First European in the NBA
Dražen was aware that he had achieved everything that could be achieved in Europe. If he had stayed, he would have been winning the same trophies. “If I can score 40 points in every game, then this is not the right thing. That’s not what I want.” The NBA was definitely a challenge he could not let pass by. In the years when Dražen moved to and played in the NBA the league was considered too tough, untouchable for European players. Everybody claimed that a European could not survive in the NBA without spending the previous four years at a US university. Dražen knew he could play there. The reason he went to the United States was not the money. The only reason was the challenge. He believed he could play as well as the American players. He used to say that basketball was no different there; the hoops were not lower, and NBA players were good but they were not aliens. Dražen knew what he had to do to achieve success – practice, constantly train and nothing else – Dražen’s formula. Bestowed with a boundless energy for success, he improved his physical conditioning and technical skills. He proved that Europeans could play in the NBA. In his four-year career Dražen had the best shooting (50.6%) and 3-point percentage (43.7%) of all guards, even Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller were behind him. He is the best shooter in the history of Portland Trail Blazers and third best player in the history of the New York Nets. In a total of 290 NBA games, Dražen scored 4,461 points, averaging 15.4 points per game.
Portland Trail Blazersi
Dražen arrived to Portland, Oregon on 17 August 1989. He had been selected in the third round of the NBA draft (the 60th pick overall) by the Portland Trail Blazers. He stayed in the city for 18 months. At that time, Portland was one of the best teams in the NBA. Competition within the club was considerable. At the time Trail Blazers had two of the best guards in the NBA – Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler. They, and the fact that he was from Europe, were the reasons why coach Rick Adelman did not play him regularly, only putting him in at the end of the game for seven to ten minutes when the outcome was already decided. Dražen described his situation in the club by saying: “I have the best seat in the house… on the bench.” He was under the greatest pressure of his career. Rick Adelman never found any fault with him and he was satisfied with Dražen’s training and his attitude to the game. But he never explained why Dražen did not play and he knew his potential, how valuable a player he was. And at these most difficult moments of his career Dražen remained tough; he did not surrender.
In Dražen’s first season with the Trail Blazers, they were the champions of the Western Conference. Dražen became the first European in the NBA finals in 1990. Regardless of his limited playing time in Portland, Dražen was named the best shooter in the history of the club. In 18 months at Portland he played 77 games and scored 583 points, averaging 7.6 points per game.
Dissatisfied with his role as a reserve, which he had never been before in his career, and regardless of his lucrative contract, Dražen wanted to change clubs. He was ready, if necessary, to move from a team playing in the NBA finals to the worst team in the league if he would be guaranteed playing time. A trade was finalized on 23 January 1991 and in the second half of the 1990-1991 season he played for the New Jersey Nets.
New Jersey Nets
With his new club Dražen wore jersey number 3. The New Jersey Nets was then a club at the bottom of the NBA standings. It had not made the playoffs in almost ten years. Challenge enough for Dražen. He changed everything. With him the Nets were back in the playoffs for two straight seasons. In the 1990-1991 season Dražen played in 82 games and scored 1691 points, averaging 20.6 points per game and was named the Nets’ MVP and the Net of the Year. The next season, 1992-1993, Dražen played even better and became one of the best players in the NBA. He played 70 games, scored 1564 points, averaging 22.3 points per game. As the Nets’ best shooter that year, he was named to the All-NBA third team. He was also named the third best Nets player in the history of the club.
On 11 November 1993, in the Meadowlands Arena, the home of the New Jersey Nets, Dražen’s jersey number 3 was raised and retired, only the sixth number to be retired by the team.
- Portland Trail Blazers – 1990 the Western Conference champions (record: 59-23 regular season, 12-9 in the playoffs)
- New Jersey Nets
- 1991 12th place in the Eastern Conference (record: 26-56 regular season)
- 1992 6th place in the Eastern Conference (record: 40-42 regular season, 1-3 in the playoffs)
- 1993 6th place in the Eastern Conference (record: 43-39 regular season, 2-3 in the playoffs)