|Zoran Dragic provided some of the most memorable higlights from EuroBasket 2013 |
By Dimitris Kontos
Zoran Dragic darting down the court every time Slovenia got half a chance at a fast break and finishing high at the rim as if he had spring-loaded shoes is one of the lingering images of EuroBasket 2013.
Watching him shifting through the gears was a basketball spectacle to behold for all spectators at Stozice Arena in Ljubljana and for fans around Europe.
He was, in a way, one of the big revelations of the EuroBasket, although everyone already knew that this is his favourite kind of game: play hard on defence, win the ball, run the open court.
But in the run-up to September, the Slovenian international had had a discreet first season away from home, struggling to carve out a spot on his new team, Unicaja Malaga.
Dragic was mainly used as a specialised defender and averaged 5.2 points per game in the Spanish Liga Endesa and 4.5 points per contest in the Euroleague.
After the club season was over, the 24-year-old winger started working on his weak points, mainly his mid-range and long-range shooting.
"I did the pre-season with some other guys at Unicaja to improve on things that I need and have more options in the game," Dragic told fibaeurope.com.
|Dragic's form at EuroBasket 2013 confirmed his spot on the 12-man Malaga roster for this season |
He joined the rest of the Slovenian national team at training camp while Malaga had all but decided to send him on loan to fellow Spanish side UCAM Murcia in the new season.
"It was tough, the first couple of weeks, because I really didn't know where I was going to go" Dragic recalls.
"I was thinking I would play here [in Malaga] but of course I said 'ok, it doesn't matter, I will go to Murcia'.
"Because I just want to play basketball and try to be better and better every day."
And then came the EuroBasket.
The explosive guard was given the perfect big stage to showcase what he can do and his self-confidence surged to new heights as he averaged 10.6 points and 5.6 boards per game.
"Of course it gave me more confidence than anything before," Dragic admitted.
"Especially when you hear the cheers from the crowd and you play at home, you just want to open up the game."
"It was in Slovenia and it was a totally special championship for us.
"Of course we had a great coach, Bozidar Maljkovic, who did a great job for every player on the team and everyone just felt comfortable."
His excellent displays at Europe's showpiece event made new Malaga head coach Joan Plaza reconsider Dragic's place on the squad.
"After the EuroBasket they [Malaga] made some room and when I came I was in the first 12," Dragic explains.
CHANGE OF STATUS
| Dragic has developed a reputation as a hard-nosed defender |
If Dragic can take off like he does it's because of his tremendous ability to receive blows and still land on his feet, ready and eager to play basketball again.
On Sunday, he sprained his ankle after he had played only eight minutes in Malaga's Liga Endesa home game against FC Barcelona.
He had to be carried off the court with the help of Serbian team-mate Vladimir Stimac and many in the crowd at Martin Carpena arena could not help but thinking his absence during the rest of the game was one of the reasons the visitors edged out Malaga 74-69.
Approximately an hour after the end of the encounter, he walked out of the arena on his own two feet and was delighted that he will most probably play in Friday's important Euroleague clash with Anadolu Efes.
"It [the fall] looked bad but look, I can walk now, so I should be all-right to play," he exclaimed.
Dragic is a regular starter this season and has been elevated to Malaga's second-leading scorer in the Euroleague, as he is averaging 11.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game in Europe's flagship club competition.
The legacy of the EuroBasket helps him deal with the inevitable unwanted attention that comes with having been transformed into one of the first names on the teamsheet.
"They [opposing teams] start playing different defence on you, they are more prepared for you and in every game it gets tougher and tougher," Dragic said.
"If they turn the defence on you, you must be smart and pass more, for example.
"It's not about scoring, but about trying to do the things that work out for the team."
GREAT THINGS FOR SLOVENIA, ZDOVC
|This coming summer Zoran Dragic will play under Jure Zdovc for the first time|
There is really no chance that the Slovenian will slow down or modify his style of play in order to protect himself.
He never seems to be playing all the basketball he would like to, possessing a thirst for the game similar to that of a teenage player.
One of the upcoming opportunities to quench his basketball thirst will be the FIBA World Cup, where Slovenia will commence their campaign in Group D, pitted against Angola, Australia, Korea, Mexico and EuroBasket silver medallists Lithuania.
"It's a good group for the first round, I think it is the easiest group in the world championship," Dragic said with a smile.
"But it's still going to be tough because we have Lithuania, who want to go far in the championship, and of course in the second round we will have more tough games."
Ever since stepping up in the senior national team, Dragic has always been under the orders of coach Maljkovic.
He has no personal experience of new head coach Jure Zdovc but just like every single Slovenian, regardless of age, he is well aware of his reputation.
"I know his work because he has worked for the national team in the past, of course he knows basketball for so long and I think he is a great coach," Dragic said of Zdovc.
"He is probably one of the best Slovenian coaches right now and of course he was a legendary player on the former Yugoslavia national team.
|Zoran (left), would one day like to join his brother Goran (right) stateside|
"I think we're going to do great things with him."
Big brother Goran should be alongside Zoran when they step out on the court for Slovenia's inaguaral game in the tournament, against Australia.
Probably no other European player was mentioned as frequently on both sides on the Atlantic during the month of February as the Phoenix Suns point guard.
And the question on everyone's lips was whether Goran Dragic deserved to play in the All-Star Game.
"I personally think yes, but you know, that's the NBA," Zoran repies.
"You have a lot of Americans, he is not an American, so it's a little bit tough.
"He had the stats of an All-Star but...who knows, maybe next year."
Is there a chance that one day we will see both Dragic brothers in that game?
"I hope so, sometime," Zoran laughs.
"It is my dream, to play in the NBA one day, and I am working on that."