Alex Caruso doesn’t need to be told about Goran Dragić’s toughness.
“The dude blew his knee out in the Finals and then came back three games later and tried to play,” Caruso said Monday at Chicago Bulls media day about his new teammate.
That was the 2020 NBA Finals matchup in the so-called Orlando “bubble” created during the pandemic featuring Caruso’s Los Angeles Lakers and Dragić’s Miami Heat.
Dragić had enjoyed quite the postseason run to that point, averaging 22.8, 19.8 and 20.5 points as the Heat unexpectedly advanced. But that injury, and that series loss, is why Dragić said it’s “easy” to stay driven, even at age 36 and entering his 15th NBA season.
“Every basketball player wants to win a championship,” Dragić said. “I’ve already been close with Miami. Unfortunately, I got hurt and it still to this day I cannot sleep well because I want to be back. I still have that hunger and I feel good. I feel healthy.
“I’m not the youngest anymore, but I still have that passion and that is the most important.”
When last offseason began, speculation centered on Dragić signing with the Dallas Mavericks to run with Luka Dončić, his fellow Slovenian and national team teammate. Or maybe even a return to Miami.
Instead, Dragić chose the Bulls.
“I feel like this is the better opportunity for me,” Dragić said. “They like to play fast, up-tempo, a lot of steals. I like to play that my whole career.”
Dragić revealed that executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas, with whom he has a relationship dating to 2010 when both worked for the Rockets, tried to sign him as a buyout candidate last season. Instead, Dragić chose the Nets.
This time, after a conversation with coach Billy Donovan and Nikola Vučević, with whom he shares an agency and friendship, Dragić decided to bring his 3-point shooting, pick-and-roll savvy and ability to make pocket passes — some, surely, to Vučević — to Chicago.
“I got a lot of experience being a vocal guy in the locker room,” Dragić said. “If they need me, I can come from the bench, be their spark. I’m at that point of my career where whatever is needed for me, I’m glad to do it.”
With Lonzo Ball sidelined indefinitely for another surgery on his troublesome left knee, Dragić’s signing could grow in importance. Donovan hasn’t decided who will start in Ball’s absence yet but called Dragić the “most seasoned, experienced point guard by far” on the roster.
Donovan visited Dragić in his native Slovenia after the signing and before Dragić starred with Dončić during Slovenia’s run to the EuroBasket quarterfinals.
“I was surprised and grateful that he came so far,” Dragić said. “We were just talking about life, about basketball, about how he thinks we’re going to play and what he thinks I can bring. It was a really positive conversation and that’s why I’m really glad and happy I can be here and work with him.”
As for that national team commitment, well, apparently retirements don’t register with Dončić.
“I retired five years ago,” Dragić said, laughing. “And then you get a phone call from Luka and from (coach) Rasho Nesterović, ‘Come on, we need you.’ I was in doubt a little bit to go or not to go. And I said to myself, when I look back at my career I always play well when I play for my national team because I was already ready in game shape and everything. So that’s why I decided to go.”
Dragić even for the first time ditched the knee brace he has worn since suffering that NBA Finals injury.
“You don’t have to worry about toughness with him,” Caruso said. “That’s part of the international mantra as well. Those guys, if you watched any of the FIBA games or the EuroBasket this past month, you get fouled every play and the refs don’t call it. So I know Goran’s tough.
“Obviously. he’s a vet of the league. He’s not afraid of moments. I love the pick-up for us. It’s another great guard to have, another weapon for us to add to the roster. I’m excited to be his teammate and not play against him.”
Dragić is equally excited.
“We are a deep team,” Dragić said. “First of all, the guy under the basket who is an All-Star with Vooch who can play on the low post, who can pick-and-pop, who can shoot the ball and of course DeMar (DeRozan), he proved to everybody what he can do. He’s a clutch player. He can score. He can pass. He can defend. And Zach (LaVine), basically the same thing, Caruso and all those guys, it was just a good vibe I felt.
“Last year unfortunately they had a lot of injuries in the playoffs. I feel like we can build on that this year. All depends on how we are going to create this chemistry on the floor, but I feel like they already have a great chemistry."