Thursday, February 28, 2013

Evolution of the Slovenian Lefty Goran Dragic

Goran Dragic finds his way past the Spurs' DeJuan Blair. (D. Clarke Evans)
"Goran Dragic is becoming a hero in Phoenix right now," Dan Shulman said as ESPN coverage went to a commercial. The Phoenix Suns were leading the San Antonio Spurs by 11 with 5:45 remaining to play. It was Game Three of the 2010 Western Conference Semifinals. Phoenix needed all 26 points from its 24-year-old Slovenian back-up point guard. He had everything going, sending Spurs fans home early with 23 fourth-quarter points. A roster patched with a former MVP, Sixth Man of the Year, a superstar and a new coach, the Suns were dismantling the Spurs. When asked about Dragic's performance, Suns General Manager Steve Kerr stated: "I have seen that before, but it was done by the greatest player of all-time in Michael Jordan."

On this night, Shulman was correct. Dragic was a hero.  

Entering the NBA draft after winning the Slovanian Basketball Championship with Olimpija Ljubljana in the 2007-2008 season, Dragic was selected 45th overall by the Suns. Struggling like other Europeans transitioning into the league, he played timid, scared and could be seen peering toward the bench after committing mistakes. Time learning behind Steve Nash and confidence instilled by new coach Alvin Gentry evolved Dragic into what the franchise envisioned. He came closer by following the footsteps of Nash, the player he had admired long before. Suns fans were able to bask in the moment as, finally, they had slayed the Spurs.
Dragic was the hero Phoenix wasn't ready for and the one they didn't need. Nash had two years remaining to lead the Suns and with the trade deadline expiring in 2011, Phoenix traded Dragic to Houston and the Rockets sent Aaron Brooks in return.

In the 48 games he played behind Nash before departing in 2010-11, Dragic averaged 7.4 points, 3.1 assists and 1.8 rebounds in 17.6 minutes per game. He seemed to be struggling again, shooting just 27 percent from 3-point range and turning over the ball twice each game. In a second unit, which struggled offensively, Phoenix needed the firepower Brooks could provide. In 82 games the previous season, Brooks a short, spunky, sharpshooting PG from Seattle averaged 19.6 points and 5.3 assists. He also thrived in transition and hit from three on the way to winning the Most Improved Player Award.

With the news of being traded, Dragic described himself as "shocked."  Phoenix's front office and fans bid farewell to a player who helped them triumph and overcome years of frustrating playoff defeats at the Spurs' hands.

Dragic with the Rockets. (Christian Peterson/Getty Images)
Things were different for Dragic in Houston the following season. He wasn't expected to fill the shoes of a once back-to-back MVP like Nash. He started 28 of 66 games after an injury sidelined Kyle Lowry. Rockets coach Kevin McHale trusted Dragic. He was the point guard of the future for a promising team.  

Dragic's 2011-2012 season averages showed an obvious growth compared to his final 48 games with the Suns. Playing 26.5 mpg yielded averages of 11.7 ppg, 5.3 apg and 2.5 rpg. He also recorded 85 steals during the season.

It was no question: Dragic improved his game.

Just one season removed from letting him go, the Suns made a move to bring their hero back. Phoenix needed him more than ever.

"There’s an old expression that you've got to be big enough to admit your mistakes, strong enough to profit from them and strong enough to correct them, and bringing Goran back here, if that’s what we’re doing, I’m proud of that,” Suns President of Basketball Operations Lon Babby told press, who both welcomed Dragic back to Phoenix prior to the current 2012-2013 season. Dragic would decide to wear number 1, and not 2, as he did before.

Fast forward to now. Dragic brings stability to a franchise in disarray. The Suns are at the bottom of the Western Conference. Some call it rebuilding, others consider it tanking. Phoenix's roster relies on scoring from Micheal Beasley, Wes Johnson, Luis Scola and Marcin Gortat. Dragic has started all 57 games for the Suns this season.
Barry Gossage: Getty Images

Here is Dragic's season thus far, compared to averages listed above.
  • 33mpg / 26.5 / 17.6
  • 14.1ppg / 11.7 / 7.4
  • 6.9ast / 5.3 / 3.1
  • 2.9reb / 2.5 / 1.8
Additionally, he has already totaled 84 steals this season.

Last night, Dragic scored 13 points and assisted 13 buckets in a 105-101 overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs, the same team he helped vanquish in the 2010 WCF, and arguably the league's best team in 2012-13.

Perhaps Dragic summed it up best in his re-introductory press conference: “I’m a new guy now. I’m a different player, different person than when I was here. I want to have a fresh start here.”

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