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.

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