Credit: Zuma Press – Scanpix
Credit Zuma Press – Scanpix

After leaving Kaunas, Zoran Dragic returned to his homeland Slovenia, but the feeling is still bittersweet. Two months at Zalgiris Kaunas deeply disappointed an experienced guard.

The Slovenian was invited by his fellow countryman Jure Zdovc and wanted to help Zalgiris to end the losing streak in the EuroLeague.

However, the first positive flashes with the Lithuanian powerhouse turned out to be a one-time thing. Not long after joining the team, Dragic started to spend more and more time on the bench.

"If someone had told me that this is the way it's going to be, I wouldn't have come," Dragic said in an exclusive interview with BasketNews.

32-year-old scored 5 points in the first Zalgiris win against Panathinaikos OPAP Athens. Later, in the victory against Fenerbahce Beko Istanbul, Dragic finished with team-high 13 points.

However, in the next game against FC Barcelona, Dragic had a good-scoring first half but remained on the bench for the rest of the game. Furthermore, in the duel versus Baskonia, he played only 5 minutes, which was another alarm for the Slovenian.

How and why was he removed from rotation just one month after signing the contract until the end of the season?

Dragic was trying to find answers inside his own head.

"I lost the trust of the head coach without any reason," said Dragic. "I started to feel that the team doesn't need me, and I'm not the part of it."

The final breakpoint took place in Prienai. Dragic was registered for the LKL game against Labas GAS Prienai, but he remained on the bench for the whole game.

Zalgiris General Manager and President Paulius Motiejunas tried to solve the unpleasant situation, but the meetings between Dragic and Zdovc were not beneficial.

Points this season

43%
70,1
Points made: 70,1
Accuracy: 42,8%
Place in standings: 18
Record max: 98
Record min: 51
Best scorer: Josh Nebo

After injured players returned to action, the competition in guard positions became very tight. Moreover, Dragic didn't expect to be a role-player in Kaunas.

In his last four games with Zalgiris, Dragic made only 1 field goal of 16 attempts. He played only 19 minutes in total in his last three games. He was so annoyed that he missed the last two away games.

Not long after, Dragic left Zalgiris by mutual agreement, and as he said himself, it was the best decision.

Now, the Slovenian guard is preparing for his debut with Cedevita Olimpija Ljubljana. Dragic is coming back to his homeland after an almost 10 years break. In 2012, he left Krka for Unicaja Malaga.

In an exclusive interview with BasketNews, Dragic spoke about an unplanned return to Slovenia, a misunderstanding in Kaunas, and Zdovc's working technique.

Zoran, what are your impressions after the return to Slovenia?
It wasn't in my plans. My plan was to stay in Zalgiris, I signed with them until the end of the season.

Obviously, it didn't go as I wanted to. At the beginning of the season, I started to play normally, but then I got fewer and fewer minutes. Obviously, I talked with the coach and everybody, saying that I'm not a 15-year-old player who plays 5 minutes.

When I came, we won two games, everything was perfect, but I don't know what they wanted when they signed me. Because when you sign somebody, you give him minutes. If they had told me before (coming) that I would play for 5 minutes in the last team of the EuroLeague, I wouldn't have come. 

I have huge respect for Zalgiris and every member of the organization, it just everything didn't go the way I expected.

Credit BNS

What was Zalgiris' idea before signing you? What kind of vision the club presented?
First of all, (at the time) many players were injured. They wanted new energy to help the players and teams because they were in a difficult situation. Obviously, they made a move and signed me.

I was happy (with the move), and I was happy to help the team. Right after I came, the team started to play differently. We got the motivation, we played good games against Barcelona, Real Madrid.

Everything was going perfectly in that period, but 1 or 2 weeks after that, I was playing for 5 minutes. When I saw that, I tried to accept it and do my best in those 5 minutes, but it is impossible (to do something).

I lost the confidence (of the head coach) for no reason. I felt that I wasn't welcomed there (in the team), and I didn't feel (being) part of the team. What was the problem? The main problem is probably with the coach.

The coach makes decisions, and he needs to find minutes (for the players). When the players started to come back (from injuries), we had 18 players on the roster. You need to decide what to do, who needs to play less, etc.

Okay, he decided that I had to play less because I was one of the latest players to join the team. But you need to be honest and tell me why I was signed. Sign me for 2 months or something, but not until the end of the season. 

I wouldn't have come if I knew it would be like this. It's not about the club, it's more about a communication problem.

When was the final breakpoint?
When I joined the team, I tried to adapt as fast as I could. Probably the biggest problem was that the coach was playing me in the third position. However, I didn't see how I could help the team in the third position.

As a small forward, you're standing in the corner for most of the time. I thought I would play more in the 2nd or 3rd position, but the coach made other decision.

After the first EuroLeague games, I felt that I was on the rise. I scored 9 points in 12 minutes against Barcelona, but then I played only a few minutes in the second half. That was the first red flag for me.

If a player is in the rhythm, how do you don't play him? It was a coach decision, and honestly, I was surprised that I played only a few minutes against Baskonia. It was the second red flag, I was asking (myself) what was wrong.

I started to question myself, I didn't want to make a big deal out of it because we won. It's all about winning, it doesn't matter whether I play 5 or 15 minutes.

After that, I spoke with the coach and asked him what the problem is? I told him that 'If you're going to use me like this, then it's better that I go home.' Because I don't know the purpose of signing me until the end of the season. It was my only question.

What was the coach's position on your playing time and the whole situation?
I don't know. When I look at it now, the club signed me, but he (the coach) didn't use me (in the) right (way). He didn't put me in a position (in which) I could help him. Probably he has some other ideas.

I think the main problem was injured players, but when I came, (those) injured players came back. He had so many players that he didn't know how to manage (the minutes). You need to think about it before signing the players.

Credit BasketNews/D.Repečka

What did Paulius Motiejunas say about it? How did he try to solve it?
He was always positive. He came to the locker room, and when I didn't play at all, and told me that we need to find the solution, so I could be happy. I told him that I understand it and we need to find the solution, but obviously, we didn't.

The coach chose a different approach. Personally, I could've stayed in Zalgiris until the end of the season, but I'm not the kind of person who would sit on the bench and be behind someone who is 10 years younger than me. This is my player's ego.

I respect everybody at Zalgiris. I had good relationships with the players, but the coach didn't use me (in the right way), and it was better to go separate ways. I feel bad, but it's better to do this way (leave the team) than come to practice and don't know whether you'll play or not.

I played in the EuroLeague for such a long time, so I think I deserve respect to play regular minutes.

After the signing was announced, the first impression was that Jure Zdovc selected you at his choice, knowing you from the national team. He knew what he was signing.
I was thinking the same because I had known him before. But I think he was not honest with me. What can I do in this case? It happened, but we differed without anger, and we have a good relationship. Though it was tough for me, as I signed for the rest of the season, I really wanted Zalgiris to win the games. Unfortunately, I did not have much chance to prove myself.

I spent two months there, and it was difficult. If you sign a player, you need to play him. If you bring a player who is already playing 7-8 years in the EuroLeague and the NBA, and you play him 5 minutes... My ego was hurt.

This is what I feel from your talk about the situation. It hurt your ambitions and your ego.
Exactly! I have ambitions, but if you do not respect me and do not believe in me, why are you signing me then? Which person in the world can play for you when you do not believe in him? Nobody. In the last month, I was feeling like this. I was still going to the practice, fighting, but I felt that I was out of rotation.

Do you feel players believe in Zdovc?
I think they believe in him. Even for Jure Zdovc, it is a tough situation because he did not choose the players. Moreover, he came to the losing team. It was a big pressure for him, plus, he was not in the EuroLeague for 10 years - he needed to adapt.

I believed in him as well, we practiced okay, but it is tough to change everything so fast in defense and offense. It is difficult for every coach to jump into a new team, especially, in the middle of the season.

There is the saying that the atmosphere in Zalgiris locker room is something special with Jankunas, Kalnietis, and others. What emotion prevails among the players?
For sure, Jankunas, Kalnietis, Milaknis, Ulanovas are the soul of the team. In the locker room, it is always a funny, great atmosphere. I feel bad that they have such results because they really deserve to have more EuroLeague wins.

Credit D.Repečka/BasketNews

Your brother Goran reacted on social media to moving to Cedevita Olimpija. How much is he involved in your career?
We talked a little bit, not too much. We are not talking so much about basketball because we both have families. Each of us makes decisions individually. I only said to him what happened there and that I need to find a new team - that was it.

How is Goran doing right now? He is in a tough situation. Are there any problems with the injuries?
He wants to be traded. He is waiting until February, and we will see where he is going to land.

Goran is not injured, he is okay. He is practicing in Miami. My brother came back to Miami due to personal reasons and stayed there.

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Zoran Dragic

Zoran  Dragic
Zoran  Dragic
MIN: 13.2
PTS: 3.89 (37.25%)
REB: 1.22
As: 0.56
ST: 0.44
BL: 0.11
TO: 0.56
GM: 9