A look back at Goran Dragic's NBA journey and remarkable ascension to an All-Star caliber player.
Goran Dragic is not an All-Star. The 27 year-old point guard is averaging an efficient 20 points and 6 assists per game and is the undisputed leader of a vastly overachieving Phoenix Suns team, but he's no All-Star.
Dragic is one of just five guards in the NBA (with more than 500 minutes played all season) shooting over 50% from the field, but he's not an All-Star.
He has the fourth-highest win shares per 48 minutes of all the guards in the league. He's one of six guys averaging 20 points and 6 assists per game. He's improved his shooting so much that his TS% is top-5 of all backcourt players (again, with at least 500 minutes played). But no, he's not an All-Star.
The NBA can still bring Dragic to New Orleans if Adam Silver selects him to be Kobe Bryant's injury replacement. As of now, however, he is not an All-Star, as deserving as he's been.
What Goran Dragic is, however, is the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week, the newest member of the current crop of elite playmakers in basketball's golden era of point guards, and he's the heart and soul of this season's Cinderella team.
When the Phoenix Suns completed a draft-day trade with the San Antonio Spurs to acquire Goran Dragic in the 2nd round of the 2008 draft (45th overall), many fans were left asking, "who?" Reigning Suns GM and President of Basketball Operations Steve Kerr expressed significant pleasure with the selection, even going so far as claiming Dragic was the second-best point guard in the draft.
"He's a very good prospect and we felt that he was the No. 2 point guard in this past season's draft after Derrick Rose." -Steve Kerr, Sep. 2008
The Phoenix Suns front office had utmost confidence in Dragic's abilities to fulfill the much-needed role of Steve Nash's backup, and even bought out the remainder of the 22 year old Slovenian's contract with Tau Ceramica in Spain just to get him in Phoenix as soon as possible.
However, Goran Dragic's rookie season was anything but smooth sailing. Dragic played in 55 games in the 2008-09 season, averaging just 4.5 points on 39% shooting from the field to go along with 2 assists and 1.3 turnovers per game. John Hollinger of ESPN famously referred to him as the "worst player in the league" and many people, including Suns fans, took to calling him "Goran Tragic" (conveniently ignoring, of course, the fact that Dragic is pronounced entirely differently from "tragic").
He struggled to escape new head coach Terry Porter's doghouse, and it wasn't until Porter was fired and replaced by Alvin Gentry midway through the season that Dragic began to show the flashes that had impressed Phoenix's front office: under Porter's reign, Dragic only averaged 2.9 points on 31% from the field and 1.7 assists in 26 games and under Gentry, his averages shot up to 5.9 points on 44% and 2.3 assists.
The Suns would miss the playoffs in 2009 for the first time in five years and Dragic entered the 2009-10 season with a year of experience under his belt. He and fellow draft-mate Robin Lopez showed that they were much improved from the prior year, and they became important pieces for a Suns team that far exceeded expectations en route to a 54-28 record and a #3 seed in the playoffs.
Dragic averaged 7.9 points (45% FG & 39% 3PT) and 3 assists in 18 minutes per game that season, becoming the capable backup the Suns had always needed in the Steve Nash era. Leandro Barbosa, Channing Frye, Jared Dudley, Lou Amundson, and Dragic formed the league's best bench and became a huge part of the Suns' success. Dragic was quickly making a name for himself, but it wasn't until the second round of the 2010 playoffs that he became a headline.
"The Dragon" is Born
The Phoenix Suns were leading the Spurs two games to none in the 2010 Western Conference Semifinals. Game 3 saw the Suns valiantly storm back from an 18 point deficit and the Spurs held a narrow lead at home heading into the final quarter. And this was the national stage that Goran Dragic used to emerge as a name to be reckoned with.
On May 7, 2010, Goran Dragic put on a show for the ages - the 23 year old scored 23 points in the fourth quarter and simply took over the game to lead his team to a dominant 3-0 series lead against Phoenix's nemesis in San Antonio (the team that originally drafted him). With a series of unbelievable shots and some fancy "dragonshakes," Goran Dragic destroyed the Spurs defense and shocked the NBA world. The player who struggled with confidence issues just a year before had suddenly done something no other player had in many years.
"The Dragon" was born.
Lance Blanks: Basketball Genius
With a vastly different set of teammates (in the summer of 2010, the Suns replaced Amare Stoudemire and Leandro Barbosa with Hedo Turkoglu, Hakim Warrick, and Josh Childress), Goran Dragic had a tumultuous 2010-11 season in Phoenix. His numbers, especially his shooting percentages, fell across the board and at times, he resembled the nervous rookie of 2008-09. This even prompted the "Tragic" nickname to reappear at times.
After 48 games, first-year GM Lance Blanks decided to make a terribly short-sighted move by trading Dragic to the Houston Rockets for Aaron Brooks, who had also been struggling on his respective team. Not satisfied with giving up a young, talented all-around point guard simply going through a rough stretch, Blanks displayed his shrewdness by also sending a first round draft pick to Houston. Of all the poor decisions Blanks made during his tenure in Phoenix, this was easily the worst.
"I was a little bit shocked. I love the organization and the city. It's been a good two and a half years. That's life." -Goran Dragic, Feb. 2011
Goran, who was fond of Phoenix and the team that had welcomed him into the league, was "shocked" at the trade. This was his first introduction to the harsh reality of the business that is the NBA.
His play saw a nice improvement the rest of the season in Houston and he shot 47% from the field and a remarkable 52% from three in 22 games for the Rockets in 2011. Simply put, Dragic was killing it. However, it wasn't until the 2011-12 season that Goran really displayed just how much of a mistake it was for the Suns to trade him (and a first round draft pick) for Brooks, who spent all of that lockout-shortened season in China.
Dragic burst onto the scene in Houston after starting point guard Kyle Lowry became sidelined with injuries. His per-game season averages of 11.7 points on 46% FG and 5.3 assists in 26.5 minutes were solid on their own, but his stats as a starter were simply great: 18 points (49% FG and 38% 3PT) and 8.4 assists.
Moreover, Dragic began gaining a reputation as a clutch performer and quickly became a fan favorite in Houston, even prompting fans to serenade him. The Rockets narrowly missed the playoffs and Dragic became an unrestricted free agent that summer, garnering interest from several teams after a very good 28-game stretch as Houston's starting point guard.
On July 8, 2012, Goran Dragic signed a 4-year, $30 million deal to return to the Sun and replace his former mentor Steve Nash as Phoenix's point guard. In what's one of several uncanny similarities with Nash's career, Dragic found himself signing a deal with the team that welcomed him into the NBA after a stint in Texas that saw his game and confidence grow tremendously.
"Phoenix is my home. I have happy memories here, and I'm looking forward to give everything I got, to being strong, to battle." -Goran Dragic, July 2012
His deal was considered to be very favorable for the Suns when the ink was barely dry, and a year and a half later, it can be seen as an absolute bargain.
Dragic's return to Phoenix was all smiles - until the season began. The 2012-13 season was one of the worst years in Suns history - Alvin Gentry, who had been one of Dragic's staunchest supporters ever since the latter entered the league, was fired at the midway point of the season and his replacement, Lindsey Hunter, did absolutely nothing to improve team morale.
Through it all, Dragic's consistent effort and all-out play was the only constant, and despite the Suns' 25-57 record, fans can look back on that season as a year of significant importance to his career. It was his first full year as a starter and the difficulty of a such a tough season on someone as competitive as Goran can be seen as invaluable experience. Dragic enjoyed a career year in 2012-13, but truth be told, there was very little "enjoyment" seen from him on the court that year.
After such an awful season, the Suns went through an inevitable overhaul that began in the front office and coaching staff - with Ryan McDonough and Jeff Hornacek taking the reigns as GM and Head Coach, respectively - and ended with a complete roster turnover - the 2013-14 Suns have 10 players who didn't suit up for them a year ago.
How did Goran Dragic respond to all this change? Incredibly well.
Year of The Dragon
The Chinese New Year began last Friday, January 31, ringing in the Year of the Horse. However, I'm hereby dubbing 2014 the Year of The Dragon. Technically, Goran's stellar year began last summer, when he served as the leader of his national team in the Euro Basket. It then continued with a marriage to his girlfriend, a great start to the Phoenix Suns season, and the birth of his first child. Needless to say, Goran Dragic has been feeling pretty good lately.
On the court, Dragic has adapted his game to perfection after the arrival of Eric Bledsoe in the desert. The two of them had become one of the deadliest backcourts in the NBA and their play led to the Suns exceeding all expectations this season.
After Bledsoe suffered a knee injury, many expected Phoenix's dream season to come crashing back down to earth. However, Jeff Hornacek, Goran Dragic, and the rest of this Suns team had other plans. The Suns are now riding a 5 game winning streak, which includes a statement win in Indiana - where the Suns became the only team to beat the Pacers twice this season. Goran Dragic has stepped up his game immensely with Bledsoe out, winning Western Conference Player of the Week after averaging almost 27 points and 6 assists per game on 64% shooting over the last week - in just 29 minutes a game.
But let's forget about statistics and accolades for a minute. Let's just reflect at how far Goran has come in his NBA career and how much he's grown as a player. He's developed from a nervous rookie with shaky confidence to a fiery star with a killer instinct. That a player once referred to by a prominent and respected member of the media as "the worst player in the NBA" is now the leader of a playoff team is an absolute revelation.
Dragic's journey has been a testament to adaptation, determination, and growth. His steady improvement over the last couple of years has been so remarkable that it's impossible to try and figure out just how good he can be. I don't subscribe to the philosophy of placing a so-called "ceiling" on his abilities. He's 27, meaning he's nearing the age at which most NBA players enjoy the prime years of their careers. However, there's really no reason to limit just how much Dragic can continue improving. Suns fans are all too familiar with the idea of a point guard's prime being in his 30s.
If there's anything Dragic has displayed in recent times, it's that he steps up whenever he's needed and raises his game to levels most would have thought him incapable of just a year or two ago. How does he respond to losing Eric Bledsoe for an extended period? By averaging nearly 23 points and over 6 assists a game in the 2014 calendar year. How is he affected by coaches snubbing him from the All-Star game? By dropping 21 first half points on the best defense in the league in Indiana.
"If they put me there, I'll probably be the happiest guy in the whole world. For the first five seasons, I couldn't even imagine or think about that I could be there. If that happens, I think I'm going to cry or something." -Goran Dragic on the All-Star game, Jan. 2014
The consistency with which Goran has led this upstart Suns team is simply tremendous - the guy just doesn't have a "bad" game anymore, and his play has been a picture-perfect mesh with Jeff Hornacek's system and coaching style. Consider this statistic when analyzing just how much he's upped his game this season: Goran Dragic had four games of 24 points or more during the 2012-13 season. He had four games such games in the last week.
The Slovenian star has made it no secret that he'd love to be in the 2014 All-Star game. In the end, however, Goran Dragic would gladly take a playoff run over any individual accomplishment, and that competitiveness and drive to win is part of what makes him so endearing to fans. Here's what he recently had to say about his growth in the NBA:
"When I came to the league, a lot of people were saying Dragic's name was ‘Tragic.' That hurts a little bit. I always have those comments in the back of my head and try to prove to all those people that they were mistaken. I've proven to people at home and here that I can play. To hear people mentioning me for All-Star is an unbelievable feeling."
Next time you see Goran Dragic finish one of his unstoppable one-man fast-breaks, just remember that this was the guy many fans once called "Tragic."
Next time he hits a step-back jumpshot over an opposing big man, remember that this was the guy a former Suns General Manager packaged with a first round draft pick for a player who's currently Houston's third-string point guard.
And next time you watch him weave through traffic and shake a defender out of his socks with a patented "dragon-shake," remember that he loves Phoenix so much he came back to the Suns after that trade - and agreed to terms with Robert Sarver in a parking lot.
No, Goran Dragic may not be an All-Star. But he's the Phoenix Suns' superstar.
Long live The Dragon.
Special thanks to @Ed_2da_Werd for creating the feature image specifically for this article.