Goran Dragic taking advantage of opportunity with Houston Rockets

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Goran Dragic learned from his mentor Steve Nash in Phoenix and is excelling as a starter in Houston. Copyright 2012 NBAE (Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

PHOENIX — Goran Dragic was supposed to be the heir to Steve Nash’s throne.

For two-and-a-half seasons the innocent kid from Slovenia brought a breath of fresh air to US Airways Center and wanted nothing more than to one day take the torch from Nash and become Phoenix’s floor general.

“That was my wish to be the guy in the future to run the team,” Dragic recalled on Sunday before the Suns and Rockets clashed in US Airways Center.

But there he stood before Sunday’s game, wearing red and grey warmups. He sat by his cubby in the visitor’s locker room with 12 tickets in hand for the friends he still has from his days in Phoenix.

It had been just over one year since Dragic was shipped out of the place he once called home, and the Dragon could still remember how hard it was to leave his first-ever NBA organization.

“When I first got traded it was tough,” Dragic said. “Another team, different players, different city but then I just needed time to adjust to see how these things work. But in the end I’m just here to play basketball.”

Dragic said he still owns a home in Phoenix. He and his former teammates and coaches “grab some drinks and hang out” when Dragic is in Phoenix or they’re in Houston. Dragic still reminisces about his 23-point fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix’s improbable Western Conference Finals run in 2010.

“That was something special,” Dragic said.

But despite all the memories, Dragic is a Rocket now.

Although he proved to be a serviceable backup with solid upside through 199 games in purple and orange, new management and an up and down start to his third season led Lon Babby and Lance Blanks to ship Phoenix’s once-prized youngster and a first-round pick to Houston for Aaron Brooks after 48 games last season.

Blanks and Babby said Dragic wasn’t a point guard of the future type of guy. They thought he was expendable enough to give up for a shot at making the playoffs with Brooks’ scoring punch. Well, the Suns didn’t make the playoffs, Brooks is currently stuck in China, and Dragic is showing the Houston Rockets that he can indeed be a point guard of the future type of player.

“I’m satisfied with this season. I’m playing a lot of minutes,” Dragic said. “When Kyle (Lowry) was not hurt we played together and I was a two or a one. It feels great. I’m playing, playing well and the team is winning.”

Dragic is averaging 15.5 points and 9.2 assists in his last six games as a starter while Kyle Lowry remains on the mend due to a bacterial infection. He’s racked up two double-doubles in his last three games and has reached double figures scoring in eight straight games. The Rockets are in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race and Dragic is a big reason why.

“It was great to see Goran. He played really well tonight. I’m just rooting for him,” Nash said after Dragic scored 13 points, dished out eight assists, and collected four steals in 36 minutes against the Suns. “He’s always had such great ability and I think he’s getting more minutes, more experience and he can take advantage of the situations on the floor better.”

In a contract year Dragic has indeed taken advantage of his stint in Houston. He’s playing big minutes, putting up big-time numbers as a starter, and even contributing as a combo guard when Lowry is healthy.

On Sunday the Slovenian lefty reminded Suns fans and management of his court vision as he dropped eight dimes, his pressure defense as he racked up four steals, and his deceiving athleticism as he picked off a pass and threw down a one-handed slam in transition. Dragic’s skills were on display, many for which he has Nash to thank.

“Steve is a great person. He helped me a lot. He’s one of the best point guards and if you battle against Steve Nash every practice you have to learn something,” Dragic said. “Especially that first year when I didn’t play 30 games I remember he was saying, ‘Just be patient, wait for your opportunity and when you get that opportunity you have to take advantage of it,’ and I did.”

Would Dragic have ever evolved into that point guard of the future in Phoenix? Different situations breed different results, and even Dragic wasn’t sure if he’d have been able to live up to the standard Nash, and even Kevin Johnson before him, set for Phoenix Suns point guards.

“Here was different,” Dragic explained. “Everyone was saying ‘Steve Nash, Steve Nash,’ so it’s a lot of pressure to play backup for him because every time he’s going to do something great.”

Although it’s not in Phoenix, now Dragic is doing something great. He’s starting, scoring, dishing, defending and winning, all of which may have never happened in Phoenix with Nash at the helm.

“It’s been a fantastic season so far,” Dragic said 60 minutes before he would once again re-live the bright lights and fans of US Airways Center, only this time it was in Houston Rockets gear.

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