenix had its heir apparent to Nash, but Dragic’s transition wasn’t so smooth.
Early struggles in Phoenix
After a strong summer league, Dragic stumbled out of the gates and posted a 9.8 player efficiency rating in 55 games. Terry Porter succeeded Mike D’Antoni as head coach in the offseason heading into Dragic’s rookie year. Shaquille O’Neal was in his first full season with the Suns, and they were in a clear transitional phase from Seven Seconds or Less basketball to a more regimented style.
The mishmash group missed the playoffs for only the third time in more than 20 years. While Dragic’s confidence wavered, Nash, Grant Hill and assistant coaches kept him afloat as he doubted his decision to come to the U.S.
“[Kokoskov] was my second father. When I came to the States, he speaks the same language as I do. He was there for me 24/7,” Dragic said. “I owe them a lot that I even succeed in the NBA because of him and Dan Majerle and those guys.
“Igor was the main guy. He always talked to me. He always opened my eyes and my head. I always remember him saying, ‘Just put hard work in and be patient.’ He was always saying patience. At that time, I didn’t understand that well and now I really do, I really do. Even now I don’t see him as a coach. I see him as my friend.”
After showing flashes during his sophomore campaign, Dragic’s true NBA arrival came under head coach Alvin Gentry in the 2010 playoffs against the Spurs, when he exploded for 23 points in the fourth quarter of a come-from-behind win. Kokoskov calls the performance “the $1 million dollar game.” Dragic unleashed a versatile scoring attack against Tony Parker, whom he clashed with numerous times on the FIBA circuit as a youngster. The lonely, tear-filled nights of his rookie season were a distant memory. Dragic had officially arrived in the NBA.
Although he was becoming more of a household name, Dragic’s path took more twists and turns from there. From his emerging in Phoenix to being traded to Houston to returning to Phoenix to landing in Miami, the chip on Dragic’s shoulder continued to fuel his play.
“When he plays on an edge, he always responds,” said Kokoskov, who is now an assistant with the Utah Jazz and should quickly emerge as an NBA head-coaching candidate. “He played really on an edge. Phoenix helped him with that trade to play on the edge and be upset and prove that we made a mistake.”
Dragic has proven it in Miami, averaging 20.3 points and 5.8 assists per game last season and nearly matching those numbers in his past six February contests leading to the All-Star break. The Heat are sliding, but as has been the case his entire career, Dragic is starting to hit his stride as the season goes along. He should be a deciding factor in whether Miami can reach the playoffs.
From mentee to mentor
While Dragic is still writing his NBA story, his Slovenian national team career might have come to a close this past year, after he led his home country to an improbable European Championship gold medal, the first in the small country’s history.
With Luka Doncic playing beside him and his former teammate Sasa calling the games, Dragic finished fourth in scoring (22.6) and PER (30.9) while dropping 35 points on former Yugoslavian rival Serbia in the final.
“If I give that spot to the young guy, they can grow for the future of Slovenian basketball,” Dragic said.
Dragic is the most accomplished player in Slovenian basketball history, and he has assumed the role of mentor for Luka Doncic as he embarks on what’s likely to be a long, successful NBA career. Doncic met Dragic as a 7-year-old, when he was wiping floors and rebounding for the young Slovenian star just like Dragic did for Nesterovic.
“He was just a young guy like I am now,” Doncic said. “These are special moments.”
Dragic has become Doncic’s national team roommate, friend, mentor and sounding board as he goes through the pre-draft process that almost took Dragic to the brink mentally. Doncic’s situation is different. He’s a potential No. 1 pick, a child prodigy who has been producing at an unprecedented level at age 18. But Dragic’s presence is imperative for Doncic, who will likely face the criticism that goes with European prospects selected in the top five.
“What Steve Nash was for Goran 10 years ago, that’s what Goran has become for Luka,” Kokoskov said.
As Dragic sat in the Crowne Plaza hotel in Helsinki last summer, a familiar face strolled through the lobby.
“We’re talking about the devil, and the devil is behind us,” Dragic said with a smile.
“Gogi!” yelled former Suns teammate and French national team player Boris Diaw.
“Boo-boo!” responded an elated Dragic.
“32 points?” Diaw asked.
“30 man,” Dragic said as the two embraced.
Tales of the Phoenix days surfaced, particularly the pool parties in the sunny desert. “Let’s go back,” Diaw said. “I still have my house there. I think I’m going to sell it, but I need to do one more pool party.”
As the 35-year-old Diaw, a basketball legend and NBA champion, turns toward the tail end of his career, the 31-year-old Dragic is still improving. His transition jaunts, masterful footwork in the paint and step-back jumpers have become staples in Miami, and a whirlwind career finally appears to have reached stability — all culminating in an All-Star appearance on Sunday in L.A.
“After almost 10 years knowing each other, it’s more than just a coach-and-player relationship,” Kokoskov said of he and Dragic. “We’re friends off the court. Our wives are friends. Our kids are friends. Goran was just a young player coming to the league, he was basically on his rookie orientation, and as he was growing as I was growing. Goran wasn’t my only job, but it was part of my job. Just great memories. Only great memories with Goran Dragic. He’s become one of the best point guards in the world.”