Goran Dragic grows up, helps Suns move past Steve Nash era

PHOENIX – Nobody was ever asking for Goran Dragic to be Steve Nash, but the two-time MVP’s time in Phoenix still hangs as an impossible measuring stick. Dragic is doing his best to vault his way over the exhaust of expectations left behind. If the symbolism of handing over the keys as the Phoenix Suns’ point guard wasn’t enough, consider what kind of car Nash handed over.

To no fault of his own, Nash had run what was once a pristine racecar into the ground. Oil was leaking out of the old SSOL’s engine block, the radiator was leaking too. Hell, the rubber was cracking and peeling off the tires. The roster had been neglected that much.

Despite the decrepit situation, Dragic still navigated the machine home.

“It was when I came here, Jay (Gaspar) the equipment guy, he told me Steve wished that I have his locker and of course I texted him, ‘Thank you, Steve,’ ” Dragic said when Nash made his first return to Phoenix as a Laker. “And he said, ‘No problem, buddy, you deserve it.’ That was really something special.”

“It means a lot,” the Suns’ new point guard added. “Especially, basically he was saying, ‘I gave you the keys, you can take over the team.’ ”

No, a 25-57 record would surely have been different had Nash stuck around. Arguably, his health would have been enough to keep him trucking under Phoenix’s training staff, and his leadership isn’t something replicated easily. But 2012-13 was Dragic’s free year to grow into a starting NBA point guard. As it progressed, he made it clear he could handle the rigors of a whole season. Dragic played 77 games and averaged 14.7 points and 7.4 assists in 33.7 minutes per game.

He only got better as the year progressed.

Numbers were the proof that Phoenix’s offseason signing of the Slovenian to a four-year, $30 contract was a sound deal. The lefty was described through the season as a point guard version of Manu Ginobili by Suns interim coach Lindsey Hunter and Golden State coach Mark Jackson. Rather than riding out Nash until his retirement, Phoenix used the down-year to watch a new point guard grow.

Dragic developed into a pick-and-roll passer a la Nash, although it took a while. He and Marcin Gortat struggled to gel – the coaching turmoil didn’t help – but showed promise just before Gortat went down with a foot sprain for the final 21 games of the year.

As an aggressive, attacking point guard, Dragic proved to be capable finishing at the cup and using his footwork to open up enough of his own opportunities via step-back jumpers and jump-stops, all without Channing Frye spacing the floor or another true ball-handling playmaker to take opponents’ focus away. He shot a not-too-shabby 44 percent overall and 32 percent from three-point range.

Most of all, Dragic proved he could take a beating. He missed one game due to illness and another after taking a hard fall on a fastbreak layup attempt. The Suns held him out for three games when tanking appeared to be the obvious route, but it was his refusal to acknowledge that it was absolutely necessary rest that hinted toward his leadership.

“Rocky is back in the building,” coach Lindsey Hunter said on March 30 as Dragic returned from sitting out a game to rest two days earlier. “Bruise under his eye is healed a little bit, hopefully his rib cage is a little (better) … like I said, the kid looks like he’s boxing. If you can look at him after the game, it’s like, ‘There’s no way this kid is getting up tomorrow to practice.’ But you love that about him.

“He’ll kill himself if you let him.”

That’s where Dragic grew. He said after the season ended that he wants to work on becoming a more vocal player and a better leader overall. Still, where he developed throughout the season wasn’t just on the court. He is already well into becoming not just a mature player, but a mature teammate.

Alvin Gentry and Dragic were close enough for the former Suns coach to refer to Dragic as a son, and the point guard was appreciative that Gentry had put his faith in him as a young pro before he was traded to the Houston Rockets. But Dragic never took shots at management for the firing of Gentry. He accepted Lindsey Hunter and repeatedly echoed Hunter’s pleas for his Suns to fight. Dragic bought in when there was no reason to do so.

Never did Dragic take shots at his teammates, even broadly.

“You have to ask coach,” was the common response about any questions about the team’s effort-levels that fluctuated obviously. Dragic decided that it wasn’t his job to jab his teammates through the media, though arguably it would have done no damage for him to do just that.

Hunter especially grew fond of Dragic. Perhaps he was repeating orders from upstairs about giving the team a reason to tank, but there was also solid evidence that Phoenix had reason to worry about Dragic’s drive — his motor is telling of his bright future but this season it was pointless to burn out. Hunter admitted that the Suns schemed around Dragic defending opposing point guards, partially to save his energy but also to keep the ultra-competitive part of him from getting caught up in one-on-one battles.

On March 9 in a 107-105 win against the Rockets, Dragic made the play that most described what he’ll mean for the Suns’ future. With the Suns leading by five and Dragic having struggled with no assists and seven points thus far, he dove on a loose ball on a broken play and found Kendall Marshall for a two-point bank shot as the shot clock expired.

“Without Goran doing that, I don’t know if we win,” Hunter said, failing to mention Dragic went on to score 11 of the final 14 Phoenix points. “Those are the types of plays that we want to be known for. That’s the type of grit and mettle that we want to show in those situations.”

While the “we” might not include Hunter or even several of Dragic’s teammates moving forward, it’s clear that the past season defined that type of identity for himself in his most important year of growth.

It’s not Steve Nash. It’s not even Manu Ginobili. It’s Goran Dragic, but he’s happy being himself.

  • Ty-Sun

    Good article. I have no doubt that if they surround Dragic with better players, his performance will continue to get better, especially his assist rate.

  • Scott

    The Suns should try to have another ball handler out on the court with Dragic at all times, to try to prevent him from taking such a beating.

    As I keep noting, Dragic had that great quarter against the Spurs with Barbosa – who can create and distribute well enough to play PG – by his side. The problem for the Spurs was that with the two of them on the floor, they didn’t know where the offense was going to come from, so they couldn’t block it.

    And that was a key to that great 2nd unit.

    This last season, the only opportunities for that sort of thing were with Brown at SG (who is limited by his inability to catch and shoot, his iffy passing, and poor defense), Telfair at SG (rarely done since the Suns were at that time using Telfair as backup PG), and Garrett (who was played so rarely he lacked rhythm and was timid at pushing the pace and scoring).

    McD would have more success with the team if he could pair Dragic with a SG who has playmaking skills in addition to defense and scoring.

  • Scott

    Let me add that if the Suns had picked up Mayo instead of Beasley and Brown, not only would they have saved money, they probably would have made it to the playoffs.

  • Ty-Sun

    Oh yeah, let’s bring up Mayo again. Even though Dudley had a higher PER than Mayo this season, Mayo SURELY could have gotten the Suns into the playoffs. A 15.3 ppg, 4.4 apg and 3.5 rpg player surely would have made a GREAT difference this season for the Suns. Yeah the Suns may have made him a low-ball contract offer but if they did it was probably one thing we should actually be thankful for.

    Yeah, he’s much better than Beasley but he’s not great either. Even IF the Suns had signed him and NOT Beasley I doubt that the Suns would have finished higher than the 8th seed (if that high) and made another quick 1st round exit from the playoffs. It might have made for a little more exciting season but would have made the rebuild more difficult in the long run.

  • Scott

    @Ty-Sun -

    I know you hate Mayo, and that’s fine. Obviously not everyone here agrees upon everything.

    I think the following rotations would have been enough to get into the playoffs:

    Dragic, Mayo, Dudley, Scola, Gortat

    Marshall, Tucker, Johnson, Markieff, O’Neal

    I’m not saying this squad would win a championship. I’m just saying that – IMO – having a SG who can score, distribute, and defend would have largely unstuck the offense for the starters.

    The units listed above are also fairly balanced for scoring efficiency, where each unit has one volume scorer (Mayo, Johnson). Mayo shot 41% from 3 last season, as well as being able to handle, drive, and create.

    You may think Mayo would be a bad choice for the Suns, but I think a player with his general profile would have filled the gap that led to so many losses, and that’s my point.

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  • Morgan

    I don’t agree with all of Scott’s comments, but he does know his basketball. I think with Mayo they could have made the playoffs. It would have stabilized the rotations. This team was just a train wreck top to bottom this year. This team has talent just lacking a super star or 2

  • Rich Anthony, (KJL)

    Mayo would not have helped Phoenix in any way. It’s easy to say that now with how the season went, but there was no good coming out of that signing.

    PHX would have been better as a basketball team. Perhaps 10-15 wins better, (PERHAPS).

    End result of that? They’re outside of the lottery. Los Angeles probably still makes the playoffs ahead of them, so they’re still down an extra 1st pick.

    I’m sure Mayo would’ve signed a similar deal to the one he inked in Dallas, so he would not have remained very long anyway.

    This season is exactly what needed to happen minus the Beasley signing. Even that isn’t so bad because he’s not on the hook for half a decade.

    While I dO agree LiterAlly, the DefInite first order of business for PhOenix moving forward in 2013!! [what?] is to pair Dragon with a 2-guard who can get to the tin on his own and has the ability to finish while keeping another focus point out there on the floor, you’ve got to make sure it’s the right guy [from Indiana]

    I also hope the Suns study the athletic big men and pick the right one for dragon. He’s a natural lefty. Amare, Amundson, and even Diaw all had the same basic technique when they would pivot off the set screen to roll – they’d flare out a bit to their right making it a perfect angle for a lefty-Nash dime.

    Gortat dives in a straight line; sometimes slightly left. As many times as Nash found him, it was never as “perfect” as it was with other bigs utilizing the Nash PnR and it resulted in THORTAT!??? fumbling his fair share of balls near the rim.

    Dragon is a natural lefty, so his screener should have that natural right-fade on the dive. If they move Gortat along, I hope that’s something they take into consideration.

    Shifting gears a little bit, (towards the end of the first round & into the second), if he’s sitting there, I really hope the Suns invest in Giannis Adetokunbo.

    I probably see a lot more of him than you guys do back home in the States, but wow the kid is amazing and still so raw. I’d love to see him in a Phoenix uniform.

  • Hector

    Would a backcourt of Goran Dragic and Tyreke Evans work?

  • Scott

    @Hector -

    I’m not all that familiar with Evans, but as he is a scoring SG with some PG skills, I’d be inclined to say yes. However, I think he might have an issue with needing to have the ball in his hands all the time, or something like that, which would explain why he did so well when playing as a scoring PG, but has since then kind of faded a bit after being moved to other positions.

    Possibly someone else here who has been following Tyreke can give you more info …?

  • Scott

    @Rich -

    A problem I hear of with Adetokunbo is a tendency toward passivity. But, as you say, if he can be obtained with a lowish pick … the Suns could always roll the dice on a project like him.

  • bill.thomas

    I think we give McDonough a nickname we can pretend is his middle name. How about “Dice” ?

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  • Houston Proud

    Suns fan, I believe you are fortunate indeed to have Dragic on your team. I was sad to see him go and in all honesty would have preferred to keep him in lieu Lin. Enjoy him and get a few keys players and you guys have nothing to worry about except the Rockets… all kidding aside, best of luck in the next season.