Goran Dragic, the 36 year old guard signed at the end of this offseason, may be stepping into a bigger role than anticipated in the wake of Lonzo Ball’s likely unavailability.
He did not have much left last season, but it was a weird season overall that saw him sitting out to find a bigger role on another team.
But later this summer, Dragic made a surprise decision to un-retire from international competition and participated in Eurobasket for his native Slovenian national team.
Though he and his countrymen (including Luka Doncic) fell short of their goal after a stunning quarterfinals upset Wednesday to Poland, the Bulls’ new reserve point guard showed off plenty of veteran moxie even in defeat, and enjoyed a relatively productive tournament run.
What can Bulls fans take away from Dragic’s performance against a team without any NBA players?
Operating as the club’s starting point guard, Dragic was largely deferential to start the first quarter, often ceding primary playmaking duties to Doncic. This left the 6’3” vet to do a lot of his damage off-ball, at least at first.
Dragic made a nice triple near the right baseline for his first bucket of the night, followed by a crazy-crafty inbounds play: he “passed” the ball to the back of inattentive Poland point guard A.J. Slaughter, angling the dish to have the ball bounce back to himself, now in the paint. Dragic promptly snuck in a nice up-and-under scoop:
In addition to that clever veteran move, Dragic also managed to show off his still-strong passing skills early. At one point during the first quarter, he rebounded a missed Doncic fadeaway in the paint. Given that he was being swarmed by multiple Polish defenders, Dragic opted to make the smart read, passing the ball out to Cancar for a triple, instead of going up for a contested put-back in traffic. Despite Dragic’s best efforts, Poland took a 29-26 lead into the second quarter thanks mostly to the play of Ponitka, Slaughter and 7’2” center Aleksander Balcerwoski.
At the top of the second frame, Poland, started the period with a bang, thanks to an explosive 15-3 run. Slovenia struggled to nail its shots. For his part, Dragic botched a fadeaway jumper attempt and occasionally got lost on defensive switches. On the other end, Poland was employing an aggressive zone defense, with a special emphasis on getting the ball out of Doncic’s hands as early as possible.
Midway through the second quarter, Doncic appeared to tweak his back while landing awkwardly, trying (and failing) to draw a foul. Doncic and the rest of the Slovenian team often haggled referees about possibly holding their whistles during the game, expending unnecessary contesting perceived non-calls instead of running back on defense. Slovenia head coach Aleksander Sekulic subbed out Doncic so team trainers could examine his back and hip.
With Doncic sidelined for a bit in the quarter, Dragic became the team’s lead ball-handler. Despite his advanced years (in basketball terms), Dragic still loves to get out and run. He started to pick up the pace for Slovenia, and we were treated to some clutch Dragic Eurosteps in consecutive Slovenia possessions. The result? He iced a lefty layup first, and subsequently got fouled on another lay-in attempt, nailing both free throws.
But a sprinkling of throwback Dragic wasn’t enough. Poland maximized its fast-break opportunities and nailed a ton of its three-point attempts. Slovenia looked helpless defending in transition for much of the first half.
While Dragic’s offense looked fairly good (overall), his defense was middling. He struggled to close out on this switch, allowing a wide-open Michal Sokolowski to dish the ball to a red-hot Mateusz Ponitka at the top of the arc:
In terms of our Dragic Watch: for the 3rd period, Poland’s Sokolowski accidentally smacked Dragic in the face, and Dragic, grizzled NBA veteran that he is, did some Oscar-caliber acting to sell the foul in his favor. Additionally, he took another of his patented crafty takes beneath the bucket midway through the third. He had another solid look later in the frame, driving into the body of 6’9” Polish power forward Aleksander Dziewa. Though he would miss the field goal attempt, he would go on to nail both his foul shots.
Slovenia would ultimately end the quarter still down a point, 64-63, having outscored Poland 24-6 in the period.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Dragic nailed a pull-up jumper to finally give Slovenia the lead again, 65-64.
But in what would prove to be probably the most fatal blow to Slovenia’s chances, Doncic fouled out with 3:02 remaining. Suddenly, the responsibility to close out the game fell to Dragic, who promptly scored on a drive to get Slovenia within six points with 2:14 left.
Slovenia opted for some hockey-type rotational choices, occasionally subbing Ziga Samar’s defense in for Dragic when Poland had possession. Dragic had an assist and converted an easy floater in those final minutes, but Slovenia never was able to erase the deficit.
As we zoom out to assess just what Goran Dragic showed us during what might be his final international game ever, the overall picture is a rosy one. Across 36:42 of game action, he scored 17 points on a relatively efficient 7-of-15 shooting, though he went just 1-of-4 from long range and 2-of-4 from the charity stripe. The Dragon also grabbed five rebounds, dished out four assists and unfortunately had five turnovers on the night. He was his team’s second-highest scorer, behind Cancar’s 21 points, and tied with Luka Doncic for the most shot attempts (15). He clearly was one of the most important players on the floor for Slovenia all night, well into his hoops dotage.
On the night, Dragic proved himself capable of functioning effectively as both a primary and secondary ball handler, and exhibited a willingness — nay, an eagerness — to crank up the speed for some run-and-gun offense with the ball in his hands. He played aggressively and did a lot of his scoring damage with clever plays in and around the paint. Though he didn’t always stay in front of his man on the other end, he was happy to draw contact to get to the line.
Here are full highlights from Slovenia’s ill-fated quarterfinal bout:
Overall during his seven EuroBasket tournament contests, Dragic posted averages of 14.9 points (on .494.350/650 shooting splits), 3.7 dimes, 3.6 boards, and 1.6 steals a night.
If those numbers and this game are any indication, the former All-Star may have quite a bit more juice left than he seemed to during a 2021-22 season in which he played sparingly for the Toronto Raptors and Brooklyn Nets.