Why Goran Dragic Is Thriving as Phoenix Suns' Star Protagonist

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Why Goran Dragic Is Thriving as Phoenix Suns' Star Protagonist
Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports


Phoenix Suns point guard Goran Dragic has thrived as the team’s alpha dog since Eric Bledsoe was sidelined with a knee injury at the end of December. “The Dragon” has emerged as the leading man for an upstart team nobody expected to compete for a playoff berth, and there are a few key reasons why his performance has hit new heights.

Through a Feb. 8 win against the Golden State Warriors—in which Dragic notched 34 points and 10 assists—he has averaged 20.4 points, 6.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds to go with a player efficiency rating of 22.86. That PER ranks him 14th in the NBA, ahead of All-Stars like Dwight Howard, James Harden, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Paul Millsap and Paul George.

Only Warriors star Stephen Curry and Los Angeles Clippers floor general Chris Paul sport better PERs at the point guard position.

Dragic has experienced a breakout year in 2013-14, and his individual performance has coincided with team success.

Even with Bledsoe sidelined following knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus, the Suns have posted an 11-9 record in 2014 (prior to the Feb. 11 matchup with the Miami Heat). During that span, Dragic has put the team on his shoulders by averaging 23.2 points, 6.4 assists and 4.5 rebounds per game while shooting a scorching-hot 54.3 percent from the field.

Head coach Jeff Hornacek needed his point guard to up his game as a means of replacing Bledsoe’s production, and the 27-year-old has responded by being flat-out dominant.

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
Dragic entered the league as a timid kid afraid to make mistakes behind the imposing presence of two-time MVP Steve Nash. In his fifth season, however, his demeanor has shifted 180 degrees.

He’s playing with confidence, scoring efficiently and contributing to big wins—Phoenix beat the mighty Indiana Pacers twice in January.

His All-Star-caliber play is a huge reason why Coach Hornacek is seen as a legitimate Coach of the Year candidate.

 

Coach Hornacek

Last year’s Suns team was an absolute mess. Former general manager Lance Blanks did head coach Alvin Gentry no favors by bringing in Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson—two guys who combined to shoot a paltry 40.6 percent for the season.

Gentry’s squad sputtered to a 13-28 record before he was fired and replaced with interim coach Lindsey Hunter. Phoenix went 12-29 after the coaching change.

The 2012-13 Suns finished 25-57, which was the worst record the franchise had posted since the inaugural 1968-69 season, when it went 16-66.

Not surprisingly, only four members of last year’s roster have remained to contribute to the turnaround—P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris, Marcus Morris and Dragic.

New general manager Ryan McDonough deserves a huge amount of credit for reshaping the roster into a winner so quickly, but Coach Hornacek is the guy who changed the culture from Day 1.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
According to an article by Matt Moore of CBS Sports, Dragic said the following of his first interaction with his new coach:

The first time I spoke to him I was back in Europe. And he said ‘We want to be like those old Suns, use two ball-handlers and play extremely fast, up-tempo.’ You never know if that’s going to work or not, but he always tries to give you that confidence. Even in tense minutes on the floor, he’s always calm. It helps you to not get worried, and just play your game.

Hornacek has influenced the Slovenian guard’s play in a huge way simply by taking note of small idiosyncrasies.

“Goran’s a really good shooter, and last year he didn’t shoot the ball well from three (32 percent),” Hornacek said, per Moore’s article. “I think a lot of that is because a lot of them were off the dribble, and that’s a tougher shot. And now he’s getting a lot of catch-and-shoot opportunities and consequently his percentage is up.”

Dragic is shooting 41 percent from long range in 2013-14, which is nearly 10 percentage points better than last year. He's shooting 42.2 percent from downtown in catch-and-shoot situations, according to NBA.com/Stats, which Hornacek explained has been a point of emphasis.

He's also shooting 50.8 percent on drives and 42.3 percent on pull-ups. The latter is a better mark than Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.

Hornacek has put his point guard in a position to become a more efficient shooter while instilling confidence in him by playing an uptempo, fast-paced style that caters to his skills.

If McDonough hadn’t decided to bring in Hornacek as the new head coach, perhaps Dragic’s production wouldn’t be what it is now.

 

Comfort Level

A player’s comfort level in a given system is a very undervalued part of how they perform.

For instance, Los Angeles Lakers big man Pau Gasol butted heads with head coach Mike D’Antoni by saying the following, per the Los Angeles Times’ Mike Bresnahan:

“When I’m not getting the ball where I want to, where I’m most effective, where I can bang guys and utilize my skill, that affects my aggressiveness and overall intensity.”

Veteran forward Luol Deng—who was acquired by the Cleveland Cavaliers in early January—reportedly told a close friend, “The stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago. It’s a mess,” according to Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News.

After the Suns signed Dragic as a free agent following a brief stint with the Houston Rockets, he said, “Phoenix is my home. I have happy memories here, and I’m looking forward to give everything I got, to being strong, to battle,” per Dave King of Bright Side of the Sun.

Although his first year back in the desert wasn’t ideal from a wins and losses standpoint, Dragic is clearly comfortable in the place where his NBA career started. Hornacek’s guidance has merely exemplified that fact.

 

Teammates

As Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant have learned the hard way, basketball is a team sport. The exploits of one great player can’t propel a team to greatness without contributions from the supporting cast. Dragic is getting plenty of assistance from the guys surrounding him.

In addition to playing his usual lockdown defense, P.J. Tucker has added a new weapon to his repertoire by draining 23-of-45 threes from the left sideline (51.1 percent), per NBA.com/Stats.

NBA sophomore Miles Plumlee has burst onto the NBA scene by averaging 9.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game.

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Gerald Green, who came over from the Indiana Pacers with Plumlee in the Luis Scola trade, has reinvented himself as a sharpshooter from three-point territory.

Channing Frye has continued his dynamic level of play since returning from an enlarged heart that kept him out for the entire 2012-13 season, and the Morris twins have had spurts of impressive performances.

The Suns roster has jelled as a unit, which makes Dragic’s job as the primary ball-handler that much easier—even with Bledsoe hurt.

Whether or not the Suns decide to make a trade before the Feb. 20 deadline as a means of trying to solidify a playoff berth is up in the air. Regardless, Dragic should be seen as a long-term piece as a result of his All-Star-caliber play.

Much of the talk in the Valley of the Sun centers on Bledsoe and how/if he’ll be retained in 2014 free agency. Truth be told, though, Dragic is the one who has cemented his standing as the Suns’ leader with his durability and stellar play.

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