This came as somewhat of a surprise, especially considering the amount of nagging injuries that plagued Gogi this season, and limited not only his minutes but also his effectiveness down the stretch.
In addition, Dragic initially indicated that he planned on simply resting and rehabbing this offseason, and wouldn't be playing competitively. However, after about a month he had a change of heart and announced his intentions to once again compete this summer.
Fortunately, our own Dave King was on top of it and was able to speak to Phoenix Suns team president Lon Babby about the matter.
BSOTS Exclusive Interview With Lon Babby (From Dave King)
Regarding Dragic Playing for the Slovenian National Team this summer:
Lon:"We try to accommodate him. I think, obviously you've got to be a little bit concerned that we want him to get enough rest. But it's so important to him and to his country, that if he wants to do it then we'll support him. We'll try to see if there are ways to mitigate the degree to which he is participating...we're working on some of that stuff now and we'll see how it turns out. But if Goran wants to play and feels that he owes it to his country to do that then we'll support him. All things being equal it would be better if he were resting all year, but that's not the way life works."
Dave:"Isn't that one of the things you like so much about Goran is how loyal he is?"
Lon: " Yeah, he's loyal and just loves to play and loves to work. It's very important to him...It's tremendously important to his country and to his fellow citizens, and I think he enjoys playing so we'll see if we can mitigate it a little bit so it's not quite as arduous."
In addition, Suns GM Ryan McDonough issued a statement about the matter during one of the recent Suns draft workouts as well.
Ryan McDonough on Dragic
"If he wants to play then we're happy for him to play...put it that way. He had the best year of his career last year, after having come right off the European championships. So, if that's what he feels like he has to do to get ready to play then we support him. It's a great honor to play for your country. We want to be strategic and selective about how many exhibition games he plays in, and his practice schedule to make sure his body is preserved for the year. But at the end of the day it's his call, and we support him 100%."
As is fairly evident from the quotes...the Suns front office would almost certainly prefer that he took the summer off in order to fully rest and recover. However, it is also obvious that they fully support his decision to play, and understand that his loyalty to his country and his team, and his drive to compete are the very same characteristics that make him such a special player here in Phoenix as well.
Zach Lavine was arguably the most athletically gifted prospect at the NBA Draft Combine. He posted the best time in the lane agility drill, the 2nd best time in the shuttle run, the 3rd highest maximum vertical leap and 9th best 3/4 court sprint. There is no doubt he has the physical tools to run the court in the National Basketball League.
In college, that athleticism translated into a strong transition game. His speed makes him an effective leaker on fast breaks and his leaping ability allows him to finish well above the rim for a player his size.
All that speed and verticality comes with a price however. At 19, LaVine is still growing. All that punch is packed into a slight frame that will undoubtedly take loads of abuse among the grown-ass men of the NBA.
LaVine has an odd but effective shooting stroke. It reminds me of Shawn Marion in that it looks somewhat broken, yet LaVine's balls find the bucket (Phrasing!). He was a 49.4% 2-point shooter and 37.5% 3-point shooter in his only year at UCLA. His 3-point accuracy definitely has some question marks to it as he started the season blazing hot, but only made 6 of his last 31 3-point attempts. He's demonstrated great range, but will the real Zach LaVine please stand up?
His free throw shooting leaves a lot to be desired, as 69.1% is low for a guard, which is mitigated by the fact that he only got to the line 1.8 times per game. However, that is also low for a guard of his skillset. Perhaps due to his slight frame, perhaps due a lack of aggression, LaVine avoids contact like the plague. Goran Dragi? plays in a similar fashion, but even the Dragon doesn't have the hops or height of LaVine. One hopes that as he grows into his 6'5" frame, he also starts drawing some and-1s.
If any of these shooting numbers strike you as red flags, remember that Jeff Hornacek is a shooting wizard and one of the most fixable aspects of a young player's game.
Point Guard Skills
LaVine played the vast majority of his minutes at shooting guard in college, but insists he is a point guard. At the NBA Draft Combine, he worked out with the point guards. In fact, once he got to the combine, he wasn't too shy about airing his frustrations with his usage at UCLA. So what do we know so far about the man would be a 1 in the NBA?
LaVine has a great handle and is capable of using his speed to take his man off the dribble. He did not do a lot of passing in college, averaging a meager 1.8 assists per game. Knowing that, it makes is 1.75 assist-to-turnover ratio a lot more palatable.
Unsurprisingly for such a young prospect, his decision-making leaves a little bit to be desired. He has the physical tools to be a nightmare on defense, but was not known for his prowess on that end of the floor. Despite fast hands and excellent lateral movement, he only averaged .9 steals per game.
Similarly, he has yet to display the passing acumen required of an NBA point guard. He was also prone to jacking up ill-advised shots and occasionally setting for long 2s. He described his college role as a "J.R. Smith type... a spark plug coming off the bench to provide instant offense" and he seems to have embraced that role a little too fully.
All this said, it's important to remember he will do a lot of maturing between now and when he finds himself in an NBA rotation. None of these flaws threaten to derail his fast track to the first round.
Overview and Fit in Phoenix
While not yet a physical specimen per se, Zach LaVine is definitely a physical wonder. He oozes the kind of upside that make general managers want to reach for and mold. And at the tender age of 19, he is definitely moldable. Furthermore, if you watch his interviews, he is saying all the right things and appears to be very coachable. Despite putting his college coach on blast, it's clear he played the game he was asked to play at UCLA and there's no reason to think he won't make the same effort at the next level.
That coachability will be key because oozing upside generally is synonymous with oozing rawness. Despite his shooting efficacy in the Pac-12, that stroke is U-G-L-Y. Also, if he aspires to being more than J.R. Smith (and he definitely does, repeatedly mentioning that he wants his game to combine the best aspects of Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry and Jamal Crawford), he will need to become at least a competent defender and an above average passer.
Rajon Rondo and Archie Goodwin were both raw guards with incredible athleticism and less than incredible shooting strokes. They were also both Ryan McDonough draft picks. Will Zach LaVine join those two as the Phoenix Suns' general manager plans his second draft in Phoenix? He certainly has a type.
With a pair of athletically gifted combo guards already manning the 1 and 2 in Phoenix and whippersnapper Archie Goodwin waiting in the wings, I think LaVine's chances of landing in Phoenix are unlikely. After the Suns' success last season, it stands to reason that another project on the roster might be asking for more patience than this team has right now.
There is no doubt that Zach LaVine is hot prospect who, with the right mentoring and development, could end up being an elite NBA scorer a la Monta Ellis. He could very well be off the board by the time the Suns pick at 14 but might be a nice get at 18. If the Suns do draft him, I have a feeling he'll spend a lot more time in Bakersfield than he does in Phoenix.
Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe were a dynamic pairing last season, but nothing dictates that they be treated as a packaged deal. If the Suns were in a position where it made sense to move one of the team's talented point guards who should go and who should stay?
This goal of this disquisition isn't to suggest that one of the Suns' starting guards must be traded. Although I don't think that building around point guards is the way to construct a champion, I am latitudinarian enough to believe that there is more than one way to fleece a rube (just ask McDonough).
However, if the situation arises where it make sense to move one of them to improve the team which one should be less touchable? Sometimes to take two steps forward a team has to take one step back... Which one of these is the shortest step back? Sometimes to make an omelette you have to trade a few eggs. Insert additional possibly butchered maxims that may be at least loosely relevant to the current situation.
For those of you who have made it this far but are about to stop reading because the mere thought of trading either of these players hurls you into a stabby rage... just consider this an exercise in asset evaluation. Nothing wrong with keeping a thorough inventory.
Dragic just turned 28 earlier this month, which puts him squarely in his prime, but closer than you'd like him to be to the wrong side of the 30. Unfortunately, that number is a pretty consistent demarcation line for the declining skills of NBA players. It's a young man's game.
Out of the 24 players who participated in the 2014 NBA All-Star game only Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Tony Parker and Dirk Nowitzki were over the age of 30 when the game was played. Of that group Tony Parker is the only example of a point guard sustaining excellence into his thirties.
The other starting point guards over 30 in the NBA this past season were Jose Calderon, Kirk Hinrich and Jameer Nelson. Not exactly a murderer's row. Maybe misdemeanor assault? Even Deron Williams, who played like he had died of old age most of the year, is still only 29.
Hinrich (33) had his best seasons between the ages of 24-26, when he averaged about 16 points and six assists. This past season he averaged 9/4. Nelson (31) peaked between the years of 25-28, including an All-Star appearance in 2009. Calderon's (32) offensive efficiency has remained stellar over the last couple of seasons, and his dip in assists can be excused due to a change in system, but even his best argument is that he's maintained his level of solid, though not spectacular, play into his early thirties.
Tony Parker (31), who arguably had his best season in 2012-13 at the age of 30, is the only point guard in the league north of 30 that is really a current exception to the rule.
Expecting Goran to play at his current, or even an improved, level for more than three years isn't a very good bet in terms of playing the odds. Bledsoe, however, just turned 24 and won't be in Goran's situation until after he would finish a four year contract for the Suns (supposing they sign and keep him the length of a new four year deal).
Ultimately, keeping Goran would give the Suns a smaller window to compete with him as a key component.
Dragic is on the books for $7.5 million for the 2014-15 season with a player option for $7.5 more for 2015-16. Let's assume that Goran isn't suffering from the effects of chronic lead poisoning and opts out of his contract next summer. What kind of deal does the 29 year old Dragic command on the open market? Would he forego free agency and give the Suns a discount for something like a four year, $40 million dollar deal?
Bledsoe may fetch a maximum salary four year deal in free agency. That would be approximately 25% of the salary cap with 4.5% annual raises. Something close to four years, $63 million with the 2014-15 salary cap expected to swell to a robust 63.2 million. The Suns should be prepared for exactly that since it only takes one team to offer him a max deal. There's almost always one team.
After all, the Suns were almost the punchline to the cruel joke of a contract the Pelicans are saddled with after Phoenix offered Eric Gordon a four year, $58.5 million dollar contract. Restricted free agency was like a guardian angel in that case. Now the Suns appear to be taking the same "we are prepared to match all offers" stance that ended up being the Pelicans undoing. Considering Bledsoe is coming off a better statistical year going into free agency than Gordon was it seems likely that there will be a suitor to set the market value and test the Suns' resolve.
What could possibly go wrong with locking up an ex-Clipper guard with an injury history?
Unless the Suns sign-and-trade Bledsoe they will own that contract and it will become a factor in any future deal that sends him out at a later date. There's a chance that he'll be worth every penny, but there's also the consideration that lots of max deals don't work out well for the teams that dole them out.
Dragic seemingly affords the Suns more financial flexibility, but then again Goran could become possessed by demons and decide he no longer wants anything to do with Phoenix after the 2014-15 season. With Goran the Suns only have one year of guaranteed control while they still have four with Eric.
As the aphorism goes, "The best players are the ones that can play." Injuries are an unfortunate reality and front offices must take prudent precautionary measures to forestall health issues from derailing their team's aspirations. Even with the thaumaturgists working on the Suns medical staff injuries to their starting guards stymied the team's run at a postseason berth last season.
Bledsoe missed nearly half the season with a shin bruise and knee surgery (his second), while Goran had lingering ankle issues that plagued him all season and compromised his effectiveness during the stretch run. Durability is a huge consideration for a team when it comes to building around a player.
Goran has been relatively healthy for his career. The ankle injuries from last season are a concern, due to the persistent nature of those ailments, but there isn't a significant injury he has sustained that raises any red flags. Still, the team is concerned enough about Dragic's overall health and stamina moving forward that it openly stated a preference that he not play for his national team this summer.
In his four year career Bledsoe has missed 72 games to injury. Over the same four year stretch Goran has missed just 23. While Bledsoe isn't expected to have any negative short term effects from his surgically repaired knee I have apprehension over a player who has missed this much time early in his career. A vote of confidence from the Suns training staff goes a long way, but some players just can't seem to stay healthy.
A full healthy season from Bledsoe next year would mostly conciliate this issue for me, but he missed enough time last season that I still don't feel I've seen enough of him to have a firm feel on what I think of him as a player.
Both Dragic and Bledsoe are excellent players now and still have potential to improve. Even though the growth of many players stalls around the age of 24 (or the player's fourth season in the league), Goran has already bucked that trend and Eric seems far from a finished product.
Both players are efficient volume scorers, but Dragic was off the charts last season. Before posting a .561 in the 2013-14 season, however, Goran's career eFG% was much closer to Bledsoe's mark of .522. Whether Dragic can duplicate last year's heroics or gravitates back to his career numbers remains to be seen, but both of these players excel as scoring guards.
Across the board their numbers are strikingly similar. Besides the aforementioned impressive shooting numbers from Goran and Eric's rebounding edge these two are nearly the same player on paper. Paper doesn't always tell the whole story in these situations, and aspects like Bledsoe's ability to get to the free throw line and defend can be harder to coach improvement in than shooting.
Goran was the definitely the best player last season, but I'm not convinced that he will still be the better player next year or down the line. It's entirely possible that injuries hindered last season from being a true breakout year for Bledsoe and the 2014-15 campaign could be a coronation. Not only could Bledsoe's ceiling be higher, but he also might be able to sustain that level of play for longer. A 25 year old Bledsoe that puts up better numbers than he did last season could be a key component to sustainable success for the Suns.
Goran Dragic grades out extremely well in terms of leadership, charisma and loyalty. I have no doubts that he can captain this ship moving forward if the team doesn't acquire another alpha who trumps him. Goran is affable and very media friendly.
Try this exercise. Picture Goran in your mind for a second before reading on. Was he smiling? He is in my mind's eye. Goran just exudes happiness and positive energy. He seems to really love being a Phoenix Sun. Dragic seems to feel close to the same way I feel about the Suns. In a league of transience and hired mercenaries it is pretty damn refreshing to have a guy like Goran Dragic on my team. Plus, Dragon is a pretty cool nickname.
The fact that Dragic is actually playing for the Suns is somewhat bizarre in its own right. How many players would boomerang back to a team that unceremoniously shipped them out of town? Goran practically came running back. On a personal level Dragic is a great example of just about everything a person could want out of a player on the team he cheers for.
Bledsoe has a more reticent demeanor and doesn't score nearly as high as Dragic in terms of his people skills. When I picture Bledsoe he has a very austere look on his face. While Dragic is loyal to a fault, Bledsoe doesn't seem to have made a firm bond here. Bledsoe could easily go down the road and it wouldn't really feel like he was worth more than a brief mention in the story of the Suns, whereas Goran has already left a bit of an imprint.
Now part of this, personalities aside, is that Goran has already spent time here and had a chance to grow with the team. He wasn't nearly as charismatic when he was a young kid, struggling with the language and his confidence. If Bledsoe stays he'll have his chance to evolve into his eventual role with the team.
Of course there's always the pipe dream chance (at least we can dream) that Mini LeBron could help recruit LeBron.
In the end it's a complicated, nebulous situation. There isn't a simple algorithm that can be employed to make the decision. Neither player has risen above the other to an extent that one can make a definitive argument that the Suns should obviously build around one, making the other completely expendable.
But maybe that actually works in the Suns favor. Being able to treat either one (or both) as a movable asset gives Phoenix even more leverage to work with a broader base of teams in (lopsided) deals. While team X may want Dragic, team Y prefers Bledsoe. The Suns can listen to phone calls from both.
Not too long ago the Suns appeared to be in a prison built from their own missteps. Now they enjoy the freedom that comes with being able to choose among the better of good options... but it's still imperative to capitalize on that freedom by making the best choice.