PHOENIX — The three-week absence of Leandro Barbosa has been felt throughout the confines of US Airways Center and beyond. The Brazilain Blur brings an element to the basketball court that is unmatched by any other player — superstar or benchwarmer.
The Suns’ performance has suffered without him (4-6) and their formerly-deep bench has gradually thinned out.
While there is no question that Christmas Day — the expected return of LB — will be a little more joyous with Barbosa on the floor, there has been one positive that has come from his absence: the maturation process of the second-year Slovenian lefty, Goran Dragic.
“It’s hurt us to have Leandro out,” said Steve Nash. “We probably would have won a few games we’ve lost, but also it’s given us a chance for Goran to step up and play well and get some confidence and show that he can play the two a little bit. So maybe we learned something and gained something out of it even though we’ve missed LB.”
It is easy to play the “what if” game, but given Barbosa hadn’t gone down with the ankle injury, the Dallas game, Denver game and Portland game could have all easily been victories. But as Nash said, Dragic has been given more time to flourish and has done exactly that.
It took some time for him to adjust playing next to Nash and carrying a bigger load on the second unit, but during his last three games Dragic is averaging 13.0 points per game while shooting 60.1 percent (14-of-23) from the field and 60 percent from distance (6-of-10).
It is clear that Dragic has found his confidence and is now capable of rising to the occasion in big games. He was integral in the Suns’ home win over the Spurs last week — 18 points on 7-of-9 from the field and 4-of-5 from three in 25 minutes — and has shown confidence that wasn’t even in his vocabulary last year as a rookie.
“I just think he’s maturing as a player and I think the more he gets to play and the more time he’s out there running the team, he’ll continue to improve,” Gentry said. “He’s a really, really, extremely hard-working kid and he wants to be a good player, and as long as that’s his thinking, he’s going to be fine.”
Added Nash: “He just keeps improving. I think he started the year playing pretty well and he’s just gotten better every week, and his confidence has obviously grown — and that’s a big part of it — but I think his experience has helped him, and you know he’s had some more time to get a feel for how he can utilize his skills out there and you know he’s just improving. It’s really fun to see him playing well.”
Gentry is clearly gaining more confidence in Dragic, who has averaged 23.3 minutes per game over the last three, and it will be interesting to see how he will be utilized when Barbosa returns. But if there is one thing that will keep Dragic on the floor even with the return of LB, it is his defense.
He has good length, a 6-foot-7 wingspan, and has proven that he can defend point guards and smaller two guards, something the Suns clearly struggle with. He did a great job defending Manu Ginobili, as he helped limit him to seven points on 2-of-8 shooting — a big accomplishment considering he has torched the Suns over the years. He was also quite impressive against Gilbert Arenas, helping force him into 6-of-21 shooting.
“The thing that no one talks about is that his defense has been real good for us,” Gentry said. “He’s been real solid defensively. He’s guarded some really good offensive players and done a good job with them.”
Last year Goran Dragic was a disappointment, even as a second-round draft pick. He was dubbed with some high expectations by Steve Kerr and the Phoenix Suns, and as most 22-year-old foreign players would in such a debacle of a season, he struggled.
But he has clearly come into his own as of late, a process expedited by the injury to Barbosa. He has been able to play the two next to Nash, which Gentry believes has clearly helped him, and he has been able to be “the man” on the second unit.
The backup point guard position has always been a weakness for the Phoenix Suns, and Goran Dragic will clearly never be Steve Nash; no one will. But he has done a terrific job being the best Goran Dragic that he can be.
“I think the biggest thing is we can’t compare Goran to me,” Nash said. “I don’t mean as a player I just mean the way you play the point guard position doesn’t have to be the same as me or the same as Jason Kidd.”
Dragic is quickly making a name for himself, not as Nash’s heir or as the future backup, but simply as Goran Dragic. And according to Nash, his success as a player will go as far as he wants to take it.
“It’s up to him, it’s up to how hard he works,” Nash said. “You know, he’s got talent and he’ll continue to improve on his talent, and then if he wants to take it really far it’s a matter of how hard he wants to work and how motivated he continues to be, and that will be the determinant in how much improvement we see out of him.”
The Suns have clearly seen that improvement out of him week in and week out. While the team’s record has suffered without Leandro in the lineup, his absence has opened the door for Dragic, and he has shined.
Goran needed to have a breakout season if he wanted to prove he can eventually be a mainstay as a Phoenix Sun.
So far, so good.