Goran Dragic said plenty that will win over Canadian basketball fans, as the Toronto Raptors got set to begin training camp back on home soil.
The 35-year-old veteran NBA point guard met Toronto reporters at Raptors media day on Monday as the team made its first public appearance inside Scotiabank Arena since before the pandemic halted sports.
Dragic spoke glowingly of his friend, Raptors legend Kyle Lowry. He talked about the impact of Canadian basketball icon Steve Nash on his career. Perhaps most importantly, Dragic apologized for some summer comments that made it appear he was hesitant to play in Toronto.
After nine seasons in Toronto, Lowry was traded away in the summer – to Miami – in exchange for Dragic and centre Precious Achiuwa. Dragic explained that he won’t continue to wear No. 7 like he had in Miami because that was Lowry’s iconic number in Toronto for most of the nine years he starred in Canada.
“Kyle, he brought a championship to this organization, so I do believe that probably his jersey is going to be in the rafters and that’s why I chose No. 1,” Dragic said. “I already had No. 1 in the past – when I was with the Phoenix Suns – and I had a pretty decent season that year.”
Lowry will continue to wear No. 7 as he joins the Heat. First, the six-time NBA all-star asked for Dragic’s blessing to do so.
“Me and Kyle we are good friends. I played with him in Houston, so we talk a lot,” Dragic said. “He knows my family, I know his family. So it was nothing, you know. He asked me for the number I said, ‘Yeah, no problem, you’re my guy.’”
Dragic was also asked a pointed question on Monday about a comment he reportedly made to media in his native Slovenia in the summer shortly after he’d been traded to the Raptors. Social media was abuzz in August that he allegedly said Toronto was not his preferred destination, and he had higher ambitions.
“It came out wrong. I did apologize and I want to apologize right now too; it was not my intention,” Dragic said. “The organization and the players, they welcomed [me]. It was really nice; all the guys are nice. They want me, you know, to feel comfortable and I do feel comfortable here for the past two weeks.”
This will be the fourth team for 6-foot-3 Dragic, who has one all-star nod on his résumé – in 2018. Raptors general manager Bobby Webster said, “Goran has been a professional ever since the trade.
“He is one of the elder statesman, but he can still play and I think he can still lead,” Webster added. “And we’ll need a little bit of that this year.”
Dragic said he has explored Toronto a little since his arrival and has gotten to know some of the Raptors players. He averaged 13.4 points and 4.4 assists for the Heat last season. He realizes he can play a mentorship role on this Raptors team, which has lots of young new faces – just like Nash mentored him when he was a youngster just learning with the Phoenix Suns.
“I’m a professional, playing this league for 14 years, so I love basketball, I’m gonna do everything that it takes to, to be part of this team and to help young players to grow.”
Fans may remember Dragic most vividly from when the Raptors met the Heat in the 2016 Eastern Conference semi-finals. Lowry and Dragic faced off in many battles on the ball. Toronto won that series.
“I always have that memory that every time when you play Toronto it’s gonna be a long, long night,” recalled Dragic of the atmosphere inside Scotiabank Arena.
The Raps last played at Scotiabank Arena on Feb. 28, 2020, before COVID-19 brought all sports to a halt. Only four Raptors remain from that roster – Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, and Chris Boucher.
The Raps completed the 2019-20 season in an NBA bubble in Orlando. While other teams in the league went home for last season, the Raptors were forced to remain in the U.S. due to restrictions complicating travel to Canada. They practised and played their home games in Tampa.
The players and staff have filtered back to Toronto in recent weeks to get back in the gym. While the Raps typically take training camp on the road, they opted to hold it at home this year so they can get back to feeling at home inside their training facility – the OVO Athletic Centre – and get re-accustomed to the city.
“I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed living here,” VanVleet said. “It’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere other than Rockford [Illinois], and it’s the first big city that I’ve lived in, so I have an extreme connection with the city for many reasons – from my story to winning the championship to just being in the NBA – and it’s really become my second home and me and my family are just really happy to be back.”
The first Raptors training camp in nearly a decade that doesn’t include Lowry will be odd. VanVleet says he talks to his former teammate a couple of times a week.
“We’ll try to pick up the slack that he left behind – the greatest Raptor to do it,” VanVleet said. “He’s gonna continue to be a mentor in my life and somebody that I’ll always lean on, and the funniest part about the whole relationship is that he probably calls to ask for my opinion more than I call him. So it’s not really basketball stuff, but that’s just our vibe and that’s a real relationship that we’ve developed and kind of cultivated in five years. That’s my brother.”