PHOENIX — More than a year and a half ago, the San Antonio Spurs used the 45th overall pick in the NBA Draft to select a 22-year-old Slovenian point guard who’d been playing professional basketball since the age of 17.
The Spurs quickly traded the player’s draft rights to the Phoenix Suns, who signed him nearly three months later. By putting his name on the dotted line, Goran Dragic became the heir to the Steve Nash throne in Phoenix.
Since making the long move of more than 5,400 miles from the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana to Phoenix, Dragic has evolved from a question mark into one of the league’s most capable backup point guards.
After playing in 55 games and averaging 13.2 minutes per contest during the 2008-2009 season, Dragic worked to improve his game and earn a greater role in the Suns’ 2009-2010 plans.
Now averaging 17.8 minutes through 63 games, Dragic has indeed earned his spot as two-time MVP Steve Nash’s backup and the future of the Phoenix Suns at point guard.
“As much as [Dragic] can be in practice and as much as Steve helps him, the only way you get better is that you actually have to be on the floor and experience that,” Suns coach Alvin Gentry said after a recent practice.
Dragic’s 8.0 points and 2.7 assists per game are not eye-popping numbers, but his contribution to the Suns this season, one which many felt could mark the end of a successful era in the Valley, goes far beyond the stat columns.
Though the Suns went 1-1 without him, there was almost certainly a greater appreciation for Dragic’s presence after he missed the team’s last two games with a sprained ankle. (Dragic was actually getting so much treatment on the ankle Monday that comment from him for this story couldn’t be obtained.)
“[Dragic] was missed a lot,” Gentry said. “He gives us that guy that pushes the ball unbelievably. I think he’s as quick as anybody in the league with the ball from baseline to baseline.”
With the absence of Leandro Barbosa for all but 29 games this year, Dragic has become an even greater asset. Dragic’s scrappy, all-out hustle style has sparked the Suns’ second unit this season into becoming one of the NBA’s most formidable benches.
“It’s definitely a unique energy in a sense of pushing the ball and getting out on the fast break and being aggressive,” said Suns forward Jared Dudley. “I think that’s one things he’s done this year that he didn’t do last year.”
Gentry said that energy is just part of the personality of the Suns’ bench, but the leadership role that Dragic has achieved puts his energy at the forefront.
“He’s a leader in the second unit,” Gentry said. “I think the guys have got a lot more confident in what he’s doing and running the team.”
Dudley mentioned that there was initially a language barrier challenge when Dragic called plays, but as Dragic has improved his English and become more confident, his play calling ability has grown exponentially and his confidence has rubbed off on everyone else.
“As a point guard, you definitely lead by example,” Dudley said. “He’s gotten a lot better at calling plays louder, being more vocal.”
As much as Dragic’s intangibles have improved, so have his skills. Dragic has gone from taking 54 three-point shots last season (20 of which he made, making him a 37.0 percent shooter) to making 58 so far this season (of 147 attempts for a 39.5 percent shooting percentage from deep).
Dragic’s shooting percentage from the field has jumped from 39.3 percent in 2008-2009 to 46.0 percent this season.
“He’s become a pretty doggone good shooter,” Gentry said.
Learning under Nash, a true artist with the basketball, Dragic has also become a skilled passer. It’s not uncommon anymore to see him dish a Nash-esque no-look pass to a teammate like he’s been doing it for years.
Paramount among Dragic’s improvement though has been the defensive presence he brings to the floor, a presence the Suns sorely need.
The pressure that Dragic provides on defense and its influence on the rest of the team have given the Suns’ subs the ability to take the court for most of the second quarter of games and maintain or increase leads.
“I think once anyone is — especially Goran, myself and Lou — playing with a lot of energy defensively, scoring and being aggressive, it definitely makes everyone a lot better,” Dudley said.
Though Dragic’s development has been faster than many expected, it has not been without mistakes. Gentry stressed that Dragic has learned much from the mistakes he’s made, be it forced shots, turnovers, missed opportunities or defensive lapses.
“One thing about Goran is that he was able to play last year when I took over and I told him, ‘We’re going to have to live through your mistakes for you to get better. That’s the only way you’ll get better,’” Gentry said. “Everybody forgets about Steve Nash.
“Go back and check his first three years in the league. He got booed in Dallas. You make mistakes, you learn from them and you grow from them.”
The most notable part of Dragic’s rise has been his confidence. This is something that’s been talked about all season — how Dragic seems confident shooting and passing as well as guarding some of the NBA’s best players.
“Goran has become more confident in his ability to play and feeling like he belongs,” Gentry said.
Ask any Suns fan and they would almost certainly tell you that Dragic belongs. More was made of how much the Suns would miss Dragic for two games than how much the team has missed Barbosa for most of the season.
With numerous displays this year of his immense potential, including a career-best 32-point performance against Utah, Dragic has gained the loyalty of a dedicated fan base and the respect of opponents. Asked if there’s a better backup point guard in the league, Gentry had to stop and think.
“That’s a tough one,” Gentry said. “I would say there’s not many.”
And as far as his future as the starting point guard is concerned?
“He’s playing with one of the best point guards and he’s playing a lot,” Dudley said. “Any time you have that, you’ve got a good chance to be a starter in this league.”
Dragic may be a long way from Slovenia, but he’s certainly found a home away from home on Planet Orange.