For the first time in their small country’s history, Slovenia has won the European Championship called Eurobasket, beating Serbia (Bogdan Bogdanovic), Spain (Gasols, Ricky, etc.), Latvia (Porzingis) and Ukraine in the elimination rounds.
And they can thank the Dragon, Goran Dragic, who was once called the worst player in the NBA when he came over at the tender age of 22, developed into one of the better point guards in the NBA over the past several years and now is the MVP of Eurobasket 2017.
It really is amazing how many ousted Suns from yesteryear have won championships of some sort since leaving the valley under a cloud of confusion. Now add Dragic and Igor Kokoskov (coach) to the list.
Dragic led Slovenia with a whopping 22.6 points points per game (4th leading scorer in the tournament) along with 5.1 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. In the Final against Serbia, he dropped 35 points and won MVP honors.
It’s been quite a career progression for the Dragon.
Since playing in his first Eurobasket for Slovenia at 21 years old, Dragic has increased his scoring and distributing output each time.
*accumulated stats for 2017 FIBA Eurobasket only include the qualifying round.
Dragic sat out Eurobasket 2015 as he dealt with free agency and awaited the birth of his second child. Slovenia finished 12th in 2015 with a ragtag group led by Goran’s brother Zoran as their leading scorer.
Of course, Slovenia was also helped immensely this year by the emergence of 18 year old Luka Doncic, who is the future at point guard for Slovenia and maybe for the entire NBA. Doncic played off the ball this year for Slovenia, just like Goran used to play shooting guard while deferring to two-time Euroleague MVP Jaka Lakovic. Doncic used his huge 6’7” frame to lead the team in rebounds (8.1 per game) and finishing second in scoring (14.3 per game) and playmaking (3.6 per game), much the way Dragic used to.
Slovenia was also helped greatly this year by former NBA player, Anthony Randolph, who contributed 11.7 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 assists per game for his new national team.
The presence of the Dragon, Doncic and Randolph, as well as the addition of head coach Igor Kokoskov (yes THAT one that used to coach for the Suns) helped Slovenia blow away all previous tournament appearances. The best finish Dragic had previously experienced was a 5th/6th place game in 2013.
I bring up Dragic’s career progression - from 22 year old NBA disaster to 31 year old Eurobasket MVP worth more than $80 million dollars - to remind folks that age and maturity really do matter. Dragic needed time to find himself, breathe fire, and lead a team to a championship. That 22 year old rookie who played for the Suns in 2008 did not give many of these glimpses.
Dragic took a while to develop, just as Suns youngster Dragan Bender looks like he might take a bit. Bender was three years younger than Dragic in their rookie years as well.
Let’s applaud Luka Doncic for being SO dominant at that age, recognizing how unique he is, but maybe give 19 year old Dragan Bender a little more time to learn to breathe his own fire.
Bender averaged just 4.3 points this year for his Croatian national team in this tournament, receiving only 15 minutes per game.
Going into the tournament, Croatia was excited to pair Dario Saric and Bender on the front line, excited to pair their playmaking and length. But when the games got more physical Bender just couldn’t hold his own on the rebounding (averaged just 2 rebounds per game). Saric isn’t a great rebounder either, leaving the Croats lacking in that area when both played. As Bender fills out, he will improve.
Dragan Bender might end up breathing the same kind of fire that Goran Dragic has. He shows the same moxie, the same “never back down” attitude.
Now we just need to see him harness that talent and fire the way “the Dragon” has.
I can’t wait to see it unfold.