Goran Dragić finding happiness with Bulls after trying last season




 

How Dragić finding happiness with Bulls in reserve role originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Goran Dragić was preparing for the FIBA EuroBasket tournament with his Slovenian national team when several Chicago Bulls gathered in Los Angeles in early August for optional group workouts.

Dragić, who had verbally agreed to a free-agent deal with the team, needed to come to the United States at some point to take a physical and sign his contract. But the optional gathering motivated him to do some jetsetting.

"I said to myself, 'I have to come and see the team,'" Dragić said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago following a recent practice. "It's crucial just to get to know everybody so you can start the relationships."

So Dragić flew from Europe to Los Angeles, spent one day with his new teammates, and then flew back, staying fresh enough to star alongside Luka Dončić over the next month as Slovenia advanced to the quarterfinals.

"I only came for one day," Dragić said. "But it was worth it."

It's not hard to see the joy Dragić is playing with these days following a tumultuous 2021-22 season. Dragić never wanted to leave the Miami Heat, but they traded him to the Toronto Raptors in the Kyle Lowry acquisition. Dragić played just five games with the Raptors before he and team agreed to let him return to his family until a trade could be made.

The Raptors eventually acquired former Bull Thad Young from the Spurs, who waived Dragić so he could sign with the Brooklyn Nets and play for his old friend and teammate, Steve Nash. The Nets' season ended in underwhelming fashion, and Dragić welcomed the opportunity to a career reset in free agency.

Plenty of speculation centered on Dragić landing with the Dallas Mavericks and Dončić, his countryman. Instead, an unexpected opportunity arose with the Bulls.

"I enjoy it so much here. You get to a new team, new city, new people, and it's such a nice vibe for me," Dragić said. "Good communication with Billy (Donovan), who is a great coach. I just feel happy. I think that's the most important thing, especially at the end of your career. That you're productive and happy."

Dragić is certainly playing productively. He's averaging 9.4 points and 3.6 assists in just 17.3 minutes while shooting 53.6 percent from 3-point range. His lob passes have endeared him to multiple teammates. And his leadership for young guards like Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White has been praised.

"I've been very impressed with the investment he has made with a lot of our younger players," Donovan said. "At times, we can have a quiet group. His willingness to speak out and speak up is important. The way he sees and plays the game, his whole mentality is how can I get others involved and others better."

Dragić raves about Donovan's communication and said their shared approach to training camp and early-season playing time has been optimal.

"I feel good, especially me and Billy finding the perfect balance between 15 and 20 minutes," Dragić said. "Of course everybody wants to play more. That's not a bad thing. I'm just here for the team, what the team needs.

"Sometimes if Billy needs me to play 30 minutes, I'm ready to play 30 minutes. If he needs me 15, I'm ready to play 15."

Asked if he could envision his role increasing if the Bulls make the playoffs, Dragić smiled.

"That's my time anyways," he said.

Indeed, Dragić played a starring role alongside another former Bull in Jimmy Butler as the Heat surprisingly advanced to the 2020 NBA Finals. He averaged 22.8, 19.8 and 20.5 points in the three playoff series preceding the Finals, where he unfortunately suffered a plantar fascia injury that limited him to two games and 34 minutes.

That was when Dragić was 33. Now, he is 36 and in his 15th season, but still playing at a high level, albeit in a different role. It has been quite the run.

"My first year, I was almost close to going back to Europe," Dragić said of his 2008-09 campaign with Nash and the Phoenix Suns. "When you go first time away to a new country with different food, different culture and different style of basketball that's more physical and faster, I needed some time to get adjusted. But I'm happy I stuck with it. Even those bad days I had, I look at those now and see they made me better and stronger.

"It was not easy. But at the same time, this was my dream to play in the NBA. Who would've thought I'm still here? I always wanted to play in the best league against the best players. I'm a competitive guy, so I tried to stay in the States as long as possible."

Dragić is still here and didn't even know he's nearing the milestone of 1,000 games. Friday will mark his 898th career game.

DeMar DeRozan, with 966 career games, should reach the milestone - achieved currently by 149 players - this season.

"You know what, I didn't even know about that. This is the first time I'm hearing that. When this season ends, I need to play one more to reach it?" Dragić said. "I'm still enjoying it. As long as I'm going to be healthy, why not?"

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