Goran Dragic is finding happiness with the Bulls after trying last season

Goran Dragic 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.

Dragic, who verbally agreed to a deal with the team as a free agent, had to come to the United States at some point to undergo a medical and sign his contract. But the optional get-together motivated him to do a little jetsetting.

“I was like, ‘I have to come and see the team,'” Dragic said in an interview with NBC Sports Chicago after a recent practice. “It’s crucial to just get to know everyone so you can start relationships.”

So Dragic flew from Europe to Los Angeles, spent a day with his new team-mates and then flew back, staying fresh enough to play alongside Luka Doncic next month as Slovenia progressed to the quarter-finals.

“I only came for one day,” Dragic said. “But it was worth it.”

It’s not hard to see the joy with which Dragic is playing these days after a tumultuous 2021-22 season. Dragic never wanted to leave the Miami Heat, but they traded him to the Toronto Raptors in the acquisition of Kyle Lowry. Dragic played just five games with the Raptors before he and the team agreed to let him return to his family pending a deal.

The Raptors ended up acquiring former Bull Todd Young from the Spurs, who gave up Dragic so he could sign with the Brooklyn Nets and play for his old friend and teammate Steve Nash. The Nets’ season ended in unimpressive fashion, and Dragic welcomed the opportunity to retool his career in free agency.

Much speculation has centered around Dragic landing with the Dallas Mavericks and Doncic, his compatriot. Instead, an unexpected opportunity presented itself with the Bulls.

“I really enjoy it here. You get to a new team, a new city, new people and it’s such a good vibe for me,” Dragic 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 are productive and happy.”

Dragic is certainly playing productively. He is 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 endeared him to many teammates. And his guidance of young guards like Ayo Dosunmu and Kobe White has been praised.

“I’ve been very impressed with the investment he’s made with a lot of our younger players,” Donovan said. “Sometimes we can have a quiet group. His willingness to speak out and talk is important. The way he sees and plays the game, his whole mentality is how can I get others and others to be better.”

Dragic has been impressed with 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 find the perfect balance between 15 and 20 minutes,” said Dragic. “Of course everyone wants to play more. This is not bad. I’m only 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, Dragic smiled.

“It’s my time, though,” he said.

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

That was when Dragic was 33. Now he’s 36 and in his 15th season, but he’s still playing at a high level, albeit in a different role. It was quite a run.

“My first year, I was almost close to going back to Europe,” Dragic said of his 2008-09 campaign with Nash and the Phoenix Suns. “When you go to a new country for the first time with different food, different culture and a different style of basketball that is more physical and faster, I needed some time to adjust. But I’m glad I stuck with it. Even those bad days that I had, I look back on them now and see that they made me better and stronger.

“It wasn’t easy. But at the same time, it was my dream to play in the NBA. Who would have thought I’d still be here? I always wanted to play in the best league against the best players. I’m a competitive person, so I tried to stay in the States as long as possible.”

Dragic is still here and didn’t even know he was approaching the 1,000 game milestone. Friday will mark his 898th career game.

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

“You know what, I didn’t even know about that. It’s the first time I’ve heard it. When this season is over, I have to play one more to catch up?” Dragic said. “I still enjoy it. As long as I’m healthy, why not?”

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