Enter the Dragon


Originally published in SLAM 177

by Adam Figman

Early on in the summer of 2013, it would’ve been understandable if Goran Dragic felt a little uneasy about his status with the Phoenix Suns. Sure, he was the team’s starting point guard the previous year, but suddenly the future was unclear, uncertain—after all, the organization spent the beginning of the offseason hiring a new general manager (Ryan McDonough), a new head coach (Jeff Hornacek), trading for a new, up-and-coming PG (Eric Bledsoe) and stockpiling young talent and Draft picks, making the sort of moves generally executed by teams planning to tank away the upcoming season and restock through the following year’s loaded Draft. Dragic could easily be moved to the bench or dealt for more young talent and more picks. Not exactly a super-high level of job security.

But it’s amazing the change one phone call can make. With a single conversation, Hornacek not only assured Dragic that his importance within the team would maintain, but that Dragic would hold onto his role as a starter, as the new coach laid out his plan to play Bledsoe at the 1, Dragic at the 2, and occasionally vice versa, depending on the opponent’s defensive schemes. Then, in early September, as Dragic prepared for a game during the European Championships in his home country of Slovenia, the skinny 27-year-old noticed two familiar faces in the crowd; McDonough and Hornacek had made the long trek to Central Europe to see him play.

That’s when Dragic knew for sure: If he took care of business on the court, he wouldn’t need to worry about relocating his wife and newly born son out of Arizona in the coming few months.

“[Hornacek and I] were in different hotels in Slovenia, and we couldn’t go out,” the 6-3 Dragic says, sitting in the courtyard of the adidas-sponsored space at the W Hotel in New Orleans during 2014’s All-Star Weekend. “But I spoke him to before the games when he was in the stands, and it was a good experience. I said, ‘Welcome to Slovenia, I hope you’re gonna have a good time.’ I wish I had some free time to show him around, but I couldn’t.

“We spoke a lot on the phone about what he expects from me and Eric, and that we’d be playing most of the minutes together, because there were rumors out there that I was gonna get traded. They told me that they wanna make this thing work, with me and Eric on the court together.”

“It was great,” Hornacek says of his visit to Slovenia. “Goran had to be the leader and face of Slovenia basketball. When he went into those games, teams were prepared to go against him. That put a lot of pressure on him from the country. He handled it great—their team had a great tournament, and he proved that he can be that guy, a main guy.”

Then, after showing Hornacek and McDonough in Slovenia what he was capable of, Dragic spent the following six months demonstrating the same to the rest of the world. He and Bledsoe did indeed play alongside one another, just as Hornacek had planned, until December 30, building up an impressive 16-8 record during games the two both participated in (and a 19-11 mark as a team overall). But that night Bledsoe went down with a right knee injury, and it was widely expected that a young run-and-gun squad fueled by an unknown source of momentum would finally, inevitably, fade away.

And yet, here we are: At the moment, the Suns sit at 44-30, good for seventh in a tough Western Conference. (They’d be sitting pretty at third if they were positioned in the lousy East.) And why? Many reasons, but here’s a start: Goran Dragic, and his per-game averages of 20.5 points, 5.9 assists and 1.3 steals.

“Goran is one tough competitor, he ain’t going to back down from nothing,” Bledsoe says. “And that’s what you like. To me, I like guys like that, guys who don’t care who they’re playing against, they just go out there and try to win.”

“[Dragic is] a guy who can really push the ball, a very good scorer, a guy who’s tough and you can count on,” Hornacek says. “You know that he would play through anything. Those are the type of guys you want on your team—those tough-nosed, hard-nosed guys who are gonna compete night in and night out. Goran’s done that his whole career.”

The aforementioned stats have only improved since EBled went down, and a deeper look confirms Dragic’s importance to the group. As this issue went to press, he led the team in both minutes and usage rate (at 24 percent), and he’s also the team’s most efficient scorer, scoring 1.2 points per possession. His true shooting percentage—which takes into account both free throws and the added value of three-pointers—is 60.9 percent, also a team-high.

“I feel a lot more comfortable, and I know when I need to choose my shot,” the left-handed Dragic says. “I was playing as a 2-guard a little more, I could focus on spot-up shooting. When [Bledsoe] got injured, I’ve played more 1. I’m just doing my job.”

To say the least. Out of all NBAers who have usage rates above 23 percent—so, all guys who have the ball in their hands as often as Dragic does (or more)—he’s the sixth most efficient player offensively, trailing a decent group comprised only of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Love.

“He’s got such a knack and ability to get to the hole, and he’s a great finisher,” Hornacek says. “At that height, you would think a 55 percent finisher inside is pretty good. He’s at 60, or maybe even above that. [Yep, above that: 65.5 as this issue went to press—Ed.] And he’s worked on his outside game. The one thing that separates him is with that great finishing ability, once you can make those outside shots at a high clip, now teams don’t know what to do. Maybe in the past they said, We gotta keep him out of the paint, so let’s go behind on pick-and-rolls and make him shoot. Well, he’s proved this year that he can light that up. That makes him especially dangerous.”

Which he was not, admittedly, when he was a teenager back in Slovenia, hoping for nothing more than an opportunity with a pro franchise. As a kid, Dragic would wake up at 2 a.m. to watch his favorite players Michael Jordan and Grant Hill battle it out in the NBA, and like so many other Europeans, Dragic was originally a soccer fanatic until a leg injury switched his focus to basketball. By his early teens, though, he realized hoops were his destiny; at just 17, he signed his first pro contract, agreeing to play for a second-division team in Slovenia.

“My first goal was to get to the first division,” he says. “Then to one of the best teams in Europe, then of course I was with a top team in Spain [CB Murcia], and after that I knew I could reach the NBA. I told the media that I’m gonna go to the NBA, and a lot of media and a lot of people in Slovenia told me that it’s not a good decision, that I’m gonna come home quick, because when I was in Europe, my jump shot was not good and I was more of a driver. When I’d practice, I kept it in the back of my head, like, I have to prove to those people that they’re wrong.”

The San Antonio Spurs selected Dragic 45th overall in the ’08 Draft, immediately shipping his rights to the Suns, who hoped to use him as a back-up (and eventual successor) to Steve Nash. He suffered through a bumpy rookie campaign (4.5 points and 13.5 minutes per), but eventually broke out during the ’10 Playoffs, scoring 26 points (23 in the fourth quarter) in a victory against the Spurs, officially earning both newfound confidence and a slick nickname: The Dragon.

The next season, during a rough stretch for the Suns, first-year general manager Lance Blanks traded Dragic to Houston for point guard Aaron Brooks.

And yet, following two on-and-off, potential-flashing seasons with the Rockets, Dragic found himself back in Phoenix two summers ago, when he inked a four-year, $34 million deal only days after the Suns sent Nash to the Lakers in a sign-and-trade. He started for the Suns in ’12-13, averaging a decent 14.7 points and 7.4 dimes per, while the squad piled up losses, sitting lowly in the NBA’s cellar. Then came the franchise’s 2013 summer of upheaval—new coach, new GM, new point guard, new attitude.

For Dragic, though, last summer consisted of his standard routine—some time spent back home in Slovenia, and some time spent in California’s Hermosa Beach, training day in and day out with Tom Vachet, a former Navy SEAL who’s worked for years as a strength and conditioning coach with a variety of pro athletes. Through Dragic’s agent, the point guard and Vachet met when the former was drafted into the League, and they’ve been working together ever since, usually outside, in the sand, doing drills that’d have the average gym rat’s legs sore for weeks on end.

“If your workouts are as difficult as your most difficult game, than you aren’t training the right way,” Vachet says. “You have to train much harder. I trained in the military on the beach, and sand workouts were very difficult. That’s one of the reasons I started going to the beach. The other is, there’s something about training in the outdoors that’s cool and exhilarating.”

“I enjoy maybe the last week of them, because I’m in good shape, but the first couple of weeks, it is not fun,” Dragic says. “My body is hurting. But I think it’s the right thing to do, especially on the sand, because it’s unstable and it helps for my balance, my ankles and my knees, to prevent injuries. For all of my six years in the League, I’ve always been healthy. I think the reason is because of those beach workouts.”

When we got up with Goran, first at the adidas suite during All-Star Weekend and then a few days later via phone, there was a bit of a bad taste in his mouth—both of our conversations came during or within days of All-Star Weekend, of which Goran was only a small part, participating in the Skills Challenge but not the game itself. Many have cried “Snub!” though it’s hard to pinpoint a Western Conference player who he should’ve replaced. Regardless: More fuel for the fire.

“When I found out [I wasn’t selected], I was mad, disappointed, full of emotions,” Dragic says. “But that’s the way it is in life. I did my job on the court, and I still want to play good, help my team, try to make players better. If I think negatively, that’s not gonna help me. So I always think positive: There’s always next year.

“Every point of your life, you remember some things that you get energy from,” he continues. “When I came to the NBA, it was people back home that doubted me. Then the front office of Phoenix [who traded me]. Now it’s the All-Star Game. A lot of people were saying I should’ve been in the game, and I feel the same thing, but there’s always next year. Next year I have to demonstrate again that I belong.”

But beforehand, there’s a different goal: Demonstrating that his team, which many thought would be competing with the likes of the Magic, 76ers and Jazz for a top Draft selection and little else, belongs as well.

“There are a lot of games left,” he says, “but I think if we play well, and together, we can make something happen. In the Playoffs, we wouldn’t have anything to lose. We just want to play our game. I think we’re gonna be a tough, tough team to get rid of.”