PHOENIX — As a timid rookie, Goran Dragic didn’t look like a player who belonged in the NBA, his lack of confidence masking his considerable skill.
But in his sophomore NBA season last year, Dragic became “The Dragon,” Steve Nash’s first quality backup point guard, and a guy who could not only keep the Suns in the game while Nash rested but sometimes even extend a lead.
All season long he led the bench on furious rallies as the starters cheered. Then the playoffs came along, and Dragic allowed the Suns to clinch in Game 6 at Portland with Nash at less than his best; he followed that up with the game of his life by exploding for 23 points in the fourth quarter of Game 3 to beat San Antonio. Suddenly the man once known as “Tragic” was gracing the front of ESPN.com.
Now the question begs, what will he do as an encore?
“I think one of the things about players sometimes is that when you come back when you’ve had a pretty good year and you’ve ended on a real solid note then I think the confidence level really grows,” said Suns head coach Alvin Gentry. “I think Goran is kind of in that category right now where the confidence he has has really grown. I think you’ll continue to see him get better.
“His ballhandling has improved, I think you’ll see him run the team a bit little better, I think he’s probably one of the top two or three best athletes we have on the team, so I think you’ll see him continue to improve in that area, and he’s become a better shooter.”
As The Dragon continued to emerge last season while Leandro Barbosa sat with one of his myriad injuries, he made LB less and less relevant. Suddenly the former Sixth Man of the Year was playing less than the Suns’ second-year guard, and with Dragic possessing superior playmaking and defensive skills as well as the ability to play both guard spots, it was almost a foregone conclusion the Suns would dump LB this offseason.
Dragic will once again lead the second unit that he really became a leader on, and he can play some two next to Nash (or even Turkoglu) if the Suns want to go small, giving Gentry another versatile piece on a Suns team that largely lacks positional definition. After entering the past few seasons with few external expectations, the Suns are counting on Dragic to take another couple steps as a third-year player.
“I feel really well,” Dragic said. “The first season I was scared, but this will be my third season so I feel really comfortable with that, and I just want to play my game.”
Dragic could not exactly do that this summer as one of the leaders of the Slovenian national team. At first he was wondering where his teammates were as he pushed the ball with a group of teammates used to a much slower pace.
But for the first time at that level of competition, Dragic was the player his team relied on for clutch play to win basketball games. He led his team in scoring (12.7 points per game) and assists (4.1 per contest), and in the games when Dragic struggled his team did as well.
Still, he managed to will a team few thought had a chance of advancing in the medal round to a 4-1 record in group play and a round of 16 win before dropping three straight in the medal round to finish eighth.
“I would say first before the World Championship nobody was saying that you’re going to make first eight, everybody was saying we were going to battle for 14th place and behind,” Dragic said. “Maybe before the World Championship I would take that eighth place, but after the World Championship I was a little disappointed because the first round we played really well and I thought we were going to make maybe in the semifinals, but still it’s a great success for us, a small country.”
The book on Dragic is to force him right, and as we saw in the FIBAs that’s a plan of attack that can thwart The Dragon, especially when he’s a team’s primary scoring option. He said he’s been working on a number of aspects of his game, but none is more important than improving his right hand. It’s an obvious hole, and if he improves that he could be lethal.
Dragic established himself as an NBA player last season; now it’s time to take the next step. With Nash around, he won’t get the keys to the car for another couple years, but he should be one of the better backup point guards in the NBA next season.
“We expect a lot from him this year, I think we all trust in him greatly,” Nash said. “We’re excited for his development not only for him as an individual but for our team. We think he can have a huge impact on our team. When he plays well we’re really tough to beat.”
The preseason is here
The Phoenix Suns open preseason play tonight at 7 p.m. MST at Sacramento. As Schmitz wrote yesterday, figuring out rotations will be one of the most crucial aspect of the exhibition season for the Suns.