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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Goran Dragic wants you to know something.
 
He’s sorry.
 
Not sorry in the way that most professional athletes or public figures are sorry after putting their foot in their mouth. Not ‘somebody in PR told me to be sorry, so I’m sorry’. He’s genuinely very sorry.
 
Admittedly, the veteran point guard did not make a great first impression on his new team or its fan base. Shortly after being acquired by the Raptors in the sign-and-trade deal that sent franchise icon Kyle Lowry to Miami, Dragic was interviewed in his native Slovenia.
 
In the translated clip that quickly went viral, Dragic stated that Toronto was not his preferred destination. “I have higher ambitions, we’ll see,” he said.
 
Needless to say, it did not go over well. Internally, the organization didn’t take it too personally. After all, 22-year-old big man Precious Achiuwa was the player they had targeted in a return for Lowry. The 35-year-old Dragic and his expiring $19.4 million contract had to be included for salary matching. The Raptors were working to reroute him to a third team until the trade was made official following the moratorium.
 
However, you could understand why Raptors fans may have felt slighted. Dragic could too, at least in hindsight; he’s apologized for his comments multiple times since making them. He knows that first impressions are hard to get back, but he’s trying to make amends.
 
“It came out wrong,” Dragic said at Raptors media day on Monday. “I did apologize and I want to apologize right now too. It was not my intention.”
 
“But the organization and the players welcomed [me]. It was really nice, all the guys are nice. They want me to feel comfortable and I do feel comfortable… I'm a professional, playing in this league for 14 years, so I love basketball. I'm gonna do everything that it takes to be part of this team and to help young players to grow.”
 
Dragic is on the back nine of his career, but he still has something left to give. He averaged 13.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists in 27 minutes over 50 games with the Heat last season.
 
So, yeah, Toronto probably wasn’t his preferred destination. And that’s fair, even if it probably could’ve been left unsaid. At this stage of his professional life, you’d imagine Dragic would rather be chasing his first championship ring, or playing alongside his friend and countryman Luka Doncic in Dallas.
 
On the surface, his comments may have come off as arrogant or disrespectful, but those who know Dragic or have followed him closely over the course of his incredible NBA career know he’s anything but.
 
Whether it’s by his legions of fans in Miami, where he spent the last seven seasons and is beloved, or former teammates with the Suns, Rockets and Heat, Dragic has always been well regarded around the league. Chatting with him for even a few minutes, it’s not hard to see why. He’s engaging, personable and sincere.
 
He’s a class act. When Lowry, his friend and former Rockets teammate, called to ask for permission to wear his No. 7 with Miami, Dragic didn’t hesitate.
 
“We talk a lot, he knows my family, I know his family, so it was nothing,” he said. “He asked me for the number and I said, ‘yeah, no problem, you’re my guy.’ He won a championship and everything so he deserved it.”
 
Meanwhile, Dragic – who will be switching to No. 1 with Toronto – didn’t even consider asking Lowry to return the favour, understanding and appreciating what the Raptors legend means to the franchise, and that his jersey will be hanging from the rafters at Scotiabank Arena one day.
 
Dragic has great respect for the organization and what it represents. He sees the similarities between the Raptors’ culture and Miami’s and is embracing the opportunity to come in and help them transition to a new era. Whether Toronto was his preferred destination or not, he’s determined to fit in.
 
“To me, it didn’t seem like he didn’t want to be here,” said Chris Boucher, who has been working out with Dragic since the veteran point guard arrived in Toronto a couple weeks before the start of training camp. “He’s trying to help everybody, he’s talking about winning, trying to tell us what we can do to bring another championship to Toronto. For me, if you ask me personally, I think he wants to be here and help us win. That’s what I’m seeing.”
 
“He's been fantastic,” coach Nick Nurse said. “I checked in with him after the trade, a few days after some of that stuff. We discussed possible roles, and he's just like, 'coach, whatever, I'm good’. He's very enjoyable to talk to. He's got a super high IQ. He loves the game, obviously, competes to win, plays smart. He's been really, really fun to have.”
 
How long will Dragic be in Toronto? That remains to be seen. By all accounts, the team is still hoping to move him ahead of the trade deadline, extracting an asset or two from a club that’s gearing up for a title run. The odds of him being a Raptor past February are low. Even still, there’s plenty that he can offer a young team like the Raptors.
 
Without Lowry, Dragic addresses a need at the guard position. You can insert him into the vacant starting spot next to Fred VanVleet or use him as a reserve, where he would bring some much-needed leadership to an inexperienced second unit.
 
While Nurse isn’t ruling out either option a few days into camp, Dragic recently told TSN that his preference is to come off the bench. That’s the role he played the last couple of seasons in Miami (starting just 14 of 109 games) and one he feels most comfortable with at this stage of his career. It would allow Nurse to manage his minutes, take pressure off sophomore Malachi Flynn as the primary ball handler, likely reunite him with his former Heat teammate Achiuwa, and – depending on how the rotation shakes out – it may also pair him with rookie Scottie Barnes, who he’s quickly taken under his wing.
 
His eyes light up when he talks about Barnes. “He’s got a bright future, I can already see that,” he said of the fourth-overall pick. Barnes already considers Dragic a mentor.
 
The 13-year vet has plenty of wisdom to impart. He came to the league when he was 22 after playing professionally in Slovenia and in Spain. A second-round pick, Dragic played his first three seasons for free, having used his NBA salary to pay the buyout with his Spanish League team. He’s played with hall of famers, including Steve Nash. He’s been an all-star.
 
He should also have plenty of eager mentees on one of the league’s youngest clubs. Excluding Dragic, the average age of the other 19 players on Toronto’s training camp roster is less than 24. Dragic is the only Raptor in his 30s and has eight seasons on the team’s next most experience players (VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, who have both been in the league for five years).
 
Nurse intends to lean on the four longest tenured players – VanVleet, Siakam, OG Anunoby and Boucher – to help fill the Lowry leadership void, but it never hurts to have an old head around.
 
“The main thing that I can bring is I am a veteran,” Dragic said. “It's my 14th year in the league, so experience and try to teach those young kids, give them some support, basically the same thing that Steve Nash did for me when I was in Phoenix. I'm here for those guys and if they're going to need me.”
 
Dragic’s Raptors tenure may have gotten off to a rocky start, and it might end up being short-lived, but he’s here, he’s bought in, and he wants to make the most of his time in Toronto, however long it lasts.
 
“I’m happy to be here, just trying to be here for them and play hard,” he said. “I think that’s the most important thing, to give everything that I got.”​