Portrait of an All-Star: Goran Dragic’s long quest for recognition

Goran Dragic has had All-Star skills for a while. (AP)
Goran Dragic has had All-Star skills for a while. (AP)

This is the second piece in a four-part series looking at NBA All-Stars in different stages of their careers as All-Star Weekend approaches. | The underdog

Goran Dragic’s mind raced from confusion, to disbelief, to a euphoric haze upon hearing the words from coach Erik Spoelstra. The wait for a day that appeared would never come and the work toward a recognition that he didn’t need but desperately wanted were no longer in vain. And, before he could fully process all of his emotions, Dragic reached out to shake Spoelstra’s hand, smiled and was buried under a pile of congratulatory head-rubs from teammates upon hearing the news at a recent Miami Heat practice that he was finally going to be an NBA All-Star.

At 31, Dragic is the third-oldest player since the merger to make the squad for the first time in his 10th season. He had some disappointing close calls in previous years and tried to get over another letdown this season by planning a vacation to Cancun instead.

Those plans were abruptly canceled, but his wife, Maja, wasn’t upset because she knew how much it meant for Dragic to receive that invitation to Los Angeles. After commissioner Adam Silver selected Dragic as a replacement for the injured Kevin Love, it didn’t matter that he was third on the depth chart. Dragic made it and will have the chance to participate in the league’s annual, opulent celebration of its best talent. Dragic has been named to an All-NBA team — a much more exclusive distinction that recognizes 15 players instead of 24 (this season 28 made the All-Star team because of a rash of unfortunate injuries). But he wanted the midseason honor because people remember the spectacle, the game, not some list that’s announced after the regular season is over.

“I was really happy because this was my wish for a long time. As a kid, you’re always dreaming about those moments. And I put a lot of work in,” Dragic told Yahoo Sports. “I mean, for me, All-NBA was probably a higher honor. It’s kind of big but maybe the All-Star gets more recognition. Maybe because of that, people are more into it. But it’s an awesome experience, a lifetime experience that I’m going to embrace and try to have fun.”

In his first major decision after taking over for David Stern, Silver named Anthony Davis as a replacement for the injured Kobe Bryant in 2014. Silver has spared himself from controversy in those matters because he simply picks the player with the next-most votes. That didn’t take away any of the disappointment for Dragic, whose journey had taken him from Slovenia to backing up Steve Nash in Phoenix, snatching the starting job from Kyle Lowry in Houston and turning heads with an unorthodox, herky-jerky playing style upon returning to Phoenix. At the break in 2014, Dragic had averaged 20.3 points and 6.2 assists on 51 percent shooting from the field and 41 percent shooting from long distance.

“It was really tough, because I had unbelievable numbers,” Dragic told Yahoo Sports. “You can only hope that you play well and somebody sees that, they give you a chance.”

The sting of that All-Star snub never went away, even after his career was given validation with third-team All-NBA honors. Dragic could never repeat the magic of his career season — when his creativity and risk-tasking resulted in a continuous loop of between-the-legs bounce passes, ridiculous, winding finishes at the rim and unconscious pull-up threes — but it never stopped him from chasing that feeling. The possibility of him ever receiving that honor seemed to get less realistic as he moved over to the wrong side of 30 and the crop of speedy, athletic point guards continued to grow, but Dragic never lost hope of being the first All-Star player from his country. After leading Slovenia to the European championship and earning tournament MVP honors last summer, Dragic came into this season believing that a breakthrough was in store.

“I’m always positive. Even when you have bad days, good days, I’m always in good mood. I try to be in good mood, try to pick up myself,” Dragic told Yahoo Sports. “I know I’m 31, but if I’m honest, I was preparing myself this season, to make it. I feel it in my body after every game. But that’s not going to throw me off. I’m doing everything possible to play for a long time. It’s a huge reward in my career for that. My body can feel it, but I’m really happy. And we’re still not done. I need to continue to work hard.”

This hasn’t been Dragic’s best, or even second-best season, but he was the best scorer and assist man for a Heat team that had successfully adapted a star-less, share the wealth system under Spoelstra. The Heat don’t rely on one or even two players to carry them each night, but Dragic has found some comfort in the system after struggling to initially adjust to being in Miami following a trade deadline deal in 2015.

When Heat president Pat Riley dealt for him, Dragic was meant to be the piece that would position the organization to compete in meaningful games despite LeBron James’ departure. But as Dragic was flying to Miami to join his new team, the Heat discovered that Chris Bosh had blood clots in his chest, an ailment that would prematurely end his career. That setback and a struggle playing with another ball-dominant guard in Dwyane Wade made it hard for Dragic to quickly establish himself as one of the best players in the conference.

“I always played an uptempo game and when I came to Miami, it was half-court. So that was probably the main adjustment for me,” Dragic told Yahoo Sports. “Some people say, ‘Yeah, he’s probably going to be an All-Star.’ But it’s not so easy. There are a lot of good players in this league. First of all, you need to have a good record and you need to play well.”

Dragic had both working in his favor this season. His patience and positivity were rewarded, four years after he was at his peak and three years after he came to Miami. But right on time. “It was a long road. It was a lot of good days and a lot of suffering days, but at the end of the day, you pick yourself up and do everything again,” Dragic told Yahoo Sports. “I’m still the old Dragon, how they call me. It’s not now that I make the All-Star, I’m something more, no. I’m still the same. I’m still going to play the same basketball.”

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