How Goran Dragic went from national hero to first-time All-Star

From ESPN - February 15, 2018

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 did not 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 do not 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 did not 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 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 Steve Nash, but Dragic's transition was not 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 did not understand that well and now I really do, I really do. Even now I do not see him as a coach. I see him as my friend."

From mentee to mentor


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