Goran Dragic is ready to create his own footsteps

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PHOENIX — Upon entering Monday’s media scrum, it took exactly five seconds before starting point guard Goran Dragic was posed a question with the words Steve Nash and big shoes attached to the end of it.

Like a politician trying to get out in front of a story before it became “the story” of Media Day, Dragic stopped for a moment, grinned slightly and faced the music — as if he knew what was coming before the words were even uttered.

“First of all, it’s really nice to be back here,” Dragic said. “It’s not going to be Steve anymore, it’s going to be me. I’m not like Steve, nobody can be like Steve. He’s one of a kind.”

Look, there is no debating Dragic learned a lot from Nash. The two are still really close friends. They admire each other on and off the court. And they recognize the roles they must now play for their respective franchises.

But to expect the current Suns point guard to emulate the footsteps of the team’s last favorite Sun negates Dragic’s ability to create his own imprint. And after more than a year away from the Valley, if there is anything distinctly different about this Goran Dragic, it’s that he finally looks comfortable taking the lead.

New Dragic, old Dragic

Outwardly, the Slovenian looks very much like the same guy the Suns shipped off to Houston in a deadline deal for Aaron Brooks back in February 2011. Outside of a wispy, two-week-old mustache, Dragic doesn’t really come across as the NBA veteran that the four years on the back of his playing card indicate. The Suns’ newest face — if you can even call him that — still has the facial features of a college-aged student, a rare charm that comes from his aw-shucks, happy to be here personality and a youthful naivete that is refreshing despite the ups-and-downs he’s endured the past few seasons.

But if optimistic curiosity exists heading into 2012-13 — even in spite of the remnants of despair still left from this summer’s franchise-shifting departures — it hinges largely on the expectation that this version of “The Dragon” will spit red-hot fire starting in late October.

In the NBA there are really only two ways for a backup to become a starter. It’s either circumstantial or a product of growth. In the case of Dragic, it’s a perfect combination of both.

During his first stint with the Suns, Dragic was the student, not the teacher. Even in moments of pure greatness like his 23-point fourth quarter heroics against the Spurs in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals back in 2010, the first question collectively posed was not “Where did this come from?” it was “Why aren’t we seeing this more often?”

Nobody has ever questioned Dragic’s potential. For being the No. 45 pick overall back in 2008, he may arguably be the team’s shrewdest move on draft night — acquired in a trade with the Spurs — in a good number of years. But the concern was always how far could he realistically progress in the shadows of one of the game’s greatest point guards ever to live.

During the 2009-10 season, that sense of speculation began to build. Dragic had finally found a coach in Alvin Gentry, who believed in him regardless of on-court mishaps. And that confidence translated into tangible growth. The Slovenian had six double-digit scoring games in December despite playing less than 20 minutes per game, only to follow it up with the first double-digit scoring month (10.1 points per game) of his career in January. February brought about the first two 10-assist games of his career — both in the span of three games — and it appeared on the surface at the very least that the team had found an anchor to a bench that might find its way in the NBA Finals.

Not to re-open the wound, but the Suns obviously didn’t make it to the Finals, falling just two games shy against the Lakers. Following his career night in San Antonio, Dragic finished the final seven games of the postseason averaging only 7.2 points and 2.7 assists per game.

It’s easy to think of the 2010-11 season as a complete disappointment for Dragic in purple and orange. It wasn’t. He had turnover-less nights where he would contribute 17 points and 10 rebounds, or 14 and eight to go along with a few rebounds. The problem was on a team with a two-time MVP,  fighting off the inconsistent moments without starter-level minutes just simply wasn’t going to happen. Because of it, the bad nights were exacerbated. So, following a foot injury that derailed the better part of his final month in a Suns uniform, Dragic was sent packing to the Rockets. There were no guarantees he’d find any more playing time on a roster led by guard Kyle Lowry, but if nothing else, a change of scenery seemed like the best fit for all parties involved. And at least for one party, it was.

Hello, my name is Goran Dragic

As odd as it is to admit, the hopes of the Suns’ backcourt all stem from an untimely abdominal bacterial infection. If not for Lowry’s diagnosis in March, the world may still not know the true potential of Goran Dragic.  After filling in as Houston’s starting point guard, the former Sun single-handedly torched some of the league’s best teams — the Thunder, Clippers, Bulls, Heat and Lakers — over the final 27 games of the season. In that span, Dragic had 26 straight double-digit scoring performances, 19 games of at least seven assists and 12 games of at least 50 percent shooting from three-point range.

For his efforts he won the NBA’s Player of the Week Award for the Western Conference (April 2-9) and more importantly opened the eyes of GM’s across the league entering this summer’s free agency period.

Enter in Robert Sarver, Lon Babby, Lance Blanks and the Phoenix Suns.

When it became clear that Nash was no longer in the team’s plans going forward after this past season, it was only logical that the team take a flyer on its once-promising prospect, Dragic. Granted, the front office now would have to throw more money at him, but as the saying goes history is about not making the same mistake twice. And if the front office is to be commended, it certainly should be on that front.

If Dragic’s confidence was sky high after signing a four-year deal worth about $30 million to re-join the Suns back in July, you wouldn’t know it these days. He leans more on the side of reflection, like a guy who’s just happy to have been given a second chance to prove he’s ready to be the teacher, rather than the student.

“In Houston, I had more playing time so I developed more of my confidence,” Dragic said. “It’s way up compared to where it was here. I’m more comfortable on the floor, and I am a leader now.  I talked more with the coaching staff and the players on the floor than maybe I did two or three years ago.

“With the Suns, I was more quiet and shy. It’s been a big difference.”

Two months does not make an NBA starter nor does it end the maturation process. It can make an unproven player a lot of money in free agency, as it did for Dragic this past summer. And frankly, there is no way of knowing whether Dragon 2.0 was a one-hit wonder or a permanent act here to stay for years to come.

He may not win any hardware like his predecessor did. He may not draw the same crowds, make running jumpers off the wrong leg, hit 90 percent from the free-throw line or 40 percent from three-point range on consistent basis. And he may never lead the league in shots to the body or stitches to the face.

But as Dragic made abundantly clear Monday, he doesn’t have to be Steve Nash.

“I really just want to come in and be me, Goran Dragic,” he said. “Steve and I have different games.”

Unlike his original stint with the Suns, there are no shadows hanging over his limitless potential, no excuses for why his game may shine some nights and dwindle others. He knows the system, the coach and the expectations that undoubtedly come with the promotion. In case the headline wasn’t clear enough, this is Goran Dragic’s team. The company car is now his to drive at full speed.

And although words don’t necessarily make it so, for the first time in his career it appears at the very least that Dragic finally has the chops and the opportunity to drive without looking hesitantly in the rear-view mirror.

“It’s going to be tough to fill [Nash's shoes],” he said before briefly pausing. “But, I am looking forward to it.”

And 1

Dragic started camp on the sidelines due to a left ankle sprain, as reported by Arizona Sports’ Craig Grialou. The Suns were originally concerned it was a fracture, but X-rays were negative and he’s not expected to miss much time.

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