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Player preview: Goran Dragic’s time in Toronto might be short, but still impactful

The former villain should be a leader and mentor to his young Raptors teammates. Oh, and he can still play, too.

Toronto Raptors v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Goran Dragic was always gonna be a tough sell for Toronto Raptors fans.

For one, his play always seemed a bit on the dirty side when matched up against the Raptors as a member of the Miami Heat. He got in DeMar DeRozan’s face on one memorable occasion, and he’s an expert in dropping those little elbows when players come into his space, and sticking out those knees and hips when navigating screens.

For another, he always seemed to play his best basketball against the Raptors. In 28 regular season Miami Heat games against the Raptors, Dragic averaged 16.1/4/4/2 on 43/36/81 shooting splits; that’s almost exactly in line with his overall stats on the Heat, but his his numbers in the 2016 Eastern Conference Semi-Finals were even more impressive: 19/4/5 on 45/36/83 shooting splits.

Finally, he was part of the return for Kyle Lowry, only the greatest Raptor of all time; short of getting, say Kevin Durant back in return, there’s no one alive who could really be seen as being equal value in any deal for Lowry.

So that was already a lot for Dragic to overcome. And then he went and exacerbated it all by apparently telling a Slovenian reporter that he had “higher ambitions” than playing for Toronto.

Yeah. Tough sell.

To his credit, Dragic quickly walked those comments back (and from my point of view, I think we hold athletes to too high a standard of “saying the right thing” in these situations; the guy had made Miami his home and clearly didn’t want to be traded, of course he’s gonna be bummed) and soon went on to start spending time with his young teammates and try and say all the right things in front of the local media.

The extra layer of intrigue on top of all that is whether or not the Raptors organization even wants Dragic here. It seemed pretty clear that the Raptors and Heat were looking to bring in a third team as part of the sign-and-trade that flipped Lowry and Dragic (along with Precious Achiuwa); if Dragic didn’t want to be here, and the Raptors are embracing a youth movement, then it made senes to route him elsewhere. But no such deal materialized, and despite consistent (albeit completely illogical) rumours the Raptors would buy out Dragic’s contract, leaving him free to sign elsewhere (and leaving the Raptors with nothing in return), he remains on the roster.

So with all that out of the way... what about, you know, actual basketball?

Dragic is a fine ballplayer and on paper, a great fit with these Raptors, even at age 35. He averaged 16.2/5.1/3.6 for the Heat last year in 50 games, almost all of them in a sixth man role. As an occasional starter he also helped the Heat make the 2020 NBA Finals, where an injury limited to him to a mere 33 minutes in the six-game series and, along with an injury to Bam Adebayo, put a major dent in the Heat’s chances against the Los Angeles Lakers. He shot 37% from three-point range last season as well, which isn’t super-high but certainly helpful on a Raptors team that does have trouble scoring anywhere outside of transition.

And that steady, halfcourt, floor-general-type player is something the Raptors need, with Lowry gone. Yes, Fred VanVleet is here but he's still showing growing pains as a lead ball handler — and having another lead guard in two-guard sets allows the Raptors to unleash VanVleet’s three-point shooting as an off-the-ball threat, as they often did with Lowry. And Malachi Flynn is perhaps not quite ready for primetime yet, if he ever will be.

Although Dragic has started all three preseason games the Raptors have played as I write this, there’s a decent chance he moves to the bench at some point this season; his history as a sixth man in Miami the past couple seasons, behind a younger point guard in Kendrick Nunn, indicates at least some level of comfort in the role, should Nick Nurse decide to start Flynn, or a more traditional shooting guard in Gary Trent Jr., or an unconventional big in the backcourt, like Scottie Barnes or Dalano Banton.

Either starting or off the bench, on defense, Dragic should be a plus. Although he’s never made an All-NBA Defensive team, Dragic wouldn’t have played 30 minutes a night for seven seasons under Erik Spoelstra if he wan’t a plus defender. He’s an aggressive on-ball defender who isn’t afraid to get into an opponent’s face, or under his skin — the very definition of a “guy you hate to play against but love when he’s on your team.” Dragic should pick up coach Nurse’s defensive schemes, and since Nurse has very little patience for players who don’t pick up the schemes quickly, we’ll probably see a good amount of Goran in the early part of the season.

And that grittiness should be the thing that erases any lingering doubts about Dragic in Raptor fans’ hearts. Yeah, he played the villain for a long time, and yeah, it’s hard to forgive anyone that gets all up in Mr. Toronto’s face. But Dragic is your typical “hard-nosed” player that always seems to become a fan-favourite here in Toronto, and so many of the things we hated him for are the exact same sort of things we loved Kyle Lowry for. He can’t replace Lowry in our hearts or on the floor, but we can certainly appreciate the similar type of effort that Dragic brings to the game.

Finally there’s the “mentorship of the young guys” aspect of Dragic’s presence on this Raptors team. Although Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are the clear team leaders, Dragic should find plenty of room to be the “guy who puts his arm around the young guys’ shoulder” guys; and that’s probably exactly what someone like a Scottie Barnes or Dalano Banton needs. VanVleet and Siakam are already Raptors legends and have high expectations. Dragic is just as new to the team as his young teammates, and has less at stake in the franchise’s success as VanVleet and Siakam do. Barnes and co. may find Dragic easier to talk to or confide in. In fact, Barnes already seems to have forged a strong connection to Dragic:

And if the lovable Scottie Barnes can love Dragic, then surely we can too, right?

There’s a decent chance Dragic is traded sometime between December 15 and the February trade deadline. But for now, the Raptors should be able to take advantage of his skills and leadership, and Dragic should be able to make the best of what is, for him, a less-than ideal situation.