Goran Dragic takes another step, Suns' system helps

PHOENIX — Goran Dragic’s unassuming statistics last year and the Phoenix Suns’ depressing record made him an overlooked NBA amenity. The Suns are winning in 2013-14, so of course his blitzing aggression is getting more notice.

Recently, it’s been heightened by efficiency.

On Saturday, Dragic scored 25 points on 10-of-14 shooting against the Charlotte Bobcats as the Suns cruised to a 105-95 win at U.S. Airways Center. Over the last four games, he’s hit 39-of-61 from the field, or 63.9 percent shooting.

“I know the situation and everything,” Dragic said of why it’s come so easily. “I know how the opponent team is going to guard me. I’m just more relaxed. It feels like I’m playing basketball with my friends back home, no pressure. It’s just fun.”

It’s helped tremendously that Phoenix and head coach Jeff Hornacek have put Dragic in a position to shine. As a result, his game has blossomed and so has his confidence.

Charlotte Bobcats coach Steve Clifford said he sees the same ol’ Dragic as last year’s version — tough, versatile and dangerous. He likens his improved production to Orlando Magic point guard Jameer Nelson.

Like Nelson, Dragic has always been a talented player.

Now, he has the pieces around him to accentuate his game.

“I go back to, look at Jameer Nelson before (I) got to Orlando and he was a very good player,” said Clifford, who was a part of Stan Van Gundy’s coaching staff that took the Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals. “But (the prior coaching staff) played three out, two in with (Darko) Milicic and (Dwight) Howard. When we got there, Stan put Rashard Lewis at the 4 and instantly Jameer’s numbers went up across the board.”

See something similar in Phoenix?

Without throwing Luis Scola under the bus, Clifford beamed over the new-look Suns, who under Jeff Hornacek had Clifford reminded of his old days in Orlando. Channing Frye, Gerald Green and the Morris twins have brought shooting around Dragic, opening up the lane for drives.

“You look at how easily they score and how they do it, they play very unselfishly and they’re highly organized – they’re last in the NBA in assists,” Clifford said. “It’s a lot of one-on-one, break down their guys, which they can do because there’s so much shooting out there. If you come off to help, boom, it’s an open three. It’s a tough group to defend.”

But Hornacek would add that Dragic’s shooting in general has been the key piece to his individual improvement. Hornacek didn’t reveal any tweaks to Dragic’s jumper, even though his patented step-back went from frightening in this summer’s EuroBasket to automatic this NBA season.

“In the past when he took that step-back … you’re like, ‘He might make it, he might not’” Hornacek said. “Now every time he shoots it, I think he’s going to make it.”

“It’s probably confidence,” the Suns coach added. “He’s probably at that age, the 27 range, you’ve played enough where you’ve seen everything happen. You just feel comfortable out there. That’s just the stage he’s at right now.”

Hornacek was asked before the win over Charlotte if he’d learned anything new about Dragic, who put in 28 points against the Indiana Pacers on Thursday following a hard fall a day earlier that caused his elbow to swell.

“I don’t think we learned anything new,” Hornacek said, knowing full well why Suns interim coach Lindsey Hunter compared Dragic to a boxer last season.

The Suns didn’t learn anything new, but quite quickly, the NBA is.

Now it’s a matter of whether Dragic’s current success will lead to an All-Star spot.

“I’ve seen it in the past happen, over and over,” Hornacek said comparing Dragic’s absence on the list of All-Star reserves to Stephen Curry’s last season. “It’s usually that first year that guys, you think should make it, they end up not making it then they make it the next year.”

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