Bleeding and leading: Goran Dragic's unlikely rise
If you are going to watch Goran Dragic for any length of time, know this: There will be blood. It will most likely be his own, as it was when the Suns' relentless, attacking point guard ran into an inadvertent elbow from Knicks center Tyson Chandler during a scramble for a loose ball last month. The resulting gash required five stitches above his left eye -- the same general area in which he had received 13 of them after a collision with Blazers guard Mo Williams in November, and four more from taking a charge against James Harden last April.
Dragic considers such wounds nothing more than minor occupational hazards, which is why Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek wasn't particularly worried at the sight of his leading scorer racing off the court in the second quarter with the bloodied side of his face looking like something out of a slasher film. "He didn't run to the locker room so fast because he was hurt so bad," Hornacek said. "He just wanted to get stitched quick so he could get back in the game before halftime."
The Suns' staff couldn't sew him up quite that fast, so Dragic had to wait until the third quarter to return, whereupon he continued carving up New York with 32 points on 11-of-17 shooting, including 5-of-9 three-pointers, in a 112-88 victory. It was a typical performance for Dragic, who at this late date in the season can no longer be called the Suns' rising star, because his ascension is complete. With his devastating pick-and-roll game, improved three-point accuracy and toughness and savvy in finishing around the basket, Dragic couldn't be further from the rookie who struggled so badly when he arrived from Slovenia that some fans called him Goran Tragic. But Dragic evolved first into a solid point guard, and this year, his sixth in the NBA, he has broken through to the elite level, becoming the driving force behind the Suns' shocking success.
Phoenix was expected to be part of the tanking conversation this season, and Las Vegas betting lines set its over/under win total at 21. But after Sunday's 122-115 victory against the Thunder, the Suns (46-31) lead the Grizzlies by one game for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Dragic, 27, has been their accelerator, his speed on the break rekindling memories of the up-tempo, seven-seconds-or-less Suns. "He's absolutely unguardable in transition," said Houston forward Chandler Parsons.
The Suns have no shortage of reasons for improving on last season's 25-57 record, including guard Eric Bledsoe, who has joined Dragic to give them a two-point-guard attack that has bedeviled defenses; the emergence of castoffs Gerald Green (instant offense) and P.J. Tucker (toughness and three-point shooting) as important contributors; and the two-man brain trust of Hornacek and 34-year-old general manager Ryan McDonough, newcomers who drastically re-made the team in their first year on the job. But the fleet, fearless Dragic has been the greatest revelation. "I think that's how we've gotten to be so good," said Suns forward Channing Frye. "Because we know we have to keep up with him."
There are any number of ways to measure the value of the Dragon, as he is known. When he is on the floor, the Suns average 112.9 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com, better than the best offense in the league. When he sits, their offensive rating drops to 102.1 per 100, which would rank in the bottom third. He and Frye, whose three-point shooting accuracy is the perfect complement for Dragic's ability to penetrate, have been one of the league's most effective pick-and-roll combinations with those among 100 possessions, averaging 1.3 points per possession.
Running the break and getting to the basket in the pick-and-roll have always been among his strengths, but Dragic's improved three-point shooting, which jumped from 31.9 percent last season to 41.7 percent this season has completed the offensive package. "Defenses can't just go under screens and play him for the drive anymore, because he'll just pull up and hit that outside shot," said Hornacek. "Now there are no easy answers against him."
When the Suns visited the Lakers last week, Dragic dined in Manhattan Beach with Los Angeles point guard Steve Nash, his former Suns teammate and mentor. It could have been seen as a passing of the torch, as the 40-year-old Nash bestowed his blessing on his former backup. "He told me how proud he was of me and how I have developed my game," Dragic said. "He knows that it has been a long process, and not always so easy."
Though he might seem like the perfect symbol of the Suns' sudden transformation, Dragic's development has been a much more gradual build. It began, not surprisingly, with more blood -- from a deep leg wound he suffered playing soccer as an 11-year-old in his hometown of Ljubljana, Slovenia. "Even after I recovered, my mother said no more soccer," Dragic said. "She told me to find another sport that doesn't have cleats that can rip your skin." So he went to watch his best friend's basketball practice one afternoon, and when they had only nine players, his friend persuaded the coach to let Dragic join them so they could scrimmage. It was the first time Dragic had played 5-on-5, but his quickness was immediately apparent as he blew past defenders for layups. "I guess I was O.K.," he said, "because the coach put me on the team."
Before long he had fallen in love with the game, going online to watch And1 mixtapes and NBA highlights, and bringing some of the moves of the flashier stars, like Allen Iverson, to the courts of Ljubljana. That playground flair is still evident in his game today, with his acrobatic finishes in traffic, deft crossovers and one of his favorite moves, the between-the-legs dribble into the step-back lefty jumper. Dragic is sweetly unassuming, even shy, yet he's also part showman. "I like to give a little something to the fans for entertainment," he said.
He quickly became one of the best players in Slovenia, but when he decided to leave Europe and make himself eligible for the NBA draft, many of his countrymen thought he had overestimated his ability. "The journalists said, 'Oh, he's too skinny. Oh, he has no jump shot,'" Dragic said. Those were the first of many slights he would receive over the next few years, and they left wounds that stitches can't close. "I remember the hate, if I may call it that," he said. "And I use it as motivation every time I go onto the court, to make myself better."
But during most of his rookie season, Dragic found himself wondering if his detractors were right. He was drafted in the second round (the 45th pick) in 2008 by the Spurs, who immediately traded him to Phoenix. Playing behind Nash, his shooting was spotty, he was tentative in running the offense and his playing time dwindled to fewer than 10 minutes per game in December and January. "For the first 50 games I was going home and crying," he said. "I was all alone, no family, in a different culture. I was on Skype with my mom all the time. But Steve was a big help. He told me he didn't play much the first three years, and he had to be strong, practice hard and grab the opportunity when it came along. He said I needed to do the same thing, and he was right. That's how it happened for me."
Dragic's performance improved after Alvin Gentry replaced Terry Porter as coach in February, and continued to get better the following season, with his field goal percentage rising from 39.3 to 45.2. All the while he was getting an education in playing the point from the maestro, Nash. But it was getting traded away from his mentor in the middle of his third year that turned out to be the opportunity Nash had predicted for him. The Suns sent Dragic and a first-round pick to Houston for point guard Aaron Brooks in February 2011. "You know how with superheroes they're regular people and then that moment happens that puts them on the track to becoming Batman, or the Green Lantern or whatever?" said Frye, a comic book enthusiast. "Getting traded to Houston was that thing for Goran, that thing that happens and makes you begin to turn into who you're supposed to be."
With no more Nash to lean on or defer to, Dragic to blossom with the Rockets. He shot 51.9 percent from beyond the arc in 22 games for the Houston in 2011, and when point guard Kyle Lowry was sidelined by injuries the following season, Dragic took over as the starter for 28 games and averaged 18.0 points and 8.4 assists in the role. "You could see he had realized how good he could be," Frye said. "What we're seeing now started in Houston. Unfortunately for the Rockets, they didn't make the right decision."
The Rockets let Dragic leave as a free agent in 2012, choosing to sign Jeremy Lin to play the point instead. Dragic returned to the Suns, agreeing to a four-year, $34 million deal. In his first season as a full-time NBA starter last year, he averaged 14.7 points and 7.4 assists. The Suns were dismal, but that led to the organizational housecleaning that brought in McDonough and Hornacek, who enabled Dragic to take the final step toward stardom.
Even though McDonough and Hornacek had never met when McDonough was hired last May, Hornacek was on the new GM's short list of candidates to replace Lindsey Hunter as coach. McDonough was a 24-year-old special assistant to basketball operations with the Celtics in 2004 when Boston president Danny Ainge approached Hornacek about the coaching job that eventually went to Doc Rivers. Ainge told him he would be one of only three candidates, but Hornacek declined the interview because he had retired four years earlier in order to spend more time with his children and felt it was too soon to get back in the league full time. "But Ryan knew that Danny had pretty seriously considered me, so I think that's how I got on the list when this job came open," Hornacek said.
It helped that the two men found that they shared a similar vision for the Suns' makeover that included speeding up the pace and opening up the court to create driving lanes, both of which played to Dragic's strengths. Hornacek had scouted Phoenix extensively as a Jazz assistant, and he felt the Suns limited themselves offensively by having one of their big men, usually Markieff Morris or Luis Scola, set up near the free throw line.
"Goran could never really get by because there was always somebody in the way," Hornacek said. "It almost seemed to be their plan. Goran would try to drive, the defense would help and the ball would go out to one of those guys for the mid-range shot. They would make a fair amount of them, but with looking at analytics, we felt it would be more to our advantage if we cleared it out so that our guards could either get all the way to the hoop, which Goran's so good at, or kick it out for open threes."
Dragic has made that approach work even better than McDonough and Hornacek envisioned, particularly with his penetration. He makes a remarkable 68.7% of his shots in the paint, largely because of his creativity when taking on would-be shot-blockers, and of course, his willingness to take a pounding. "The thing that impressed us the most in training camp was how hard he played," McDonough said. "There aren't many guys who put their head down and get to the basket as aggressively as he does. He's a tough dude."
Dragic may have a bold style, but his personality is anything but. "He's very boring," his buddy Frye said. "In fact, put about three very's in front of that." With a four-month-old son, Mateo, Dragic and his wife, Maja, who were married last July, are particularly homebound these days. "Changing diapers is the only excitement I need," Dragic said. He is having an offseason home built in Ljubljana for his new family, but if the Suns reach the postseason, Dragic won't be able to go back and oversee construction as soon as he had planned. He's more than willing to wait, of course, especially becasue building a home can be a little bit like building a career -- a truly special one takes time.