Damjan Rudež reflects on his ‘amazing’ time in Indy

366 days.

That’s how long Damjan Rudež was officially a member of the Indiana Pacers.

The Pacers looked into acquiring forward Chase Budinger last week and by the weekend, they finalized a deal with Minnesota that sent Damjan Rudež to the Timberwolves. The deal was actually agreed upon on the same date — July 11 — that Rudež was announced as a free-agent signing last year.

“The support I’ve been getting, the feedback, and the reactions on social media have been incredibly positive,” Rudež said Sunday morning at a downtown brunch spot about an hour before the team announced the trade. “I’m really overwhelmed with the amount of love I’ve been getting from Indy even though I’ve been here such a short amount of time.”

Rudež, who returned to Indianapolis last week for focused training and to prepare for the EuroBasket Championship in September, was about to go out to lunch Saturday when he received a call from Larry Bird, the Pacers President of Basketball of Operations, informing him that he was being dealt to Minnesota.

“I appreciate that,” he said of Bird personally reaching out. “It’s always nicer to get it from Larry than to find out from TV or social media.”

Bird dubbed Rudež as “one of the best shooters in Europe,” and was “thrilled” last July when he agreed to join the Blue & Gold.

It’s also meaningful that Bird dialed him because he was the one who believed in Damjan, the one who brought him in from overseas for his first deal in the NBA.

“He was the guy that brought me here,” Rudež said of Bird. “He was the guy that grabbed my arm after my workout here and said he wants to bring me here. That was the single-most important moment of my career so far. He opened the door. He brought me here so it was nice to find out from him.”

When Rudež answered the phone and heard Bird on the other end he knew. It’s that time of year and the Pacers have been active in free agency. There are just eight players (of 15) back from last year, Rudež’s rookie season.

“It shocked me at first because you’re never ready for it,” he said, between sips of apple juice. “Growing up and following the NBA and educating myself about the NBA and being here and hearing all the stories, you know it can happen to anyone. And then given the point of time, subconsciously you’re ready for it. Kind of always ready for it.”

Rudež thoroughly enjoyed his experience with the Pacers and the friends he met over the last year.

Pacers head coach Frank Vogel called as well, which you’d expect because that’s the type of man he is. They spoke for about 10 minutes.

“They know I came here because of the Pacers,” said Rudež. “They know I didn’t come here for the money. I had more lucrative offers in Europe. Larry, KP [GM Kevin Pritchard], and Frank trying to bring me over here was the most important factor — aside from the fact that it’s the NBA. It was really all love from the first workout.”

The love and respect between Rudež and those within the organization is mutual. He has received texts and DMs from teammates, staff members, broadcasters, and even ball boys. He appreciates every single note. While we were talking, a Pacers scout sent him a message to wish him well with the Timberwolves.

With the trade completed by this time, though not made official, Rudež said he had to shift his state of mind.

“Today, I woke up as a Timberwolves,” he said.

“It’s weird, but it’s also exciting. Very exciting. I’m thinking about all the possibilities that might open up for me over there, all the challenges it brings. Just the opportunity to work with Kevin Garnett in my career I think is a huge opportunity.”

(Sidenote: Yes, I shared my horror stories about Kevin Garnett. I think he’s a guy you love if he’s on your team and despise if he’s not.)

Moving to a new city, a new situation is never easy and always has its obstacles. But it’s also allows for the person to turn the page and get a fresh start. Rudež is intrigued to join a “young team loaded with talent.”

Prior to coming to Indiana, the 29-year-old played for a handful of clubs overseas in Europe so it’s nothing new to him. There are the very same challenges at every stop.

“You always have to fight for your spot, you always have to fight for your minutes, you always have to leave a good impression on your new employer, find a good way to blend in with the teammates and with the new coaching staff,” he said. “It’s not something that I’m unfamiliar with. That’s the nature of the business.”

Last season, Rudež shot 45.2 percent from the field, including 40.6 percent from outside, and averaged 4.8 points per game. He hit his stride over the final three months of the season as he buried half of his 3-point attempts (36-of-72). Rudež was the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter last season.

“People know I’m a shooter,” he said. “People know I can be a reliable asset in this league because of my shooting so that is something that I’m hoping that’s going to bring me good things in Minnesota.”

Rudež plans to fly to Minneapolis on Monday to visit with the team and to take a physical, which is mandated by the league for the trade to go through.

After that, he’ll return to Indianapolis until the end of the month when he’ll join the Croatian National Team in hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Rudež said Bird is allowing him full use of the facility, a respectable offer.

“Damjan was a special guy,” Bird said in the team’s release to announce the trade. “He was great to have as part of our team. He will be missed by all.”

It’s been an eventful summer to be sure for Rudež. In June, he worked an NBA Basketball without Borders camp in Spain, just a few hours from his home. This was special for Rudež because he participated in the program as a teen — and he was able to pay it forward. A few weeks later, he hosted about 100 kids at his inaugural basketball camp in his hometown of Zagreb, Croatia.

Then, he got married. Yes, Rudež is off the market. And now, he’s onward to Minnesota.

“My time in Indy has literally been amazing for me,” Rudež said.

“It was my first steps in the NBA. I’m leaving a lot of friends here. I’m leaving a lot of friends, teammates, and coaches. I really bonded with everyone in the organization. I felt love. I felt like I was a part of the group. The atmosphere here suited me. The characters and the level of communication was extremely high level. It was a great pleasure. I was very proud to wear a Pacer uniform.

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